Lynyrd Skynyrd's Gary Rossington Recalls When 'Free Bird' Took Flight at Atlanta's Fox Theatre

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Ronnie Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd performs on July 5, 1975 at Omni Coliseum in Atlanta, Georgia.

As the Fox Theatre in Atlanta marks 40 years since preservationists and Southern rockers helped save it from destruction, Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Gary Rossington looked back at the venue where the band recorded one of its greatest albums, “One More For The Road,” and the rock anthem “Free Bird.”

The album was recorded in concert at the Fox in July 1976, the year before a charted tour plane crash that took the lives of Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and his sister, Cassie, a backing vocalist with the group.

The shows captured on “One More For The Road” were benefit concerts to raise to fight development plans that would have led to demolition of the Fox, an ornate hall which opened as a movie palace on Christmas Day 1929.

On June 7, the non-profit group which runs the Fox, Atlanta Landmarks, will stage a block party to thank the community which saved the theater and has since secured its future; the Fox has operated in the black for the past four decades.

"Back in the early days, in the 70s, it was like a dream place to play," recalls Rossington, the sole surviving founding member of Skynyrd, who continues to tour with the group.

"Instead of a bar or a little teen dance or a church dance, to play a really gorgeous theater that sat thousands of people was unbelievable. It's got that ceiling that looks like a starry night, and it sounds really good in there. It's a great place."

Rossington remembers that Skynyrd was actually slated to make its fifth solo album, but "we were touring so much we didn't really have the time." Plus the band had just added Gaines as new third guitarist and was busy breaking him in.

"Our producer, Tommy Dowd, had done a lot of live albums in his career and he was up for it, and it sounded right," Rossington says. "Atlanta's a town we made it out of in the clubs, and it all fell together and it was at the Fox, which was a dream."

It was a little nerve-wracking, too, he acknowledges. "Oh yeah, we had just gotten Steve a month or two before that, so he was really new and hadn't played that much with us, and some of the songs we hadn't gotten around to teaching him yet," Rossington says.

"So every once in awhile he'd just jam along to it or play what he knew of it. But it was great. He knew the songs; he had heard 'em, of course, but he played great. He was such a great guitar player he could playing anything and he kept right up with us and played a lot of great stuff on that album. It was a really important one for us."

On Nov. 12, Skynyrd returned to the Fox for an all-star tribute show titled “One More For The Fans,” to celebrate the legacy of both the band and the theatre.

The show featured Greg Allman, Cheap Trick, Trace Adkins, Peter Frampton, Blackberry Smoke, Jamey Johnson, Robert Randolph, O.A.R., Donnie Van Zant -- young brother of the late Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant and of current Skynyrd singer Johnny Van Zant. An album and DVD of the concert is due for release July 24 on Loud and Proud Records in partnership with Blackbird Presents.

This article first appeared in the May 30th issue of Billboard.


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