The flight of another Free Bird is over.
Gary Rossington, the last surviving original member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, died on Sunday (March 5), at the age of 71, nearly four months before the band was planning to set out on its next tour.
No cause of death was given, though the guitarist had been dealing with health issues over the past couple of decades and particularly since the mid-2010s, when heart ailments occasionally sidelined Rossington, and the band.
In an official statement Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote that, “It is without deepest sympathy and sadness that we have to advise, that we lost our brother, friend, family member, songwriter and guitarist, Gary Rossington today. Gary is now with his Skynyrd brothers and family in heaven and playing it pretty, like he always does. Please keep Dale, Mary and Annie and the entire Rossington family in your prayers and respect the family’s privacy at this time.”
During a 2016 interview with Billboard, promoting his Take It on Faith album with wife Dale Krantz-Rossington — who’s also a Skynyrd back-up singer — Rossington said that despite his health battles he’d made a decision to go on playing and die with his proverbial boots on.
“It’s just in my blood, y’know?,” he explained. “I’m just an old guitar player, and we’ve spent our whole loves and the 10,000 hours of working to understand how to play and do it. So I think once you’ve got something going for yourself you should keep it up and keep your craft going. When you retire, what’s next? I like to fish, but how much of that can you do, right? So I want to keep doing what I do now.”
Rossington was the last man standing in a band that formed during 1964 in Jacksonville, Fla., starting with bassist Larry Junstrom and drummer Bob Burns in a trio called Me, You, and Him. Signer Ronnie Van Zant, who played on a rival baseball team, jammed with the team after one of their games, playing the Rolling Stones’ “Time Is on My Side,” and the rest was history.
Skynyrd settled on its name around 1970, taking it from Leonard Skinner, the strict physical education teacher at Robert E. Lee High School; Skinner was particularly hard on boys who had long hair, which led Rossington to drop out of school.
After working the local and regional scene Skynyrd was discovered by Al Kooper, founder of Blood, Sweat & Tears, who signed the band to his Sounds of the South label. “We were a little bit of everything, really,” Rossington said of the burgeoning band’s approach. “We loved all the British invasion stuff and, of course, the Allman Brothers and Stax and that stuff. There were just a lot of things we stirred together.”
The band’s debut album, (Pronounced Len-‘nerd ‘Skin-‘nerd) was released on Aug. 13, 1973 and featured the lengthy anthem “Free Bird,” which would become Skynyrd’s signature song. The group continued to build a following through hard touring and tracks such as “Sweet Home Alabama” — its answer to Neil Young’s “Southern Man.” Rossington co-wrote that track as well as other Skynyrd favorites such as “I Ain’t the One,” “Things Goin’ On,” “Don’t Ask Me No Questions,” “Gimme Back My Bullets” and “What’s Your Name.”
The first phase of Skynyrd ended on Oct. 20, 1977, when a Convair CV-240 carrying the band from Greenville, S.C. to Baton Rouge, La., crashed near Gillsburg, Miss., killing three band members (Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his older sister, backup singer Cassie Gaines), assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick and both pilots. Rossington and other suffered severe injuries and put the group on hold immediately after.
“We couldn’t imagine going on after something like that,” he said. “We were a brotherhood, and when you lose your brothers you can’t just go on.” He and guitarist Allen Collins formed the Rossington Collins Band, which lasted nearly four years and two albums before breaking up in 1982. Skynyrd, meanwhile reformed in 1987, ostensibly to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the plane crash; the band has continued ever since, recording nine more studio albums and going through a number of number of lineup changes.
Rossington — who is part of a guitarist core that included Collins (who passed away during 1977), Ed King (who died in 2018), Hughie Thomasson (who died in 2007), Rickey Medlocke and others — was the only Skynyrd member to appear on all of its albums.
Rossington said that despite the healthy issues, he was motivated to continue in order to pay tribute to his fallen bandmates — including longtime bassist Leon Wilkeson and keyboardist Billy Powell. “These guys created so much great music that people still love today,” Rossington noted. “I’m the last one here, so to be able to tell their story and make sure they’re remembered, I’m blessed to be able to do that. It’s, like, my responsibility.” He had, however, missed some shows and only played portions of others in recent years.
In 2016 Krantz-Rossington noted that she and her husband had agreed that continuing to play music was the best thing for him. “He said to me, ‘I would much rather go out kickin’ than sitting here in my chair, and that was the last time we talked about it,” she said. “After that we just decided to ask for God’s mercy and do it til we drop.”
Tributes to Rossington began hitting social media immediately after the band’s announcement. The social media team of the late Charlie Daniels wrote, “the last of the Free birds has flown home. RIP Gary Rossington, God Bless the Lynyrd @Skynyrd band. Prayers to Dale and the rest of his family.”
Skynyrd is, in fact, planning to join forces with ZZ Top for The Sharp Dressed Simple Man Tour starting July 21 in West Palm Beach, Fla. it’s expected to go on, even though Johnny Van Zant — younger brother of Ronnie Van Zant and Skynyrd’s frontman since 1977 — has said that, “I don’t think you can have Lynyrd Skynyrd without Gary Rossington.”
In addition to Krantz-Rossington, the guitarist is survived by their two daughters and several grandchildren. No funeral or memorial information has been announced.