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A Memorial to Southern Rock Music

Southern Rock came of age in Jacksonville, Florida back in 1964 when five teenagers, Ronnie Van Zant, Bob Burns, Allen Collins, Larry Junstrom, and Gary Rossington got together for a jam session in Burn’s carport. They called their group “My Backyard” and that was the roots of what became the popular Southern Rock band Lynyrd Skynrd. Before reaching musical fame, the group played “Psychedelic Rock” and went through several names, the Noble Five, Conqueror Worm, Sons of Satan, the Wildcats, and spent a long time under the name One Percent.

The Lynyrd Skynrd title came from the name of their high school gym coach, “Leonard Skinner.” The coach constantly gave Rossington and Burns a hard time over the length of their hair and threatened to suspend them from school. Eventually, the young musicians dropped out of school and began playing gigs around Jacksonville. Since their fans all knew of the gym teacher’s dislike for long hair, the group began billing themselves as “The Leonard Skinner Band” and after a few vowel changes they became Lynyrd Skynrd. The group was often referred to as “America’s Rolling Stones” and a few loyal Florida fans were touting the special brand of music as “Florida Rock.”

After winning a “Battle of the Bands” competition in Jacksonville they went on tour opening concerts for the sixties rock group “Strawberry Alarm Clock.” In 1970 the group recorded their first demo record in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. It was on this record that their trademark song “Freebird” was recorded. The Lynyrd Skynrd band was not an instant hit; they had a new brand of music that didn’t immediately excite some promoters. One producer, Al Kooper, had enough foresight to realize Southern Rock was about to explode on the music scene and this led to the group being featured on his “Sounds of the South” label. Since those days the group has gone through eighteen members and, according to MCA Records, has sold over thirty million records.

On October 20, 1977, the airplane flying the group from South Carolina crashed in a swamp near Gillsburg, Mississippi. Killed in the crash were lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, vocalist Cassie Gaines, assistant manager Dean Kilpatrick, and the pilots Walter McCreary and William Gray. The crash was blamed on a miscalculation of fuel and mechanical problems that caused a rapid increase in fuel consumption. The plane had literally run out of fuel.

Ronnie Van Zant and the Gaines were buried in the Jacksonville Memory Gardens in Orange Park. The site is easily recognized by a large mausoleum etched with the band’s Freebird symbol. In the summer of 2000 someone vandalized the graves pulling out the casket of Ronnie Van Zant and dumping Steve Gaines ashes on the ground. As a result of the vandalism the Freebird musicians were moved to a secret resting place. Today you can still see the mausoleum and the other markers where fans still place flowers, but there is no one buried there. A more lively place for Lynyrd Skynrd fans is the Freebird Café at Jacksonville Beach.

Weird Florida

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