Gary Rossington, a co-founder and last surviving original member of Lynyrd Skynyrd who helped write the classic answer song “Sweet Home Alabama” and played unforgettable slide guitar on the rock anthem “Free Bird,” died Sunday at age 71. No cause of death was given.
“It is with our deepest sympathy and sadness that we have to advise, that we lost our brother, friend, family member, songwriter and guitarist, Gary Rossington, today,” the band wrote on Facebook. “Gary is now with his Skynyrd brothers and family in heaven and playing it pretty, like he always does.”
Rossington cheated death more than once. He survived a car accident in 1976 in which he drove his Ford Torino into a tree, inspiring the band’s song “That Smell.” A year later, he survived the plane crash that killed singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and backing vocalist Cassie Gaines, with multiple broken bones and internal injuries.
In later years, Rossington underwent quintuple bypass surgery in 2003, suffered a heart attack in 2015, and had numerous subsequent heart surgeries, most recently leaving Lynyrd Skynyrd in July 2021 to recover from another procedure. At recent shows, Rossington would perform portions of the concert and sometimes sat out full gigs.
Rossington was born Dec. 4, 1951, in Jacksonville, Florida, and raised by his mother after his father died. Upon meeting drummer Bob Burns and bassist Larry Junstrom, Rossington and his new friends formed a band, which they tried to juggle amid their love of baseball.
According to their bio in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, it was during a fateful Little League game, Ronnie Van Zant hit a line drive into the shoulder blades of spectator Bob Burns and met his future bandmates. Rossington, Burns, Van Zant, and guitarist Allen Collins later gathered at Burns’ Jacksonville home to jam the Rolling Stone’s “Time Is on My Side.”
Adopting Lynyrd Skynyrd as the group’s name — both a reference to a similarly named sports coach at Rossington’s high school and to a character in the 1963 novelty hit “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh” — the band released their debut album “Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-’nérd” in 1973. A collection of country-tinged blues-rock and Southern soul, the album included now-classics like “Tuesday’s Gone,” “Simple Man” and “Gimme Three Steps,” but it was the closing track, the nearly 10-minute “Free Bird,” that became the group’s calling card, due in no small part to Rossington’s evocative slide playing on his Gibson SG.
“Radio didn’t play ‘Free Bird.’ It was on the first album. Back then, it was too long,” Rossington told the AP in 1993. “We went back to clubs for enough money to get us to the next club. That went on for a year. We made ‘Second Helping.’ It had ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’ It made the charts. We didn’t know what the charts meant.”
Written by Rossington, Van Zant and Ed King, none of whom were from Alabama, the complicated legacy of “Sweet Home Alabama” followed the band for decades. It was originally written as a response to Neil Young’s “Alabama” and “Southern Man,” a critical rebuke of slavery in the South. “Sweet Home Alabama” references both Young and Alabama Gov. George Wallace, but Rossington offered some perspective on those ambiguous lines in a documentary called “If We Leave Here Tomorrow: A Documentary About Lynyrd Skynyrd.”
“A lot of people believed in segregation and all that. We didn’t. We put the ‘boo, boo, boo’ there saying, ‘We don’t like Wallace,’” Rossington said. But he added: “I’m sure if you asked the other guys who are not with us anymore and are up in rock and roll heaven, they have their story of how it came about.”
Young liked the song and wrote in his memoir “Waging Heavy Peace” that his song “Alabama” deserved the shot from Lynyrd Skynyrd. “I don’t like my words when I listen to it. They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, and too easy to misconstrue,” he wrote.
Still the band regularly used the Confederate flag in their live shows for decades. Rossington in 2012 told CNN that the band would stop using the flag in shows because of its association with hate groups, but then walked back the comment to say they would continue to use the Confederate flag, alongside the state flag of Alabama and the American flag.
A decade after the plane crash, the band reformed for tribute shows after promoters begged them to tour again. Rossington told the AP in 1991 that getting back together and the idea of writing new songs was scary. “We took time making our minds up (that) we wanted to keep going,” said Rossington.
Singer Johnny Van Zant took over his older brother’s role in the reunited band in 1987 along with returning members Rossington, King, Leon Wilkeson, Artimus Pyle and Billy Powell. The band’s lineup has continued to change in the decades since, with Rossington remaining as one of the sole founders.
“We had a dream,” Rossington told the AP. “That was to make it big like the Beatles or Stones and we did and then what happened happened. Now we’re the only people to carry on for the dreamers.”