"We'd started playing small dance halls for a few hundred people, now suddenly we were opening for the Stones and The Who": A celebration of the life and music of Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Gary Rossington

Gary Rossington onstage
(Image credit: Tom Hill via Getty Images)

Gary Robert Rossington was born in Jacksonville, Florida on December 4, 1951. Along with schoolmates Ronnie Van Zant, Allen Collins, Larry Jungstrom and drummer Bob Burns he co-founded the Noble Five. There were several earlier names including The One Per Cent and My Backyard before, in defiance of Leonard Skinner, the gym teacher that persecuted them for their long hair, it was changed for a final time, to Lynyrd Skynyrd

A violent, tyrannical boozer, Van Zant was Skynyrd’s undisputed leader. Indeed the singer once claimed: “I hand-picked all these boys to play for me.” The fatherless Rossington gravitated towards Ronnie in spite of the unpredictable rages. 

Expanded to a six-piece with Billy Powell on keyboards, they signed to MCA Records, and in 1973 released their debut, Pronounced ‘Leh-’nérd ‘Skin-’nérd. Buoyed by the popularity of its closing track, Free Bird, which clocked in at more than nine minutes, the sextet enjoyed instant success, although out on the road they fought for every square inch of territory – sometimes quite literally. 

Their tales from this period of brawling, boozing and chasing women became legion, and often inspired songs, such as I Ain’t The One, Gimme Three Steps, On The Hunt and Don’t Ask Me No Questions. Zero apologies were offered for the band’s rural upbringings or their hirsute look, and when Skynyrd walked into a hotel bar, fireworks were always likely. At an early gig in New York, Mountain guitarist Leslie West deputised after Rossington broke his hand in a fist fight.

Raised on and accustomed to violence, here was a band that backed down for no man. Throw in booze and drugs, and dark goings-on became possible. When Skynyrd opened for The Who on the US leg of a tour for 1973’s Quadrophenia album, the headliners’ distressed manager Bill Curbishley later recalled: “The tour manager rang to say: ‘There’s trouble in the hotel. It’s not just smashing up a room… Lynyrd Skynyrd have skinned a cat!’”

And yet there was a whole other side to the band, fostered by its blue-collar roots. Writer John Ingham, from the British music weekly Sounds, met them in Glasgow and joined the entourage to watch a middle-of-the-road, Carpenters-style band in the bar. When a record company employee made a disparaging comment, Van Zant scolded: “They’re musicians. They’re working. Show them respect.”

Skynyrd line-ups came and went, but their triple-guitar sound remained a constant. “It was an incredible time, we were selling out everywhere,” Rossington told me in 2003. “We’d started playing small dance halls for a few hundred people, now suddenly we were opening for the Stones and The Who. But then we started to do cocaine. And I hate myself for that now.”

In September 1976, two weeks after scaring the living daylights out of the Stones at Knebworth Park (“Skynyrd caused a real buzz backstage,” remembered promoter Freddy Bannister. “We all wondered how anyone could follow them”), Rossington almost killed himself. Wiped out on bourbon and numbed by sedatives, he had fallen asleep at the wheel of his Ford Torino and took down a telegraph pole.

The incident inspired the immortal opening lines of the song That Smell (‘Whiskey bottles, and brand new cars, oak tree you’re in my way/There’s too much coke and too much smoke, look what’s going on inside you’). Skynyrd being Skynyrd, after their tour was postponed due to such stupidity, Rossington’s bandmates demanded he shell out $5,000 to cover lost income.


With the ludicrously talented Steve Gaines replacing Ed King in their three-man guitar team, Lynyrd Skynyrd had been poised to join the biggest acts in the world with their fifth studio album, Street Survivors. Everybody knows what happened next. A mere three days after its release on October 17, 1977, the band’s Convair 240 turbo-prop plane crashed into swampy woods near Gillsburg, Mississippi. 

“For a long time I wouldn’t talk about the plane crash,” Rossington sighed during our 2003 conversation. “It hurt to keep going back to it in interviews. After I spoke about it, I’d have the blues for the rest of the day. Then I would go out and get drunk. But I’ve realised that it’s part of my career.” 

Of course, after the band reconvened in 1987, flying was a necessary evil. 

“Right after the crash, I actually had to fly to two or three different hospitals for special operations, so I was flying again the very next day,” Rossington said. “It’s like having a bicycle accident when you’re a kid, you have to get right back on.” 

Johnny Van Zant would prove to be a great fit, but for Skynyrd rediscovering their mojo was far tougher. They made a series of inconsistent albums until they brought in Rickey Medlocke, formerly the guitarist with Blackfoot and an early drummer with Skynyrd, in 1996. A late-career purple patch included the albums Vicious Cycle, God & Guns and the tellingly titled Last Of A Dying Breed (all released in the 2000s). In the summer of 2003, Skynyrd underlined their return once and for all with a co-headline tour with Deep Purple. At its London date Rossington and company went on first, and blew Purple clean out of the Arena’s doors. 

“At the beginning I had my doubts about [the reunion],” Rossington told Classic Rock. “I thought: ‘I’ll see Ronnie again one day, I don’t want him to whup my ass.’ But as the years went by I realised it was the right thing to do. I promise you, he used to say: ‘If anything should happen to me, keep the band going.’” 

Rossington insisted that before the plane crash Ronnie Van Zant had been considering stepping aside from Skynyrd and handing the mic to his younger brother. “I swear that was going to happen,” he said. “Ronnie’s throat was getting so sore on the last record and tour, he dreamt of retiring and writing songs with us and managing us, letting Johnny come sing.”

Rossington defied fading health to remain on the road. “I’m in my mid-sixties. I’ve got a bad heart and I get pains in my legs [a legacy of the plane crash],” he told us in 2017. “A lot of my bones were broken and they ache a lot. I’ve got arthritis, too. I’m so glad that I don’t drink any more. I couldn’t do that and work.” 

However, he was still blissfully married to Skynyrd’s long-term backing singer Dale Kranz-Rossington and in a good place mentally. 

“I love to go fishing with my grandkids, I do that a lot,” he said, smiling. “Dale and I live in Atlanta, but we’ve a second home in the countryside that’sright next to Yellowstone Park. It’s like living in a postcard. If the grandkids are there then we’ll watch them play soccer and baseball. That’s my idyllic Sunday afternoon.” 

Being a grandparent made him especially proud, and in later interview with Classic Rock he added wistfully how the experience was “like a second chance”. 

The events of 1977 still weighed on Rossington’s mind, although he had come to peace with what happened all those years ago. 

“The plane crash and my health issues all make me realise that life is short, and that it can all be taken away from you in a split second. Every day is precious,” he continued. “I find it frustrating to see people wandering around with their faces stuck up against their phones.” 

Rossington hated seeing his contemporaries pass away, aware that Skynyrd and bands like them were, to quote a familiar album title, the last of a dying breed. “Pretty soon there won’t be anybody left that’s like us,” he reflected sadly. 

Consequently he made a concerted effort to fly the flag for the next generation of southern bands. At an open-air gig in 2018, Wisconsin-born guitarist and vocalist Jared James Nichols was astonished when he realised that Rossington and Medlock were at the side of the stage observing him play. Summoned to an audience with the headliners, he was offered further Skynyrd supports. 

“I went from playing the smallest bars to ice-hockey stadiums,” Nichols tells Classic Rock. “Gary and Rickey would watch my show and then offer advice, which led to me sitting in Gary’s dressing room, talking and drinking. On the last night they invited me to jam on Sweet Home Alabama. With a wink, Gary insisted I take the solo.”

By contrast, when Black Stone Cherry toured with Skynyrd in 2013 their lead singer and guitarist Chris Robertson was too shy and nervous to talk to his hero. “I kick myself now,” he says. “But I can’t tell you how proud I am that a song I had a hand in writing [Life’s Twisted] is on a Lynyrd Skynyrd record that I’ve got at my house [Last Of A Dying Breed].” 

Rossington suffered a heart attack in 2015, and had to endure various operations. Lingering cardiac issues would eventually force him to sit out shows with his beloved band on their 50th-anniversary tour. 

Having struck up a friendship with Medlocke when his own group Brother Cain opened for Blackfoot in 1993, former Thin Lizzy and Black Star Riders guitarist Damon Johnson was intimidated yet thrilled when Skynyrd asked him to deputise. “If only it was under better circumstances,” he sighed to Classic Rock. “This was in June of 2021. What started as six shows turned into six weeks, and then six months of weekends.” 

When Rossington returned to work it was decided that Johnson should take the first half of a show, with Gary joining for the run-in. “Sadly we never got to do one show like that,” Johnson says. “Gary and Dale joined us on the road maybe four times and he would just play Sweet Home Alabama and Free Bird. And when he did, Gary wanted me to stay up there with them.” 

In 2017, when asked whether Skynyrd could continue after his passing, Rossington gave a political answer: “We’re about keeping alive the music made by Ronnie, Allen, myself and all the rest, but once I’m gone… I won’t have a say,” he said with a laugh. “It’s an unanswerable question.” 

Skynyrd played on without Gary, performing at a festival in Florida just a week after his death. “The reason we are doing this is Gary’s wife, now his widow,” explained Damon Johnson, who retained his stand-in status. “Dale wants us to do it in celebration of Gary. All of the other stuff – the big decisions – can be figured out later.” 

It made sense for the ethics of a Lynyrd Skynyrd with no original members to be debated at a less sensitive moment, and a month after Gary Rossington's death, the band announced they'd continue. 

"Gary made it known at every chance to express how timeless the music was, and it was always his goal to keep the music alive for his brothers because that was always their dream," said Rossington's widow. "His dream will continue thanks to Johnny, Rickey and the rest of our band mates, to continue to carry his legacy and music on for future generations."

Dave Ling

Dave Ling was a co-founder of Classic Rock magazine. His words have appeared in a variety of music publications, including RAW, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Prog, Rock Candy, Fireworks and Sounds. Dave’s life was shaped in 1974 through the purchase of a copy of Sweet’s album ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, along with early gig experiences from Status Quo, Rush, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Yes and Queen. As a lifelong season ticket holder of Crystal Palace FC, he is completely incapable of uttering the word ‘Br***ton’.