How I discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd, by Al Kooper

Lynyrd Skynyrd in the studio with Al Kooper
Ronnie Van Zant, Gary Rossington and Allen Collins work with producer Al Kooper on Pronounced Lynyrd Skynyrd with engineer Bob “Tub” Langford looking on at Studio I on May 6, 1973 in Doraville-Atlanta, Georgia (Image credit: Tom Hill/Getty Images)

I first came upon Lynyrd Skynyrd for the first time at a tough bar in downtown Atlanta. They were performing for a week and I was in town producing an album for somebody. Every night, we would frequent this club, as they treated us quite nicely there. 

The first night they played I was instantly taken in by the quality of their material. By the third night I asked if I could sit in on a song. As they had no keyboard player in their genesis, I sat in on guitar. As I slipped on one of their excess guitars, I asked “What song ? What key?” 

Mean Woman Blues,” Ronnie Van Zant instructed, “In C#”. 

Boy, that made me laugh out loud. It was their defence in case a sitting-in guitarist was not very good and only knew a few chords. After starting playing guitar at age 12, I had no problem in C#.

It took me three months of hounding their manager to sign them. Toward the end of the three months, Ronnie called me at home late one night. “Al, I’m sorry to call so late, but we are in deep trouble here. Someone broke into our van tonight and stole all our instruments and amps. Without those, we cannot put food on our families tables or pay our rents or get any gigs. I was hoping you could lend us $5,000…” 

I quickly replied, “All I need is the address you want me to send it to, Ronnie and you’ll have it in two days…”

After a moment of silence he said, “Al, you just bought yourself a band for $5000. Thanks from all of us!” 

By the next week, their contracts were signed and they were back on the road. In between recording the first album and its release, they were back playing at that bar I discovered them in. It was a very tough place. I saw someone shot dead outside there one night, and there were numerous bar fights as common events there.

There were two floors; on the first floor the bands played surrounded by numerous bars; on the second floor, there more bar locations and many pool tables. During a break, I was sitting at a table talking to some people upstairs, and Allen and Gary pulled me out of my seat and dragged me to the bar. The two of them then lifted me up and deposited me behind the bar and told me to sit down out of sight. Within 30 seconds, there was a huge bar fight involving our favourite band.

They were just looking out for their producer, who grew up in the Northeast USA, where such fighting was replaced by drag-racing and quizzes about B-sides of records. I was obviously not the hand-to-hand combat model, as usually raised in the South. I will always recall that gesture as a sign of true friendship early on from them. My hair didn’t even get mussed!

This article originally appeared in Classic Rock 121, in June 2006.