Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Struggle to Bring ‘Free Bird’ to Comeback Tour
Lynyrd Skynyrd singer Johnny Van Zant and guitarist Garry Rossington recalled the struggle to perform the band's signature song “Free Bird” during their comeback tour, 10 years after the plane crash that devastated the lineup.
The Tribute road trip took place in 1987, and featured Van Zant in place of his elder brother Ronnie, who died in the accident.
“I didn’t want to do that tour at all,” Van Zant told Classic Rock in a new interview. “We had fans out there who would go, ‘Well, this ain’t the real Skynyrd.’ And I didn’t want to hurt the name of Lynyrd Skynyrd. What changed my mind? I walked into a conference room and I seen Billy [Powell], Leon [Wilkeson], Artimus [Pyle] and Allen Collins, all those guys, sitting at a table, wanting to do this. And I went, ‘Hey, I gotta at least try. Ronnie would want me to try.’”
One thing he didn't want to try, however, was singing “Free Bird.” He believed it was Ronnie’s personal song and no one else should try to present it; so instead, the band played the music while the lead microphone was left alone at center stage.
Rossington constantly pressed Van Zant to sing it, until one night nearly a year into the tour when he delivered an ultimatum. “I’d had a few drinks,” Rossington recalled. “I said, ‘Johnny, your brother wrote those lyrics to be heard. You need to sing it, man. … If you don’t go out there and sing it, I’m not going to play tonight. Why should I do it?’ And he went, ‘All right.’ So we went and did it, and everybody loved it.”
Both Van Zant and Rossington still speak to Ronnie. “If there’s stuff going or we got things to do, or if we’re fixing to go somewhere, I say, ‘Come on, man, help us down here,’” Rossington said. “I used to say to my wife, Dale, ‘I wish I could talk to Ronnie, ask him what I should do here.’ And she’d say, ‘What would you ask him?’ So I’d tell her, and she’d go, ‘Well, you just talked to him.’”
Van Zant added that he still says "onstage sometimes, ‘Come on, man, kick me in the ass, I’m feeling a little down tonight.' But I’m a religious man. I don’t think he’s gone, and I know I’ll see him again one day.”
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