Remember the songs “Freebird,” “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Gimme Three Steps?” A group of cocky teenagers from Florida, lead by singer Ronnie Van Zant, produced these hits after naming themselves Lynyrd Skynyrd. Leonard Skinner, their former high school physical education teacher, hated their long hair and attitudes thus the band smugly borrowed his name and changed the spelling. A few years later Skinner would befriend the band, grow his hair out and become a temporary celebrity. Backup singers Jo Jo Billingsley, Leslie Hawkins and Cassie Gaines would eventually join the band. They were named “The Honkette’s” (Honkytonk).
Their first album, Pronounced, was comprised of the popular songs “Gimme Three Steps” and “Freebird,” a song every young guitar player aspired to conquer along with Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” Within a year “Sweet Home Alabama” would debut. The hard drinking Lynyrd Skynyrd, now international rock stars, toured with future Christians Mylon Le Fevre (wrote gospel/secular songs for Elvis Presley, Atlanta Rhythm Section, Brokenheart and is now an Evangelist) and were close friends with Charlie Daniels (“The Devil Went Down To Georgia” fame). Lynyrd Skynyrd’s exhausting tour schedule would not permit the band to sleep – that would change on October 20, 1977 when the “Freebird” fell into a Mississippi swamp.
Their Convair CV-300 airplane started to develop engine problems. Their sound tech Kenny Pedean said, “The right engine backfired a lot… We watched it catch on fire…had a flame about six feet long out of the engine.” Skynyrd considered buying Jerry Lee Lewis’ plane but the deal fell through. The rock band Aerosmith considered purchasing the Convair CV-300 but were skeptical of its safety. Enroute from South Carolina to Baton Rouge, Louisiana the plane started having problems like before. The pilots attempted to land but engine trouble and the accidental dumping of a full tank of fuel sealed their fate – as Skynyrd plummeted out of the sky all that could be heard within the planes cabin was the rushing of air and whispered prayers by passengers bargaining with God to avoid death. Minutes later the Convair CV-300 crashed into a tree-lined Mississippi swamp killing the pilots, band manager Dean Kirkpatrick, lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines (guitar player) and his sister Cassie. Keyboardist Billy Powell described the tree’s impact on his body like being hit with baseball bats. Three men including Artimus Pyle, the bands drummer, suffering from chest injuries ran to a farm house to get help. Emergency personnel were sent to the scene to assist the crash victims. Honkette Jo Jo Billingsley, sick with the flu, was luckily not onboard. Via telephone Jo Jo told guitarist Allen Collins that she had a dream about the plane crashing and begged him to warn the others. The rest of the band and crew ended up in area hospitals with broken bones, punctures and facial lacerations.
After the crash, band members suffered physically, emotionally (survivor’s guilt), drowned themselves with alcohol and would face many legal and personal obstacles in the years to come. In the early 1980’s Lynyrd Skynyrd would morph into the Rossington Collins Band (surviving guitarists) spot-lighting the late Ronnie Van Zant. Years later guitarist and crash survivor Allen Collins would die from pneumonia after he was paralyzed in a car crash in which his girlfriend died. Lynyrd Skynyrd continues to tour although some original members have either left the band or passed away. Ronnie Van Zant’s brother Johnny has been fronting the band (singing lead) since 1987.
CONVERSIONS TO CHRISTIANITY
Billy Powell, Skynyrd pianist/keyboardist, became a Christian in jail after a DUI arrest around 1986. Shortly afterward he met lead singer Roger Marshall of the Christian Band Vision. He started attending Church and was with Vision for four years with Leon Wilkeson. Later, Powell rejoined the new Lynyrd Skynyrd lineup with Ronnie’s younger brother Johnny as lead vocalist. Billy Powell entered heavens gates on January 28, 2009 after suffering a heart attack at age 56. Powell had missed a cardiac appointment earlier that week.
Skynyrd bassist Leon Wilkeson was an alcoholic since he was a teenager. “He was always on the go and that’s why he never gained any weight,” stated Billy Powell. Due to his drinking problem and cigarettes, Wilkeson had liver problems and emphysema. Some nights Skynyrd needed a fill-in bassist because Leon couldn’t perform. In July 2001 Wilkeson cut down on his drinking. Leon was dedicated to his Christian faith and carried a Bible with him while on tour. It was said that his favorite verse was Psalm 33:3 “play skillfully with a loud noise” yet he struggled. On Friday July 27, 2001 Leon Wilkeson died at a Marriott in Ponte Vedra, Florida of complications from emphysema. He was 49. Though prescription drugs were found during the autopsy (for chronic pain, anxiety, insomnia) they were not necessarily a contributing factor though they may have slowed down his breathing as he slept.
Honkette Deborah Jo Jo Billingsley, the ill backup singer who was not on the fatal flight, also suffered survivor’s guilt and numbed herself with drugs and alcohol. She married in 1981 but the relationship turned abusive and her depression intensified. Deborah Jo gave birth to a son in 1983 and decided to build a better life for her family by attending Church with her son. During one service a Pastor asked if there is anyone there who wanted to know Jesus. Jo Jo didn’t walk but ran to the altar. Deborah recorded gospel music, toured and occasionally sang backup for the new Lynyrd Skynyrd lineup. Sadly, Deborah Jo lost her battle with cancer in 2010. Undoubtedly, when Jesus greeted her in paradise she didn’t walk. She ran to him.
Bibliography (article “above” has never been published)
Brant, Marley. Freebirds: The Lynyrd Skynyrd Story. Billboard Press, 2002.
Ribowsky, Mark. Whiskey Bottles and Brand-New Cars: The Fast Life and Sudden Death of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Chicago Review Press/Audible.com, 2015.