50 Years Ago: Lynyrd Skynyrd Releases “Free Bird,” Debut Album

When did Southern rock officially take form as a legitimate subgenre of American music? When did the music that pulled significantly from country and rock, and then infused that with soul and blues influences take hold of the public consciousness to the point where it permeated throughout society?

Some point to the self-titled debut album of Charlie Daniels released in 1970 as the point when Southern rock was seeded. Others point to a local reporter in Atlanta named Mo Slotin who coined the “Southern Rock” phrase when writing a review for an Allman Brothers concert in 1972.

It may not have formed the subgenre officially, but Lynyrd Skynyrd’s debut album, the somewhat eponymously-named (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd) released 50 years ago this week (August 13th, 1973 to be exact) would be a pretty perfect spot to claim that Southern rock was officially sent into the stratosphere.

It’s arguably one of the greatest debut albums of all time, and for good reason. Lynyrd Skynyrd had already been around in one form or another since 1964. When they went into the studio with producer Al Kooper, they were as seasoned as just about any band ever hitting the studio for the first time.

Lynyrd Skynyrd had a rehearsal shack just outside of Jacksonville, FL that they nicknamed the “Hell House” since it got hot as hell. Despite the lack of air conditioning, they practiced in the space nearly every day and for long hours, perfecting every song, every phrase, and every note. Unlike a lot of other bands of the era especially in Southern rock, Lynyrd Skynyrd didn’t utilize improvisation. Every note what orchestrated, even in their solos and extended jams.

The band had also been seasoned on the road after opening for numerous other bigger bands and playing local gigs. This is how Lynyrd Skynyrd met guitarist Ed King from California, previously of the band Strawberry Alarm Clock who Skynyrd opened for. King saw the promise of these scrappy Floridians, and decided to sign up when they temporarily lost their bass player Leon Wilkeson. When Wilkeson returned, Ed King transitioned to become a rather unprecedented third lead guitarist. The revolutionary Southern Rock sound of Lynyrd Skynyrd was officially born.

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s debut album really is the perfect specimen of the Southern rock sound. “Gimmie Three Steps” is a punchy and sweaty Southern rock ode if there ever was one, including the hand drums that give Southern rock additional textures compared to its close cousin of country. But “Simple Man” is the song from the album that every single country music artist heard and immediately wished they had sung and written themselves.

Interesting to note, producer Al Kooper hated “Simple Man,” and wanted to 86 it from the album. During the recording, lead singer and the songwriter Ronnie Van Zandt had to politely escort Kooper out to his car in the parking lot, and told him to stay there until the recording of the song was done. Of course, “Simple Man” has since become one of Skynyrd’s top signature songs. “Tuesday’s Gone” also from the session is another top Skynyrd track.

But more than any other song, the legacy of Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd and the entire band is intrinsically tied to the final song on the album—the studio version of what might be one of the most popular and recognizable songs in American music history, “Free Bird.” It’s the only song that would ever get 20-somethings to ponder what song they want played at their funeral.

If for no other reason, “Free Bird” makes the recognition of the 50th Anniversary of this album essential, because it also marks the 50th Anniversary of the studio version of this song being released into the wild. “Free Bird” would be officially released as a single from the album in November of 1974.

The cover for the album was shot on Main Street in Jonesboro, Georgia after a long day of taking promotional photos. There they were: Leon Wilkeson, Billy Powell, Ronnie Van Zant, Gary Rossington, Bob Burns, Allen Collins and Ed King, forever chronicling the first official lineup of Lynyrd Skynyrd. The lightning strike over Ed King’s shoulder is real. Gary Rossington puked on the sidewalk seconds after the photo was taken. With Rossington’s death on March 5th, 2023, everyone in the album photo has now passed on.

But the music of Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd remains, as does the legacy, including people yelling out “Free Bird” at concerts, sometimes at the most inappropriate times. Imagine the complexion of American music if this album was never released—if we had never heard “Free Bird” or “Simple Man?” It most certainly would be a much less colorful world we live in, and Southern rock may not hold as much sway in popular music as it still does 50 years after this album was first released.

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