Gary Rossington—Last Original Member of Lynyrd Skynyrd—Has Died

photo: Jon Callas

As is often the case with legacy bands, the name of Lynyrd Skynyrd will live on in live performances, and likely for years to come. But the final living piece and last original member of what most consider the premier and most defining Southern rock band has passed on. Guitarist Gary Rossington, who founded Lynyrd Skynyrd with Ronnie Van Zant and Bob Burns, has died at the age of 71, marking the end of an era in American music.

Gary Rossington was like the baby of Lynyrd Skynyrd, being three years younger than singer Ronnie Van Zant and drummer Bob Burns. When the band formed, the older boys taught Rossington about the ways of life. In the summer of 1964, Ronnie Van Zant injured Bob Burns with a ball he hit in a baseball game in Jacksonville, Florida. Since Van Zant was no longer able to play, they decided to set up a jam session instead. Gary Rossington was invited along, and later guitarist Allen Collins and bassist Larry Junstrom joined the group, and eventually they came to be known as The Noble Five.

Gary Rossington wasn’t just adopted into what would become Lynyrd Skynyrd, he was adopted into the Van Zant family. Rossington was born on December 4th, 1951 in Jacksonville, and his father passed away shortly thereafter, leaving him to be raised in a single parent household. Through his middle teenage years, Ronnie Van Zant acted like his father, with Van Zant’s father Lacy acting similarly.

When Rossington was still in high school and the other members had graduated, he grew his hair out to fit into the band. When Robert E. Lee High School went to kick Rossington out for violating their long hair policy, Lacy Van Zant lobbied the school to let him stay in. It was the school’s P.E. teacher named Leonard Skinner who was the rigid enforcer of the school’s policy against long hair. Shortly after, Gary Rossington dropped out of high school in 1969 over the issue, the band soon became known as Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Unlike guitarist Allen Collins who co-wrote many of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s songs with Ronnie Van Zant, or later edition guitarist Ed King who crafted some of the band’s most iconic licks and fills like the intro to “Sweet Home Alabama,” Gary Rossington was more of the foundational guitarist of the band. With Skynyrd’s two and three guitar attack, Rossington never needed to carry the full weight, but he also contributed some of the memorable parts of certain songs, like playing lead on “Tuesday’s Gone,” or the slide duties on “Free Bird.”

Gary Rossington was a survivor. As certain members interchanged in Lynyrd Skynyrd behind Ronnie Van Zant, Gary Rossington was a constant. In the infamous Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash on October 20th, 1977 in Mississippi, Rossington broke both arms, both legs, his wrists and ankles, and fractured his pelvis. He was rendered unconscious on impact, and woke up days later with his mother telling him that Ronnie Van Zant was dead. Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines, and three other were also killed in the crash. Rossington was one of the 20 survivors.

With steel rods in his right arm and leg, eventually Rossington made a full recovery, but the significant injuries had him relying on pain pills, which eventually gave way to drug addiction, which Rossington had dealt with previously as well. The song “That Smell” co-written by Ronnie Van Zandt was said to be inspired by Rossington hitting an Oak Tree in his Ford Torino while on drugs and alcohol on Labor Day 1976. This forced the band to delay their tour, and Rossington was fined $5,000 in wages.

When Lynyrd Skynyrd officially reunited and reformed in 1987 behind Ronnie Van Zant’s brother Johnny, Gary Rossington played an important part as the only original member of the band. Billy Powell, Leon Wilkerson, Artemis Pyle also were part of the band, and had survived the plane crash like Rossington. Guitarist Ed King also rejoined at the time.

But over the years as the secondary and tertiary members of Lynyrd Skynyrd dropped off, Gary Rossington endured behind Johnny Van Zant, and later guitarist Rickey Medlocke previously of Blackfoot, who had briefly been in Lynyrd Skynyrd in the early ’70s, and rejoined in 1996. After the death of all the original members, Medlocke is now the last Lynyrd Skynyrd member with deep ties to the band.

Gary Rossington suffered a heart attack in 2015, which resulted in numerous cancellations of Lynyrd Skynyrd shows. Then in July of 2021 he underwent further heart surgery. Though the band did not announce it publicly, Rossington’s appearances with Lynyrd Skynyrd as he battled heart issues over the last few years had been spotty. The band announced on March 5th that Gary Rossington had died via social media.

“It is with our deepest sympathy and sadness that we have to advise, that we lost our brother, friend, family member, songwriter and guitarist, Gary Rossington, today,” the band said. “Gary is now with his Skynyrd brothers and family in heaven and playing it pretty, like he always does. Please keep Dale, Mary, Annie and the entire Rossington family in your prayers and respect the family’s privacy at this difficult time.”

With the death of now all the original members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the death of Greg and Duane Allman, Toy Caldwell, and so many other founders of the Southern rock sound, it leaves only a few original titans of the country rock subgenre around, namely guitarist Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, and singer Doug Gray of The Marshall Tucker Band.

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