40 Years Later: Remembering Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Free Birds’ On The Day Southern Rock Changed Forever

(Left) Ed Perlstein / Contributor / Getty Images /(Center) Len DeLessio / Contributor / Getty Images /(Right) Getty Images / Handout

The year was 1977. For four years leading up to that, a group of young Florida rockers had been taking the music industry by storm. Their songs ranged from bluesy tunes to rock and roll masterpieces, and they quickly became American anthems. 

That group was named Lynyrd Skynyrd. What started as a bunch of young kids who just loved playing music eventually turned into one of the greatest rock bands to ever exist. With songs under their belt such as “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Simple Man,” and the iconic “Free Bird,” Skynyrd was poised at the top of the music world in 1977.

But one tragic day in October changed all of that in the blink of an eye. 

The date was October 20, 1977, forty years ago to this exact date. Three days prior to that, Skynyrd had released their fifth studio album, Street Survivors. For some members of the group, it became the final album they would ever record.

With new music out, Skynyrd was traveling around the country to play at various gigs. On October 20th, they had just wrapped up a show in South Carolina and were all set to head to their next performance in Louisiana. The band and crew loaded up on their chartered Convair CV-240, completely unaware of the life-altering event that would occur only moments later.

The plane carrying Southern rock’s shining stars started to run out of fuel as they neared the end of their flight. While the pilots attempted to make an emergency landing, they were unable do so. The plane crashed in the forest outside of Gillsburg, Mississippi, and the course of Southern rock was changed forever.

The pilot, Walter McCreary, and co-pilot William Gray both died in the crash. The band’s assistant road manager, Dean Kilpatrick, was also killed.

Cassie Gaines, who was part of Skynyrd’s group of background singers known as “The Honkettes,” also lost her life on that day.

The previous year, her brother, Steve Gaines, joined the group as a guitarist. Steve penned four of the songs on Street Survivors, and had a future full of potential. But it was a potential he never got to realize, as he was one who lost his life on that tragic day.

Ronnie Van Zant, Skynyrd’s fearless leader and lead vocalist, often told family and friends that he would never live past the age of 30. They all dismissed him, but Ronnie knew his fate.

Ronnie was three months shy of turning 30 on the day that Skynyrd’s plane crashed, claiming his life as well as the lives of Cassie, Steve, Dean, William, and Walter.

Miraculously, the other 20 passengers on the plane survived, although many were severely injured. 

Following the crash, Skynyrd went on a ten-year hiatus, and the various members took some time to pursue some side projects. They finally decided to come back together for a tribute tour in 1987, this time with Ronnie’s younger brother, Johnny Van Zant, leading the charge.

The tribute tour turned into so much more. It proved Skynyrd’s unshakeable strength in the wake of tragedy, showing they could carry on despite the heartbreak they endured.

In the years since 1977, Skynyrd has released nine more studio albums. They’ve penned and recorded many more Southern rock anthems. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And they continue to keep the memory of their lost sister and brothers alive by performing their classic hits for crowds of people around the world.

In the opening to “Free Bird,” Ronnie sings, “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?” The answer to his question would be a resounding “yes.”

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