Joe Gessin via withguitars.com
When people think of Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Free Bird” is often one of the first songs to come to mind. The song was co-written by Ronnie Van Zant, the original lead singer of the group, and was released on their 1973 debut album (pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd).
Following the deaths of Ronnie and fellow bandmates Steve and Cassie Gaines in the plane crash of 1977, the band took a break before reuniting in 1987. Ronnie’s brother, Johnny, joined the band as the lead vocalist, but for years he refused to sing the band’s signature song.
During a filmed interview, Johnny shared the reason why he wasn’t comfortable singing “Free Bird” when he first started with the group, saying, “I just thought, you know the words say ‘If I leave here tomorrow,’ it’s kind of hard for me to sing that, just emotionally.”
But eventually, one Skynyrd band member managed to convince Johnny to give “Free Bird” a shot, for Ronnie’s sake. So who finally made Johnny change his mind? None other than founding member and guitarist Gary Rossington:
“Gary had been telling me man, nights and nights before you know, ‘I’m not gonna do ‘Free Bird’ I’m not gonna do ‘Free Bird.’ Not unless you sing it…So I actually thought, I was calling his bluff you know? And he said something to me that day. He said, ‘You know Ronnie was a songwriter, and a singer, and he wrote those words and I’m sure he’d want to hear ’em.'”
Johnny said that Gary’s plea got through to him. “It really touched my heart,” he said. “I went, ‘You know what, you’re right. Why in the h— haven’t I been doing this?’“
From that moment on, Johnny has been making his brother proud by performing “Free Bird” and all of Skynyrd’s other signature hits. You can watch his full interview in the video below.