Being the son of a long-distance truck driver and living in the truest sense of the word "shantytown" on the west side of Jacksonville, FL, his work options were to join the Navy, to work on the railroad or to attend college and become a lawyer. None of that appealed to him. Initially, he wanted to be a stock car driver due to the racetrack just down the road. But when he joined Robert E. Lee high school in he wanted to be on the football team and be a running back. Here is the first rather funny part. In his first scrimmage he broke his ankle and they had to put pins in it which made him 4F and ineligible for the draft! Note, this was in the mid-1960's. That is truly “fate”. He then tried to become a boxer but was knocked out on his first attempt.
Ronnie’s fate part two began in 1965 when he and a friend attended a concert at the Jacksonville Colloseum. The band was British but their style showed “some” Southern influences, and their name was the Rolling Stones. This is what inspired Ronnie to sing and form a band. Compared to his options for work as mentioned, and he knew he didn’t want to work on the railroad or drive trucks like his dad or join the Navy, forming a band seemed like the most fun. After attending that sell-out Stones concert and seeing the raging attention to the lead singer, he knew then and there that music (and especially singing) was his new focus.
After joining a couple of local teenage high-school bands, he began mentoring another, but more focused, high school band, and this is how the later Skynyrd and his short-lived but sky-high fame began. He was a tough kid, intimidating even, but his craving to get out of Shantytown and be proud to bring a girl home, propelled him to be a task-driver and mentor for his new band. And what a success it was!
He founded a band with only a guitarist (mediocre) and a drummer and a bass. But he was led to another guitarist (also mediocre) but he knew that if he got these two together they would “feed” off each other and learn and grow. It happened. These high school boys did indeed excel with their guitars once they began playing side-by-side. This is another example of this street kid tough guy, Ronnie, taking control.
His fate again showed up when Ronnie's band, the Noble Five, opened for the Allman boys (Allman Joy at that time). Duane and Gregg Allman sat back and stared in awe. They both said to the band afterwards that their band a rich texture and vibe but they wouldn’t go anywhere until they developed their own music. Fate again! And who better to notice this but another Southern rock band.
Inspired by the Allman’s he took their advice and got their own “place” where they could practice, practice, practice and come up with their own stuff. And Ronnie grabbed onto that and rode with it like nobody else. Not just 8 hour days but 12 hour days. Every day. As we can see, Ronnie knew fate when he saw it/ heard it/ felt it.
Maybe it is in "knowing" fate when you see it that is the key to success. And for Ronnie, that was his star power. He renamed the band, the “One Percent”, and after bothering friends and family about it, he finally secured a run-down cabin in the town of Russell where they could rehearse. They nicknamed it “Hell House”. To the members under Ronnie’s task-driver persona, I’m sure it was (that). According to Burns, the former drummer, they rehearsed from 10 until 10, every day, with no air-conditioning, but they loved it.
A year before the biggest rock venue ever (Woodstock), the One Percent finally got a regular gig at the Comic Book Club in Jacksonville, in 1968. This was their big break. The taskdriving, Van Zant, proved to them that the grueling hours were worth it. Here is where Fate stepped in again for Ronnie.
It was a big thing for a “white” band. Already we had big time hitters like Otis Redding, Ray Charles, and James Brown, but for a white band this was new and unusual. White bands were pioneers who played original Southern rock music. The One Percent were very impacted by the Allman Bros. The double leads came into this band then, and Ronnie really liked the way Gregg sang. Also, the British band, Free, came to town and Ronnie’s band heard them play at a skating rink. All these influenced Skynyrd in a big way. The band Free was almost as influential to Ronnie Van Zant as the Stones were a few years earlier.
The Stones lit the flame, but Free fanned the flame to Ronnie. They were like a hero to Ronnie. It will take a little time still, but in Hell House they were developing their own tune. It is interesting to watch films of Skynyrd’s concerts and see, even in the live shows, how Ronnie controls the band as he glides around the stage and either encourages or discourages the players. And note how the players take notice too. Well, after 12 hour days over 7 days a week repetitiously, you can be sure they’re well trained to follow Ronnie’s direction!
By the end of 1969, the band had their final name, Lynyrd Skynyrd (the riff off their high school gym teacher’s name, Leonard Skinner, whom they despised because he suspended one of them for having long hair). At this point in time, their influences came a great deal from the Stones, Cream, Yardbirds and other British bands, but Ronnie has a distinct country voice. Still, gradually, the band began writing their own songs and forming their own sound. And finally they were unique unto themselves--not Allman Bros, and certainly not British. No more copy crept into their sound. They had developed fully. And thus, so did their name, Lynyrd Skynyrd, be their newest and last, moniker.
They had their first break at the end of 1969, An audition for the brother of Capricorn’s Phil, Allen Walden, who was looking to sign new talent. Allen had to hear 13 bands in Jacksonville. The 13th band was Skynyrd. By the time the band had finished with Free Bird, Allen was blown away he said. He signed them to management, production, recording, and all of it.
No less than nine record companies rejected them. And no reason was given. Some indicated that they were too much like the Allman Bros., even though their only similarities were that they also had heavy guitar and were from the South.
It wasn’t until they played at Funnochio’s in Atlanta, that they really got their first big break. Their manager said to them, “If you can entertain these junkies then you can entertain anybody.” They played there about eight times. At first they were viewed as hillbillies. Then they began catching on, and then catching on, and then they became better and packing the joint out. Nobody was at the bar and all dancing or up at the stage, according to Burns, the drummer. Ronnie worked them hard and then harder each time performances. Again, with his hard work ethic in rehearsals.
One night at Funnochio’s started the set with “Simple Man” and all the people were still on the dance floor from the previous band, and nobody left. Nobody danced, but they just stood there motionless. And everybody in the club was staring at them. It was dead silence except for the band. According to their new manager, that was the first time that he knew that yeah, these guys have really got “it”. They’re going to make it.
It may be said that 1973 was the biggest Fate year for Ronnie, as it was then when Al Kooper heard them at Funnochio’s. Kooper had played throughout his teens and later with Bob Dylan, Stills, Stones, Who, and then forming Blood Sweat and Tears. He also worked with the Atlanta Rythym Session and while there he heard Skynyrd during their week long residency at Funnochios. It is said that by the third night he was joining them on the stage.
Kooper committed to Skynyrd and within days he had them signed on with MCA. MCA then allowed Skynyrd to sign with their own label, Sounds of the South. The terms weren’t great, just a $9,000 advance, both Skynyrd and their manager Walden knew this was the best thing around. Ronnnie and Walden signed the record deal on the hood of a Ford pickup truck.
With Kooper still as their producer, he noticed a significant thing about the band. And most notably about Van Zant. Kooper is on film stating that not one thing is improv with this band. Not one note. Even on stage. Whether it is stage or recording studio every note is the same. And that in itself is practically unheard of. Other bands improvise a lot on stage and they improvise even in recordings. But not Skynyrd. This is part of Ronnie’s hard-driven work ethic and his grueling rehearsals. Ronnie will not stand for a single note to be out of place. I personally love that. I love knowing that when I went to hear them in concert that I would be getting what I heard on their album. I do not know of any other band who had that kind of discipline. Apparently, neither had Al Kooper. whoi said, “I had never worked with anyone who had ever pre-written guitar solos. But they did. It was phenomenal.” He said this after hearing the recording of Free Bird and then hearing it live. As a 70’s hippie-concert-goer and record-buyer, I can safely say that he is right. Not a note is off. Not a lick is off-cuff or non-arranged. This is due to Ronnie’s relentless rehearsal-phobia, along with his harshness to the members to stick to the script.
Too bad for all those record producers who had previously flat out said no. Their time had come and gone, with the wind (as the lyrics imply). Skynard was Big. At last. The critics were in awe. Here they heard take after take of the same riffs. No improvs. This is a well-rehearsed band who is consistent and always delivers the same sound. What a phenomenon!
The music critics right away noticed (now that it was right in front of them) what a great sound this Southern rock band was! It did help that Kooper promoted them. For the Easterners it helped no end. Here they are thinking they must be good because Al Kooper is fronting them (not a Southerner, in fact Kooper is a New York Jew from Queens no less), But we know of his status in the industry and his remarkable insight. It could be said that Kooper’s “accidental” hearing this band at Funnochio’s was “fate”. If that hadn’t have happened we might have had this band playing the local Southern circuit for years. Happily maybe, though not wealthy. And that would have been the best for all.
Music experts and critics, like Mark Ribowsky, said that at first they weren’t thrilled with Skynyrd due to their own prejudices against the South, but this band was different for them. They were unique and brought a genuine sound to the South that was rockabilly or country, which is what caused their hardship in breaking in. They were that different. But they looked to Al Kooper and MCA for recognizing this talent. Because at the time there were no predecessors. Ronnie took that white trash image and made it popular. He was a working class kind of musician. The narratives he wrote about were his real life. For example, Gimme Three Steps, was from his own life and he wrote about that. It was a great song and a big hit even on his first album. It was so great to the critics because, although other songsters have sung such stuff, nobody ever admitted to wanting to walk away from a fight. And that in itself made it so new.
What is fate? It is following who you are and not only accepting who you are (in Ronnie’s case he knew he wanted to sing like Mick Jagger) but sticking with it. What fate is not is trying to make yourself into something that you can’t be. In Ronnie’s case he found out early on that he couldn’t be a football player or a boxer or a stock car driver. So he chose what he thought he could do. Singing and leading a band was his ultimate forte’. It was hard work, but that was the kind of work he enjoyed doing.
The plane crash. What a choice it was to follow his fate and live out the garage-band's dream life. Maybe this early death was a part of their fate--that I could not say. But for their short-lived time here on Earth, Ronnie and the fellow members who also didn't survive, surely had a fun! And we are left with timeless great songs to enjoy and to remember you by. xo