Gary Rossington, founding Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist, dead at 71
In October 1977, Gary Rossington survived a plane crash that killed three bandmates and became a touchstone in rock music lore.
The Lynyrd Skynyrd founding member and guitarist seemed indestructible as he spent decades battling drug and alcohol addictions and enduring a carousel of heart-related health issues.
Rossington, the only living original member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, died Sunday. He was 71.
The band posted a statement confirming Rossington’s death on its verified Facebook account. “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 statement said. “Gary is now with his Skynyrd brothers and family in heaven and playing it pretty, like he always does.”
A cause of death was not given.
“Please keep Dale, Mary, Annie and the entire Rossington family in your prayers and respect the family’s privacy at this difficult time,” the statement concluded.
From 2021: Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Gary Rossington expects ‘a full recovery’ after emergency heart surgery
A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Rossington lived for more than 25 years in the Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta and also spent time in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
The guitarist endured heart problems for decades, including quintuple bypass surgery in 2003, a serious heart attack in 2015, the implantation of a pacemaker, a heart valve replacement in 2019 and, most recently, emergency heart surgery in June 2021, which forced him from the band’s “Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour.”
The tour’s name was both a nod to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ill-fated 1977 “Street Survivors Tour” (which was changed to “Tour of the Survivors” following the devastating plane crash) and the realization that the band’s road tenure was likely sunsetting.
Rossington formed what would become a Southern rock behemoth in 1964 with singer Ronnie Van Zant – who died in the plane crash following a concert in Greenville, South Carolina – guitarist Allen Collins, bassist Larry Junstrom and drummer Bob Burns.
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Though known as My Backyard and other names for about five years, Lynyrd Skynyrd was born in 1969 with a lineup including keyboardist Billy Powell, bassist Leon Wilkeson and guitarist Ed King (who left in 1975 and was replaced by Steve Gaines in 1976; Gaines and his sister Cassie died in the plane crash). Drummer Burns left the band in 1974 and was replaced by Artimus Pyle.
In its current incarnation, Lynyrd Skynyrd features the lead vocals of Ronnie Van Zant’s brother, Johnny (since 1987); the guitars of Rickey Medlocke (who returned to the band in 1996); and the drums of Michael Cartellone (since 1999). The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.
The roots: Lynyrd Skynyrd’s history in Jacksonville
Of Rossington’s innumerable contributions to Lynyrd Skynyrd, his slide guitar work in the everlasting opus “Free Bird” underscores his importance to the band’s sound. The musician also co-wrote “Sweet Home Alabama” and “What’s Your Name” and partly inspired Ronnie Van Zant to pen “That Smell,” a song written about the band’s reckless behaviors, including Rossington crashing his car into a tree in Jacksonville following a night of heavy drug and alcohol use.
In 2012, Lynyrd Skynyrd released their 14th studio album, “Last of a Dyin’ Breed.” It would be the band’s final studio output, even though Johnny Van Zant told USA TODAY in 2019 that new music was expected to be recorded while Rossington’s health was stable.
“We’ve had songs for a while, but we haven’t been able to get in and actually finish recording,” Van Zant said. “Gary’s health got a little bad and we had to postpone, but we’ll eventually get it.”
Because of his tenure, Rossington was often viewed as the stabilizing force in Skynyrd. In 2014, Rossington told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about his mission to continue to represent the band.
“I thank God every day and night that I can keep playing and spreading the name of Skynyrd and our brand. Just being able to talk about Ronnie and Allen (Collins, who died in 1990) and share their music with the audience,” Rossington said. “We had a dream back in the day to be in a big band and make it and then it was taken away from (some of) them real quick. (Those who died in the plane crash), they didn’t get a chance to see how Skynyrd developed, how ‘Free Bird’ became an anthem. So I get to tell their story.”