(March 7, 2023). Admittedly, I’m not a guy you’d see in line to catch the legendary southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd in concert.
Something about a bunch of strung-out white guys strumming songs like “Sweet Home Alabama” with large confederate flag imagery draped behind them on stage while the crowd cheered along seemed like just enough of a deterrent for me to look elsewhere to fill my concert needs.
But I did low-key like their music, particularly “Free Bird” (who can top that four-minute guitar jam-out that concludes the long version?), “What’s Your Name” (the first song I actually ever heard by the band, more on that later), and, yes, even “Sweet Home Alabama,” (conservative southern rock anthem that it is, aside).
Upon learning of the March 5th passing of the group’s last surviving original member, Gary Rossington, at the age of 71, I wondered whether (and how) the blog might pay tribute, especially considering I hadn’t actually followed the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers’ comings and goings much since my younger days, save for occasionally revisiting the story of the 1977 plane crash that killed three of its members or an account from one of the surviving bandmates about how their songs came to be and what the true meanings were behind them.
For instance, I had always been intrigued by the conflicting accounts from Lynyrd Skynyrd members about the real intent of “Sweet Home Alabama,” their biggest chart hit (No. 8 peak in 1974) and one that stirred plenty of controversy for its defense of the South, which Canadian singer Neil Young had earlier taken to task for its role in slavery, and, according to late original band member and co-writer Ed King, its defense of Alabama’s Governor George Wallace, the 1972 presidential candidate known for supporting racial segregation.
But lyrics and (un)ambiguous messages aside, I could still appreciate the song’s catchy melody and acknowledge its significance in American southern culture.
However, the tune I liked most by Skynyrd was the one that had introduced me to the band—one I first heard as an eleven-year-old while listening to Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40” countdown show in early 1978 as the song was climbing the charts, a tune that was released as a single just weeks after the band’s fatal plane crash in October 1977.
As it turned out, that song—“What’s Your Name”—would be Lynyrd Skynyrd’s last top-40 hit, which would partially explain the circumstances behind why another classic of theirs, the followup single from the same album, flew under my radar (no pun intended) for 45 years until this week, when a friend introduced me to it for the first time (more on that followup single later in the article).
As I began writing this reflection on Rossington and his band, I decided to go back in time to those fateful months surrounding the release of the album containing “What’s Your Name” and the followup single, the LP eerily titled Street Survivors—eerie because of the album’s circumstances (released just three days before the crash) and for its album cover, which depicted the band’s members surrounded by flames, something the band’s label MCA Records later changed out of respect for surviving family and band members (but the band resurrected years later).
I had known of the plane crash since 1978 when Casey Kasem first told its story on AT40—in the compassionate, sympathetic and touching way that only he could—as “What’s Your Name” ascended the charts to its No. 13 peak.
By now, more than 45 years later, the horrific flight is well documented in YouTube stories, in film documentaries, and on Wikipedia (which cites a variety of reliable publications describing the accident). But, in researching this article, I wanted to go back to contemporary coverage of the doomed flight by the music trade magazine that had also served as the source for the charts used by Kasem’s AT40, Billboard.
To set the stage, I should mention that the Billboard of 1977 was not like the glossier, trendier version that exists today (in the rare instances when there actually is a print issue).
Back then it was considered the “industry’s newspaper,” an actual weekly print periodical that served as the Wall Street Journal of music. In its pages, you would find news of industry executive hirings and firings, record company earnings and stock prices, concert boxscores, various mileposts (births, deaths, marriages, etc.) and, of course, the charts.
There were full-page ads back then (Billboard still needed to pay the bills), but you’d rarely find a full-page cover picture of an artist in 1977–the magazine truly looked like a bound newspaper—unlike today’s glossy, ad-filled version, which more resembles Vibe or People magazine than it does the WSJ.
So, in researching the trade mag’s back pages online, I fully expected to see more complete coverage of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s fatal plane flight, much like Billboard had covered the deaths of Elvis Presley and Bing Crosby or the guy who invented the vinyl LP—Dr. Peter Goldmark—all of whom had died around the same time in 1977.
In searching through all the weekly Billboard issues from late October through December of 1977, I found the first mention of the crash in the one dated Oct. 29, where there was a brief page-4, six-paragraph mention of the accident with the headline: “FAA Probes Plane Crash Fatal to 3 in Skynyrd Act.”
The details of the ill-fated flight were covered, including the small twin-engine plane’s make and model (a Convair 240), its origin and destination—Greenville, SC and Baton Rouge, LA, respectively—and the names of the deceased: group leader Ronnie Van Zant, plus guitarist Steve Gaines, backing vocalist Cassie Gaines (Steve’s older sister), and assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, along with the plane’s two pilots.
The article also described the condition of the 20 survivors (Rossington was determined to be in “good condition” after having been transported to Baptist Hospital in Jackson, Miss, not far from where the plane had crashed). Aside from that and a mention of the accident’s cause (depleted fuel) and that the Federal Aviation Authority was “probing the wreckage,” there was nary a story the likes of which you’d expect about a band as pioneering as Lynyrd Skynyrd had been at the time.
A feature story on the previous page about Columbia Records owning 13 singles on that week’s Hot 100 chart garnered far more ink.
I immediately attributed the scantness with which Billboard initially covered the Skynyrd story to press deadlines. The crash had occurred on Thursday, Oct. 20, likely hours before Billboard had to go to print for its Oct. 29-dated issue, which hit the streets on Monday, Oct. 24. I fully expected to see more complete coverage in the following week’s issue.
The crash drew even less coverage that week.
A shorter, 3-paragraph entry appeared in the back pages of the Nov. 5-dated issue—in the “General News” section on page 106–titled “Lynyrd Skynyrd Stays Together.”
That small piece speculated that the group, which had yet to make a decision on whether it would disband following the crash, would likely “compose and record together again.” Noting that a decision would be made once all surviving members had recovered from their injuries, the article closed by mentioning a trust fund had been established in Van Zant’s and Gaines’ memories for the “benefit and education” of the deceased band members’ young children.
In that same issue, two full-page ads (above) had been taken out by the band’s record company, MCA Records, and by its talent agency, Premier Talent, mourning the deceased band members and their assistant tour manager Kilpatrick.
The earlier issue (Oct. 29) contained an album review for Street Survivors, on page 82, in which Billboard lauded the group’s “rip roaring three-guitar lineup of Gary Gossington (sic), Allen Collins and relative newcomer Steve Gaines” and called the album “rock ‘n’ roll boogie at its finest,” all without a mention of the band’s then-current horrible circumstances.
Even more awkward (in hindsight) were the review’s references to the fiery album cover, which noted that the band’s three guitarists–Rossington (spelling corrected here), Collins and Gaines–burn “with the same raging intensity as the flame on the LP cover” before instructing store dealers “the cover is as hot as the music.” (Mercifully, the plane’s occupants were likely spared a fiery death given the aircraft’s lack of fuel.)
MCA Records would continue to market the band and Street Survivors in the trade press throughout the remainder of 1977, including two additional full-page ads in Billboard for the album (celebrating its platinum status) and for “What’s Your Name,” which had been rush-released as a single in November following the crash.
That song would be reviewed by Billboard in a subsequent issue, where the critic noted that “What’s Your Name” was “at once, exhilarating and moving, in light of recent tragic events.”
Otherwise, Billboard didn’t cover the Lynyrd Skynyrd crash again during 1977.
In subsequent years, not long after “What’s Your Name” had run its course and as my musical palette began to expand to classic rock and other genres (besides the pop, disco and R&B I’d come to love in my childhood), I’d learn of Lynyrd Skynyrd classics like the iconic “Free Bird,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” and “Gimme Three Steps.”
But it wasn’t until this week, while discussing Skynyrd with a friend, that I became aware of the second single from Street Survivors, one that apparently had been a classic rock staple back in the day but had totally escaped this writer: “That Smell.”
When the friend mentioned that this olfactory tune was the followup single to “What’s My Name,” I responded that I’d never heard of it.
After hearing in my mind the equivalent of a needle skipping across an entire vinyl record in his expression of disbelief, the friend mentioned “That Smell” didn’t make the top-40 (or the Hot 100 chart at all), possibly explaining my lack of exposure to it at the time (although that couldn’t account for the past 45 years of me completely missing it).
I decided to play “That Smell” on YouTube while reading the comments posted by fans below the audio clip.
The song was written by founding members Van Zant and Collins (the latter of whom survived the plane crash but died in 1990 at age 37 following a bout with pneumonia, which was a complication from his paralysis suffered from a car accident four years earlier). “That Smell” was written in part to Collins, whose ongoing battle with drugs and alcohol was notorious by 1977 and would be the cause of two of his car accidents, including the fateful one in 1986 that ultimately caused his demise.
But it was more inspired by Rossington, with lyrics including the nickname (“Prince Charming”) Van Zant had given Gary after watching his antics while strung out on Qualudes and other drugs and alcohol, and other lyrics mocking Rossington’s own 1976 DWI run-in with an oak tree (“Oak tree you’re in my way”) during a car crash in his hometown of Jacksonville, FL.
Aside from my playing it on YouTube (and later on repeat in Spotify) this week, I’d never even whiffed “That Smell,” not even during the heady early days at my college alma mater, where the freshman and sophomore year dorms were teeming with ‘70s drug-related rock anthems as students soundtracked their own indulgence. (Admittedly, most of those tunes were by Pink Floyd or Jimi Hendrix.)
But after reading the comments posted by Skynyrd fans under the “That Smell” YouTube clip, my only thought was “how did I completely miss this?”
Fans were unanimous in their praise of “That Smell,” likening it to their own stories of battling addiction and celebrating years of sobriety. Some even went as far as to elevate “That Smell” above “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird,” alternately calling it “the BEST Lynyrd Skynyrd song EVER” and “one of the greatest songs ever composed” while citing its “incredibly insane” guitar work and even noting simpler elements like the background singers going “hell yeah” and “yeah, you!” during the song’s verses and choruses.
Forty-five years on, it’s hard to imagine someone capturing the true essence of an old song or it resonating with that person if it wasn’t part of some life experience long ago.
It took several listens for me to halfway get it and to acknowledge I could never have the same personal relationship with “That Smell” that others who grew up and grew old with the song clearly did. (Although somehow the kid in the video immediately below always seems to find a way with his “reaction videos”; he discovered “That Smell” nine months ago, before I did!)
I also glommed on to the irony in the song’s lyrics, specifically lines like “ooh, that smell! The smell of death surrounds you!” It eerily took me to the scene of the plane crash that had occurred only three days after the song’s release on the album Street Survivors. Sure, “That Smell” had been written as a cautionary piece about the band’s dalliances with drugs and alcohol, which many, including some of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s members, predicted would be the band’s downfall back in the day.
It was ironic that the plane crash would doom the band even sooner, with Lynyrd Skynyrd being resurrected years later as Rossington, Collins and other surviving members added replacements and continued touring and recording albums up to their last studio LP, 2012’s Last of a Dyin’ Breed.
That Rossington (and 19 others) had survived the plane crash was astounding. That he lived to see 71, given everything that happened in the 1970s and beyond, was nothing short of a miracle.
R.I.P. Gary Rossington, December 4, 1951 – March 5, 2023.
That smell is DJRob (he/him/his) grinding out another article as a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast, one who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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