It’s hard to believe that it has been 35 years since one of rock’s best-known tragedies occured. On October 20, 1977, a chartered plane carrying the band Lynyrd Skynyrd–in the midst of a headlining tour and fresh off the release of their sixth album–crashed in a Gillsburg, Mississippi swamp.
The toll was dire: Three band members perished; the others were all severely injured. The drummer–who was one of the few able to walk–staggered out for help, and was allegedly shot at by an alarmed farmer. The band’s record label scrambled to replace the new album’s cover, which eerily forecasted the accident by portraying the members engulfed in flames.
Although the crash remains now and forever the darkest centerpiece in the band’s legend–as well as a breeding ground for gruesome urban legends surrounding the various members’ demises–fans know quite well it’s far from the first or last tragedy the definitive Southern Rockers endured. In fact, Lynyrd Skynyrd has managed to earn the dubious distinction of “unluckiest band in history” over the years. Here’s a cheat sheet to their unfortunate past few decades.
It is undisputably the creepiest, but the flaming album cover wasn’t the first prediction of deadly events for Skynyrd. Trouble began for the hard-partying band a year before the plane crash, when guitarist Gary Rossington plowed his brand-new car into a tree along a Jacksonville, Florida road. He survived the incident and admitted he was under the influence at the time, prompting bandmates Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins to write “That Smell”–an ominous tune warning “Say you’ll be all right come tomorrow, but tomorrow may not be here for you.” (Ironically, the 60-year-old Rossington is the sole member of the original lineup still performing in the band.)
After the plane crash, which claimed the lives of Van Zant and guitarist Steve Gaines (Gaines’s sister and backup singer Cassie, the band’s road manager, and the plane’s pilot and co-pilot also died), the remaining members of Lynyrd Skynyrd disbanded to recover from their extensive injuries. As might be expected, the album that was released just three days before the tragedy, Street Survivors, became one of their greatest hits in the wake of the spotlight on the events. Save one performance in 1979, “Lynyrd Skynyrd” would not emerge again for a decade.
The remaining band members continued to make music through the ’80s under various configurations, most notably the Rossington-Collins band–which was cooked up by Rossington and guitarist Allen Collins, who took special pains to distance the new outfit from a “reborn” Skynyrd tag by recruiting a female lead singer, Dale Krantz. The new band did not include drummer Artimus Pyle who–in another stroke of Skynyrd misfortune–had badly shattered his leg in a motorcycle accident.
This lineup eventually was doomed for misfortune as well. Shortly before the Rossington-Collins band was slated to go on its debut tour in 1980, Collins’s wife Kathy died unexpectedly from a miscarriage-related hemorrhage. The tragedy effectively splintered the band by 1982 and threw the grieving Collins himself into a spiral of substance abuse. Collins made another attempt by starting the Allen Collins band, which released one album in 1983 to lukewarm response. Three years later, an intoxicated Collins crashed his car in Jacksonville, killing his girlfriend and rendering him paralyzed from the waist down and with limited use of his upper body.
At this point, talk of a Skynyrd-proper reconfiguration had been in the works for some time. By 1987 it seemed solidified: The late Van Zant was replaced by brother Johnny; while crash survivors Rossington, Pyle, Billy Powell, and Leon Wilkeson resumed their former duties. Collins, who was charged with manslaughter for the death of his girlfriend, took position as musical director of the group–and as part of his plea bargain, addressed the band’s audience every night on tour from his wheelchair on the dangers of drunk driving.
Yet more despair was in store, however. Collins was felled by pneumonia in 1989, and died shortly after in 1990.
Although the worst seemed to be behind them by the ’90s–after all, it would be hard to top the past 20 years of upsetting events–the reunited Skynyrd’s lineup luck did not endure. The members either left, were asked to leave, or simply have passed away: Wilkeson was found dead a hotel room in 2001 at age 49; while keyboardist Billy Powell, who was only 56, died at home in 2009. The result has been a long string of replacements, leaving Rossington as the sole representative of the classic lineup (Pyle is still alive, but is not part of the current roster).
Despite the long history of misfortune, the band does one shining strength–its undeniable and enduring longevity. Lynyrd Skynyrd was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. Although only one original member remains, Skynyrd continues to have a significant presence in both the rock and country worlds, as well as continues to shake things up–with the latest buzz being controversy over whether or not to continue their long-held tradition of waving the Confederate flag on stage.