Mad Mark After Dark, The Man in Black, writing to you from the depths of hell!
On the afternoon of July 27th, 2001 Rock-n-Roll suffered one of its greatest losses
to date. Bass player and one of the founding members of "The Lynyrd Skynrd Band",
Leon Wilkeson, passed away. He was only 49 years old.
Leon Russel Wilkeson was born on April 2, 1952 in Rhode Island, but he did most of
his growing up in the streets of Jacksonville, Florida. He was working at an ice
cream factory when he ran into Donnie Van Zant, one of Ronnie Van Zant's younger
brothers. Wilkeson auditioned for and got the job in Donnie's band, The Collegiate,
which later became .38 Special. He later met with Ronnie Van Zant and joined his
band, My Backyard. That band's name changed again to The One Percent. They finally
came up with a name that stuck, calling themselves Lynyrd Skynrd, after their high
school gym teacher.
After years of playing bars and clubs all over the South, with bands like The Allman
Joys (later to become The Allman Brother Band) and with different recordings and
demos for Muscle Shoals, Sounds of the South Label. Lynyrd Skynrd finally got signed
to MCA Records in 1973 and released their first album, called "Pronounced Leh-Nard
Skinerd". The Album was a mix of Blues, Country, Bluegrass and great old Rock-n-Roll.
A triple guitar assault "leading the pack" ñ Allen Collins, Gary Rossington
and Ed King. The album was full of heart, soul and songs with meaningful titles like,
"Simple Man" and "Tuesday's Gone" and Ronnie Van Zant's heartfelt
tribute and anthem to Rock-N-Roll, "Freebird". The album was a hit, which
led them to open for The Who's "Quadrophenia" tour in 1973. They were ready
to explode as an opening act for their Rock-n-Roll idols, The Rolling Stones. On
the Stones' "Black and Blue" tour in 1976, replacing guitarist Ed King
with Stevie Gaines, they were raring to go. They showed The Who, The Stones and the
rest of the world what the greatest American Rock-n-Roll band should sound like,
putting Southern Rock on the map in the process.
Lynyrd Skynrd was becoming one of the most successful bands of the 1970's until that
fateful day in October. A week after the release of their sixth album, "Street
Survivors", on October 20, 1977, Skynrd's private plane took off from Greenville,
South Carolina en route to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, embarking on the first leg of
a lengthy U.S.tour. Their plane crashed into a Mississippi swamp, fatally injuring
the heart and soul, founder and leader of the group, Ronnie Van Zant. Guitarist Steve
Gaines, backup singer Cassie Gaines, as well as their road manager Dean Kirkpatrick
were also killed in the crash. Drummer Artimus Pyle crawled through the swamps to
get help, his jagged broken bones sticking through his skin where they had snapped.
Gary Rossington was the most severely injured of the survivors, with two broken arms,
a broken leg, a broken pelvis and a punctured liver. Allen Collins sustained a cracked
neck. Billy Powell's face was smashed on impact.
Leon Wilkeson was dead on arrival at the hospital hospital, but was revived three
times. On his third time coming close to the light of death, he had a vision of Ronnie
Van Zant standing together with Duane Allman, saying, " Leon, you must go back."
So he came back to life.
That appeared to be the end of Lynyrd Skynrd until a special night in 1980. Charlie
Daniels decided to invite the remaining members of the band to his yearly volunteer
jam, held in Tennessee. This invitation renewed the band's interest in playing again.
They decided to put the name Lynyrd Skynrd to rest out of respect to Ronnie and the
other members who had passed on. They called themselves The Rossington Collins Band,
releasing a couple of albums under that name.
Although it took a few years for the physical scars to heal, it took several more
to heal the emotional ones. In 1987, ten years after the plane crash, the remaining
members decided to get back together for a tribute tour. The search to find a suitable
replacement for the now-legendary Ronnie Van Zant seemed to be nearly impossible.
The search really didn't have to go much farther than where it all started, in the
house where Ronnie was born. Younger brother Johnny, who idolized his older brother,
would be the perfect choice. Ties of blood are as strong as friendship in The Lynyrd
Skynrd Band. That is why they never excluded any former members from participating
in the tribute. Confined to a wheelchair and unable to play due to a drug and alcohol
related car crash, guitarist Allen Collins was able to get on stage and make his
presence felt. Lacy Van Zant, Ronnie's father, got on stage throughout the entire
tour. The band paid the ultimate respect to Ronnie's memory, hanging Ronnie's hat
over the lead microphone while playing an instrumental version of "Freebird"
filled with love and pain.
On January 23rd, 1990, Allen Collins passed away from complications due to battling
pneumonia. Even though the band buried another founding member, it didn't slow them
down. Lynyrd Skynrd toured throughout the 1990's, and put out new records year after
year. Johnny Van Zant grew more confident in his role, singing his brother's songs
and writing his own. In 1996, Ricky Medlocke, formerly of Blackfoot, and Hughie Thomasson,
formerly of The Outlaws, joined Skynrd to add that triple lead guitar trademark that
the band is known for. The additions added new freshness and vitality to the band.
In 1997, this lineup recorded their first album together, entitled "Twenty".
Its release marked the twentieth anniversary of the tragic plane crash and was a
fitting tribute to the members that weren't with them or us anymore.
Lynyrd Skynrd never forgot its past. The past is what makes this band look into the
future. Writing and recording is what makes this band as vital today as they were
in the 1970's. A tear runs down my face knowing that another founding member is gone,
and gone too soon. I've been a Lynyrd Skynrd fan for a very long time. I saw them
in the early 1980's as The Rossington Collins Band, then as The Skynrd Band in 1987
Last summer, I went down to Nashville, Tennessee to see the band. I got to meet all
of the members. I especially got the privilege of hanging out with Leon Wilkeson.
He told me stories about past and present tours. He made me laugh and cry with his
funny stories and his sad ones. He made a lot of cat noises when I told him about
my two cats back in New York. He had a great sense of humor, and a sense of pure
joy for life and music.
On June 14th of this year, I went to the see the band out at Jones Beach. I was in
the front row, of course. Leon seemed to remember our meeting last summer as if it
was last week, making faces at me from the stage when he spotted me. He did his usual
hat changes between songs.
A little over a month later, a friend called me early on a Saturday morning, to tell
me that Leon had passed away. I felt like I had lost a relative who I actually liked
and got along with. Lynyrd Skynrd will never be the same without him. Leon, you got
to be where you always wanted to be, with Ronnie, Allen, Steve, Cassie and Duane
Allman. Fly on with the other Freebirds. These lyrics always make me think of you.
The tile of the song is called, "Tomorrow's Goodbye":
To the wild
I said just look at what we've done
Right before our eyes
Today's yesterday will be tomorrow's goodbye.
(Lynyrd Skynrd, "Edge of Forever" 1999)
to Mark After Dark