Gary Rossington, a founding member of Lynyrd Skynyrd whose ethereal slide guitar helped make the Southern rock band’s song “Free Bird” an indelible anthem, died Sunday at age 71.
“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 band wrote on Facebook. “Gary is now with his Skynyrd brothers and family in heaven playing it beautifully as he always does. Please keep Dale, Mary, Annie and the entire Rossington family in your prayers and respect the family’s privacy during this difficult time.”
Rossington was the last surviving original member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, a stoic figure who preferred to let his guitar do the talking and who cheated death more than once. He survived a brutal car crash in 1976 in which he drove his Ford Torino into a tree, which inspired the band’s cautionary song “That Smell”. A year later, he emerged from the infamous 1977 plane crash that killed singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and backing vocalist Cassie Gaines with two broken arms, a broken leg and a punctured stomach and liver.
“I’ve talked about it here and there, but I don’t like it,” Rossington shared Rolling stones in 2006 of the crash, a mysterious part of rock & roll lore. “It was a devastating thing. You can’t just talk about it really casually and not have feelings about it.”
In recent years, Rossington navigated a host of heart problems: he underwent quintuple bypass surgery in 2003, suffered a heart attack in 2015 and had several subsequent heart surgeries, most recently leaving Lynyrd Skynyrd in July 2021 to recover from another procedure. At recent shows, Rossington performed parts of the concert and sometimes sat out the full concert.
“I’m not getting enough oxygen in my blood to keep up and carry on as normal,” Rossington shared Rolling stones in November 2022. “But I can still play well. It’s just the journey. It’s so hard for me, especially when you have heart problems. It’s just really hard to travel and manage with those things.”
Rossington was born on December 4, 1951, in Jacksonville, Florida, and raised by his mother after the death of his father. Meeting drummer Bob Burns and bassist Larry Junstrom, Rossington and his new friends formed a band that they tried to juggle with their love of baseball. During a fateful Little League game, Ronnie Van Zant hit a line drive into the shoulder blades of opposing player Burns and met his future bandmates. Rossington, Burns, Van Zant and guitarist Allen Collins gathered that afternoon at Burns’ home in Jacksonville to jam the Rolling Stones’ “Time Is on My Side.” An early version of Lynyrd Skynyrd was born.
“When we got together (as a band), the scene in Jacksonville was pretty bad. Nobody liked us because we liked the British thing – the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones,” Rossington shared Rolling stones. “Some places we got into fights – they didn’t like us because our hair was long. We went to Atlanta to get out of the clubs there because there was really only one club in Jacksonville at the time.”
Adopting Lynyrd Skynyrd as the group’s name—both a reference to a similarly named sports coach at Rossington’s high school and to a character in the 1963 novelty hit “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh”—the band released their debut album (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd’) in 1973. A collection of country-tinged blues-rock and Southern soul, the album included such now-classics as “Tuesday’s Gone,” “Simple Man” and “Gimme Three Steps,” but it was the closing track, the nearly 10-minute ” Free Bird” that became the group’s calling card, in no small part due to Rossington’s evocative slide played on his Gibson SG.
“We always said we had a lot of balls back then, or gumption, whatever you call it, to play a song that long. Singles are only two, three minutes at most, and five is lucky,” Rossington said in an interview with Guitar world. “‘Free Bird’ was nine minutes. They said, ‘No one will ever play that song. You guys are crazy.'”
While the Lynyrd Skynyrd lineup changed frequently—Burns for Artimus Pyle in 1975, Ed King for Steve Gaines in 1976, Johnny Van Zant filling his older brother Ronnie’s shoes in 1987—Rossington remained a constant. The only time he wasn’t part of Skynyrd was during the group’s breakup year after the plane crash. Together with Allen Collins, Rossington formed the Rossington-Collins Band in 1980 and released the LP Anytime, Anywhere, Anywhere same year, and the follow-up This is the way in 1981. The former’s “Don’t Misunderstand Me” mixed some of their old band’s Southern Swagger (Skynyrd alumni Billy Powell and Leon Wilkeson were also involved) with a touch of funk and lead vocals from Dale Krantz, whom Rossington would marry in 1982 .
The Rossington-Collins Band broke up in the early eighties, and Rossington and some of his former Lynyrd Skynyrd bandmates organized a tribute tour for their long-gone comrades in 1987 with Johnny Vant Zant on vocals. The tour eventually evolved into various incarnations of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the band gathered a new generation of fans, even as they struggled at times to navigate a changing culture. When Skynyrd caught flak for their use of Confederate flag imagery (which they eventually abandoned in 2012), Rossington said the polarizing symbol was meant to show where they came from and not to offend. “Although I know it’s also naive to say that,” he admitted in the 2018 documentary If I Leave Here Tomorrow: A Film About Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Despite all the drama – and death – that Lynyrd Skynyrd endured, Rossington said Rolling stones that he never considered Skynyrd to be a tragic band. “I don’t think of it as a tragedy — I think of it as life,” he said at the group’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2006. “I think the good outweighs the bad.”