Gary Rossington, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s last surviving original member who also co-founded the group, died on Sunday at the age of 71. No cause of death was given.
“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 cheated death more than once, Rolling Stone reported. He survived a car accident 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 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.
“It was a devastating thing,” he told Rolling Stone in 2006. “You can’t just talk about it really casually and not have feelings about it.”
In later years, Rossington 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.
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.
According to Rolling Stone, it was during a fateful Little League game that Ronnie Van Zant hit a line drive into the shoulder blades of opposing player Bob 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.”
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 -‘nerd) 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 closing track, the nearly 10-minute “Free Bird,” which became the group’s calling card, was due in no small part to Rossington’s evocative slide playing on his Gibson SG.
Rossington told Rolling Stone that he never considered Skynyrd to be a tragic band, despite the band’s drama and death. “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.”