What do you call it? Deja vu? Clairvoyance? Luck? Intuition? No doubt you have heard tales of mysterious events that defy simple, rational explanation. It is a pretty safe bet that many of you may have experienced these kinds of things. Whether one chooses to tell other people about these happenings is a rather personal decision usually introduced with a qualifier like, “This is going to sound kind of crazy…”
When I was in college, we used to climb Sugar Loaf Mountain just north of Marquette a couple of times a year. The panorama of Marquette to the south and the shoreline to Little Presque Isle and beyond to the north is still well worth the climb. Maybe it was the after effects of reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (twice), but I would often point to the western horizon and idly say, “I have a feeling I will go west one day.” When asked if I meant ‘west’ as in ‘moving to Montana soon’ (to quote the late Frank Zappa’s lyric) or some other place in that general direction, I would always reply, “I do not know. I just have this feeling that I will do something that involves going in that direction.”
When we would top one of the peaks in the Huron Mountains during my three summers working there, I would get the same thought. In hindsight, I can report my journey west landed me in Ontonagon. Okay, so I only transplanted myself 120 miles to the west, but here I am. My vague feelings of fifty years ago were a far cry from having me filling in any details of what would transpire over the next decades. Saying anything different would be a lie of Biblical proportions, but I do know what I felt back then and I have not felt the tug to keep going west since. Discounting trips to visit the WOAS West Coast Bureau )first in Boulder, CO, then Los Angeles, CA, and more recently Eugene, Oregon), living in Ontonagon is ‘west’ enough for me.
One of the reoccuring themes in the aftermath of the tragic October 20, 1977 plane crash that claimed the lives of six passengers on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s chartered plane are the unexplained ‘signs’ that people raise about the event. Some came before the accident and some after, but enough things have been reported to cast an eerie glow around the band’s history. I am not passing judgment on any of these anecdotes (my crystal ball isn’t bright enough to see that far back), but Classic Rock Magazine’s Jaan Uhelszki did a lot of boots on the ground detective work to amass many of these strange tales. I missed CRM Issue 121 when this article first came out but Uhelszki’s piece was reprinted in the summer of 2022 in an exclusive subscriber only ‘Best Of’ supplement sent as part of CRM’s celebration of their 300th edition.
Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of those accidental band discoveries – a real ‘right place, right time’ deal. Noted record producer Al Kooper (founder of Blood, Sweat, & Tears, the Blues Project, and a Bob Dylan associate) happened to catch them playing in an Atlanta dive bar in 1972. Kooper was on a mission to find bands to populate the Sounds of the South label he had recently persuaded MCA Records to fund. Kooper pitched it as an answer to Phil Walden’s Capricorn Records, home of the Allman Brothers. Al’s first impression of Skynyrd wasn’t great. He was impressed by their professionalism, arrangements, and guitar playing, but not by their lead singer. Sporting a black T-shirt, droopy jeans, and no shoes, Ronnie Van Zant got on Kooper’s nerves: “At first he annoyed me, because he was a mic stand twirler. The drum major of Lynyrd Skynyrd, but instead of a baton he had a microphone stand that was, by the way, lightweight aluminum – it only looked like it was heavy. That just got to me. The look didn’t really matter to me. The music was incredible. How can you not respond to the first time you hear I Ain’t the One or Free Bird?”
It was Van Zant who had the vision of what the band could be. A hard working, hard living man, he used his unrelenting passion to whip Lynyrd Skynyrd into a top notch southern rock band. It was Ronnie Van Zant who also planted the seeds of the first Skynyrd mystery. Drummer Artimus Pyle recalled, “We were in Tokyo at some bar and we were drinking lots of sake. Ronine told me, ‘I am never going to live to see 30.’” When Pyle told him that kind of talk was nonsense, Van Zant replied, “No, no, I want to go out with my boots on.” Skynyrd’s soundman, Kevin Elson, echoed the drummer’s comments: “Ronnie told me often that he didn’t expect to live past 30.” One could attribute Ronnie’s comments to that of someone living a straight ahead rock and roll lifestyle, but his father Lacy had other ideas. Lacy said, “Ronnie was the only one of my children who had second sight.” His wife Judy said, “When I heard that there had been a plane crash, I knew Ronnie was one of the ones that didn’t make it. He told me so many times that I realized that he really knew what he was talking about.” Ronnie was 29 when their plane went down in a Mississippi swamp.
Lacy Van Zant took Ronnie’s death as hard as anyone. At the funeral, he unnerved backup singer Jo Jo Billingsley when he scooped up some dirt, wiped it across her mouth and told her,
“Kiss this ground you’re walking on,” before he walked away. Billingsley had been fired from her position as one of the ‘Honkettes’ (as their trio of background singers were called) for allegedly having an affair with one of the married band members. Just before they departed on the Street Survivor Tour, Ronnie called her before a show in Greenville, North Carolina and asked her to rejoin the band for the tour. As she was accepting his offer, she heard a voice in her head say, “Wait.” She told Ronnie she had been planning on traveling to Little Rock anyway, so she said she would just catch up with them there. According to Jo Jo, “That night I had the most vivid dream. I saw the plane smack the ground, I saw them screaming and crying, and I saw fire. I woke up screaming, and my mom came running in going, ‘Honey, what is it’? I said, ‘Moma, I dreamed the plane crashed!’ She said, ‘No, it was just a dream,’ but I said, ‘No mom, it was too real.’”
Rattled by her dream, she called all over Greenville and finally got a hold of Allen Collins. She begged him not to get on the plane. He surprised her, saying, “Jo, it’s funny you’d mention that, because I was looking out the window yesterday and I saw fire coming out of the wing.” Billingsley continues, “[When I heard about the crash] the first thing I thought was, ‘God saved my life.’ The Lord gave me that dream to warn me, and I did the only thing I could do and warn them.” Apparently Lacy had a hard time accepting that she had not been on the flight and survived. Guitarist Ed King had been let go from the band two years earlier and he later recalled, “I always knew something bad would happen to them after I left.” Fired from the band or not, King drove all night to get to Mississippi to be with the surviving band members.
Billingsley was not the only one who did not end up on the flight. Chris Charlesworth worked for their management company, Sir Productions, and he would normally have been with the band. He decided to travel on his own and meet them in Baton Rouge and the last minute change of plans probably saved his life. He would normally have been in the front of the plane with road manager Dean Kilpatrick, Ronnie, Cassie Gaines, and Steve Gaines. Those four in the front of the plane plus the two pilots died on impact. Charelsworth later said, “The crew in the back were less injured. The group and those closest to them were up front. That’s where I would have sat, because I didn’t know the crew.”
Pianist Billy Powell was still amazed any of them survived when he described the crash to CRM: “We hit the trees at what seemed like 100 mph. It felt like we were being hit with baseball bats in a tin coffee can with the lid on. The tail section broke off, the cockpit broke off and buckled underneath, and both wings broke off. The fuselage turned sideways, and everybody was hurled forward.” Reports that Ronnie was decapitated spread in later versions were untrue. According to Powell, “[Ronnie] was catapulted at about 80 mph into a tree, Died instantly of a massive head injury. There was not another scratch on him, except a small bruise the size of a quarter at his temple.” Injured drummer Pyle and crew members Ken Peden and Mark Frank made the painful slog to a farmhouse three quarters of a mile away to summon help.
The force of nature that was Ronnie Van Zant in life seems to have carried over with him in the afterlife. Stories about him seemingly sending messages from beyond the grave, many involving birds, are relayed by those that knew him best. Ronnie’s younger brother Johnny refused to sing the words to Free Bird a full three years after he began performing with the Skynyrd survivors. He finally agreed to sing the song in 1990 after band members found an injured bird hopping around on one foot in a parking lot. It turned out the bird had one wing entangled in a length of string and when they untangled it, the bird flew away. Johnny interpreted freeing this bird as a sign that they should also go on, thus he agreed to start singing Free Bird.
Allen Collins had a different kind of bird encounter when he tried to visit Ronnie’s grave. He wanted to see the Charlie Daniels poem Ronnie’s wife had carved into a wooden bench at the gravesite. Each time he tried to approach it, a mocking bird would dive-bomb him and peck at his head. Collins finally retreated and told the band’s then road manager, Gene Odom, “I think it’s Ronnie telling me not to worry about him and don’t come back here with your head in your hands. Go back and set the stage on fire.” It could also have been a territorial mockingbird protecting its nest, but who am I to tell Allen Collins how to interpret the event. He was there, I was not and as with many ‘signs’, the message is in the mind of the receiver.
Guitarist Gary Rossington became the de facto leader of Skynyrd after the band was healed enough to reform. He confirmed the fact in a phone interview when he told Uhelski, “You know how they always say, ‘Who died and made you boss?’ Well, Ronnie did.” Still, Rossignton feels Ronnie spoke to him from the astral plane to help him make the band stronger. Gary says Van Zant even told him to fire two of the band’s guitarists from beyond the grave: “It’s hard but you gotta do what you got to do. Especially if it’s a guy like Mike Estes and Ed King (who was in his second stint with the band that lasted from 1987 to 1996 when he was let go again). They were my brothers, and we were real close. Mikey and me were like best friends. Then I had to fire him. He didn’t do nothing wrong. Nothing happened, It’s just that I had this vision, this dream and it’s almost like I felt it from Ronnie and Allen. They were saying ‘Hey, go for it, Do itl Just do it.’ So, I did it and it worked out. Rickey Medlocke and Huey Thommason are great. The band has a whole new spark and flame.” Gary made these last comments in 1997; Thommason has since died, passing away in 2007.
In a less mystical matter, there has been a tendency for some misguided individuals to vandalize the graves of both Van Zant and Steven Gaines. The band used to make sure flowers were sent to their graves on the anniversary of their death but Judy Van Zant finally asked them to stop – ‘fans’ would simply steal them as soon as they were put in place. Van Zant had been intered in a mausoleum at his wife’s request and twice in the early 2000s, ghoulish hooligans had managed to drag his casket out of its place in the vault. They also managed to tip over the urn containing Gaine’s ashes located not more than 30 feet from Ronnie’s original resting place. In the second instance, the vandals’ aim was to see if the legend that Ronnie was buried in a black Neil Young T-Shirt was true (Judy Van Zant has said he was laid to rest in a suit). After the last incident, the remains were moved to an unmarked grave and the mausoleum was left behind as a memorial that fans can still visit. Residents in the Jacksonville suburb of Doctor’s Inlet don’t need to know where his body is resting; they claim they often see Ronnie heading toward his favorite fishing hole behind his old house, trusty fishpole in hand.
Fans will do odd things in their grief, but in the case of Skynyrd, some people (I can’t blame this on their true fans) went beyond the pale. By dawn on the day of the crash, it is estimated some 3,000 people had descended on the scene of the accident, but not to be of any help to the rescuers. Road manager Craig Reed remembered, “They were human vultures. All the money that was in my pockets was taken. I had a couple of grand in my pockets from the poker game we were playing before the crash. All my T-shirts were taken, all my jewelry, my silver bullets from Gimme Back My Bullets, all gone. They went through our suitcases. They took anything that said ‘Lynyrd Skynyrd’ on it. They even went out and took the side of the plane that was painted ‘Lynyrd Skynyrd’.” It is horrifying to think this mob took items from the living and the dead and essentially picked the plane’s clean like a Thanksgiving Day turkey carcass. This part of the story isn’t at all ‘mystical’, just rather sickening by any standard one could compare it to.
In light of Allen Collin’s comments to Jo Jo Billingsley about flames coming from the wing, a mechanic had been dispatched to Greenville to work on the plane before they departed for Baton Rouge. Ironically, the crash was not caused by engine failure but by a series of errors. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded the crash was caused by, “Fuel exhaustion and total loss of power to both engines due to crew inattention to fuel supply. Contributing to the fuel exhaustion were inadequate flight planning and an engine malfunction of undetermined nature in the right engine that resulted in ‘torching’ and higher-than-normal fuel consumption.” When the right engine shut down, the pilots were on the radio searching for vectors to the closest airport. When the left engine also shut down due to lack of fuel, they were doomed to fall short of making it to the alternate airport emergency landing they were trying to achieve.
The band’s label, MCA, replaced the cover of the album released shortly before the fatal crash. The original cover of Street Survivors showed the band members surrounded by flames.
That in itself seemed to be a cruel portent of things to come. RIP to those who perished in this tragic crash 45 years ago and peace to those who survived.
Top Piece Video: Prime Lynyrd Skynyrd at Knewworth in 1976, a year before their fateful plane crash.