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Weekend Intermission: Greatest Songs Ever (5) – Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird

Weekend Intermission is our regular feature where we look at an artist or band not from the Nordic countries, just to mix things up a bit.

The greatest ever guitar riff and solo? Well it has to be up there for sure, and it did make #3 on Guitar World’s ‘100 Greatest Guitar Solos.’ And that’s arguably two short of where it should be.

It is easy to forget that ‘Free Bird’ is a ballad, though evidently a power ballad, once the frenetic solo(s) gets under way. It might as well be two distinct songs at opposite ends of the musical spectrum, stitched together.

‘Free Bird’ (also known as ‘Freebird’), which was released as a single in November 1974 and which featured on the band’s 1973 debut album, didn’t actually do too well in the charts, peaking only at #19 in the Billboard Hot 100. On the other hand it has been described as the most requested song in the history of rock music. And there can’t be a decent jukebox anywhere that doesn’t feature it.

It continues to be used as a finale by today’s version of Lynyrd Skynyrd at live shows and remains their longest song, stretching to 15 minutes. It is considered their signature song too, although some purists might argue in favour of ‘Sweet Home Alabama’.

The current band bears no resemblance to the original one, three members having been killed in a 1977 air crash, right at the peak of their success and as of March 2023 with the death of Gary Rossington all five of the original members are no longer with us.

There’s an interesting video about the crash and what happened afterwards:

The band still performs though; including a New Year’s eve bash a couple of weeks ago in Nashville.

Lynyrd Skynyrd was re-formed after the air crash in 1987 with Johnny Van Zant, the younger brother of lead singer and founder Ronnie Van Zant as vocalist. Other members include co-founding member Rossington, guitarist Rickey Medlocke, and drummer Michael Cartellone.

Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of the main proponents of Southern Rock, a genre of Americana that mixed rock and roll, country music and blues and focused mainly on electric guitar and vocals. Others included the Allman Brothers Band, which also employed long guitar based jams. Another advocate of Southern Rock was Tom Petty who, like Lynyrd Skynyrd, hailed from Florida, not Alabama or Louisiana as some people think in their case.

There is a feeling in some quarters that Southern Rock’s contribution to the US music scene has been minimalised in recent years.

As often there are some interesting stories behind the writing and recording of the song. The guitar solos were added originally just to give Ronnie Van Zant a chance to rest, as the band was playing several sets per night at clubs at the time. Soon afterward, the band learned piano-playing roadie Billie Powell had written an intro to the song; upon hearing it, they included it as the finishing touch and had him formally join as their keyboardist.

Founding member Allen Collins’ girlfriend, Kathy, whom he later married, asked him “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?” Collins mentally noted the question and it eventually became the opening line of ‘Free Bird.

Following the plane crash all the songs played by surviving members were performed as instrumentals. When ‘Free Bird’ came up, a solitary microphone with a single spotlight would be positioned at centre stage while the band played the instrumental version. This tradition lasted until 1989, when an audience coerced Rossington to urge Van Zant to sing the song for the first time—something he had vowed never to do on stage. The current version has a shortened solo similar to the original studio version.

In more recent tours, since the song returned to the set list, it became common for the band to close concerts with it, with photos and film of the former band members being shown on a screen behind them, while Van Zant points his microphone to the sky as a tribute.

Lynyrd Skynyrd was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March, 2006.

The band was actually heavier than ‘Free Bird’ and ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ suggest but those are the songs they will be remembered for.

Maybe you aren’t a rocker and never really took to the song, or to Lynyrd Skynyrd or even to Southern Rock generally. I’d anticipated that and present you here with a version, from 1977 in Oakland, California, which can’t have been long before the air crash, and one that will just blow your socks off.

Held beneath a Confederate flag, the Stars and Bars, symbolic of a rebellious Southern heritage, it’s like an orchestra of guitars.

And notice the reaction of the crowd. Dedicated music fans, not glampers. They knew how to celebrate their icons in those days. Living the moment, not trying to film it.

Scotty, beam me back to the 70s!

You can still find them on social media:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/LynyrdSkynyrd

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