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Lynyrd Skynyrd's 'Free Bird' -- Story Behind The Most Epic Southern Rock Anthem

Music | June 3, 2021

The ridiculously long song that became an anthem. (amazon)

Many people prefer a short and sweet approach to music. The band, Lynyrd Skynyrd and their all-time classic “Free Bird” definitely don’t agree with those people. Along with “Stairway to Heaven,” Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” battled for the coveted crown of most popular rock song that also lasted a near eternity in music terms. Funnily enough, “Free Bird’s” genesis came from just trying to fill breaks in clubs and give lead singer Ronnie Van Zant a little rest. According to Gary Rossington:

“When we started playing it in clubs, it was just the slow part. Ronnie said, ‘Why don’t you do something at the end of that so I can take a break for a few minutes.’ I came up with those three chords at the end and Allen and I traded solos and Ronnie kept telling us to make it longer; we were playing three or four sets a night, and he was looking to fill it up and get a break.” Who would have guessed that weariness could birth one of the legendary rock anthems?

Lynyrd Skynyrd. (Hollywoodreporter)

Years In the Making

As Gary Rossington remembers, ”Allen (Collins) had the chords for the beginning, for two full years and we kept asking Ronnie to write something and he kept telling us to forget it; he said there were too many chords so he couldn’t find a melody. He thought that he had to change with every chord. Then one day we were at rehearsal and Allen started playing those chords again, and Ronnie said, ‘Those are pretty. Play them again.’ He said, ‘I got it,’ and wrote the lyrics in three or four minutes—the whole damned thing!”

Letting that "Free Bird" loose. (IloveClassicRock)

A Roadie Revelation

As the Skynyrd masterpiece slowly took shape over the years, the final piece of the puzzle popped into place thanks to one of their roadies, Billy Powell. “One of our roadies told us we should check out this piano part that another roadie had written as an intro for the song,” said Rossington. “We did–and Billy went from being a roadie to a member right then.”

Starting the song as a ballad gave the guitars more impact when they did finally enter the musical fray. Al Kooper convinced the band that using an organ instead of a piano stepped it up a notch. For his contribution’s he was credited as "Roosevelt Gook" on the album. Kooper obviously knew his stuff as he also wrote the organ section for Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”

The surviving members of Lynyrd Skynyrd. (NBCNews)

9 Minutes?!?

Funnily enough, no one, not even the band ever expected “Free Bird” to become a hit due to its near comical length. “MCA said we couldn’t put a 10-minute song on an album, because nobody would play it,” recalled guitarist Ed King. “Of course, that was the song everyone gravitated towards!”

The opening lines, “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?" came from Collins’ girlfriend who actually asked him that during one of their fights. The album version of “Free Bird” runs 9:08 with the last words coming at 4:55, “fly high, free bird, yeah." After that, the band’s three guitarists swamped solos to the delight of many crowds. Lynyrd Skynyrd famously closed every concert with this rock anthem.

The crash that killed three members of Lynyrd Skynyrd. (pinterest)

Tragedy Strikes Lynyrd Skynyrd

On October 20, 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane crashed in the swamps of Mississippi, killing Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and singer Cassie Gaines. 20 other people survived the crash. After the crash, Ronnie’s brother, Johnny took his place. Naturally, the song was very emotional for Johnny. For years the band played it as an instrumental and the crowds would fill in the words. The radio edit was cut to 4:41 with the guitar solos limited to just a minute. Despite this understandable edit, people always preferred the full version of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.”

Tags: 1970s Music | Lynyrd Skynyrd

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!