20th October 1977, is the darkest day in Southern rock. That’s the day when the genres biggest crossover act, one that found global success without compromising its southern roots, was fractured beyond repair. That’s the day when Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s plane carrying them from South Carolina to Louisiana crashed in a heavily wooded and swampy forest, five miles away from the nearest town. Of the 26 people on board, Skynyrd members Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines, along with backing vocalist Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, and the two pilots, died upon impact.
The crash had brought a rising career to a sudden and tragic end. In a dense scene of bands, including acolytes like Molly Hatchet and 38 Special (featuring Van Zandt’s brother Donnie), Lynyrd Skynyrd distinguished themselves as the biggest and most proficient of the pack. Complete with a three-guitar attack and musicianship that was well beyond the simple blues-based boogie of their peers, Skynyrd brought arranged solos and pop melodies to their southern fried charm, creating some of the most well-remembered classic rock of the ’70s, including ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, ‘Tuesday’s Gone’, and ‘Free Bird’.
To make matters even more devastating, 1977 found the band on the upswing once more. With guitarist Ed King having left in 1975, the band sought to reignite their three-guitar signature sound, with Cassie Gaines recommending her brother Steve. Steve Gaines wasn’t just a guitarist, but also a talented singer and songwriter, bringing new life to a band that largely depended on Van Zandt’s direction up to that point. Gaines contributed lead vocals to the song ‘Ain’t No Good Life’ and dueted with Van Zandt on ‘You Got That Right’ on the original incarnation’s final album, Street Survivors.
Despite the spark of life that Gaines brought to the band, a streak of palpable danger had always followed, rooted mainly in their issues with substance abuse. Van Zandt was a heavy drinker, while guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins were both in separate car crashes the year before. Rossington’s was specifically due to his cocaine use, and Van Zandt decided to write a song that eerily foretold the consequences that came with excess, ‘That Smell’.
With a new album in the can, Lynyrd Skynyrd departed for their Street Survivors Tour that brought them to Europe and, for the first time, Japan. A southern rock band having enough success to carry them all the way over to Asia was a big deal, and indeed Skynyrd were riding a wave. Always a hard-touring act, Skynyrd spent most of 1977 on the road, solidifying their place as a crossover stadium act. Whereas the band had previously opened for The Who as an upstart act, they were now playing those same venues as headliners.
When the band pulled into Greenville, South Carolina on 19th October 1977, it was after a three-night run in their native Florida. With Street Survivors having come out just two days before the Greenville show, the band rechristened the new leg of the tour with an ominous name: “Tour of the Survivors”. The band had perfected their show by this point, a twelve-song hour and a half run through their entire history that touched on both classic and new songs.
Opening with the song that recounts their autobiographic record signing, ‘Workin’ For MCA’, the band blast through stalwart setlist additions like ‘Saturday Night Special’ and ‘Whiskey Rock-a-Roller’ before stopping off for ‘That Smell’. Despite its warning, there was no dark cloud hanging above the band that night. Gaines steps up for a solo turn on ‘Ain’t No Good Life’ before the band launches into one of their original hits, ‘Gimme Three Steps’. Two covers followed, including Jimmie Rodgers’ ‘Blue yodel No. 1 (T for Texas)’ and JJ Cale’s ‘Call Me the Breeze’, a showcase for Billy Powell’s unmatched classical-meets-boogie-woogie piano playing.
For the finale, Lynyrd Skynyrd busted out their two most legendary compositions: ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and ‘Free Bird’, the latter of which took off in its extended live form, starting slow before rising and rising to a climax, nearly 20 minutes of guitar solos and ecstatic release. ‘Free Bird’ was always impossible to top, and once the band hit those jubilant final notes, they left the stage for the final time.
Except it wasn’t really the final time. Lynyrd Skynyrd would reform in the late ’80s with Ronnie’s younger brother Johnny on vocals. Reassembled lineups have continued to hit the road, but each passing year brought a new blow to the central lineup. Classic members like King, Collins, Powell, drummer Bob Burns, and bassist Leon Wilkeson have all passed, leaving just Rossington to guide the good ship Lynyrd Skynyrd on its seemingly never-ending southern rock journey. The original lineup is all but gone, but Lynyrd Skynyrd still survives. In the end, it’s all they could do.
No audio has been unearthed of the final show, but video of the band’s show in Asbury Park, New Jersey just a week before has been preserved. You can view the performance down below.
Lynyrd Skynyrd October 19, 1977, Greenville, South Carolina setlist:
- ‘Workin’ for MCA’
- ‘I Ain’t the One’
- ‘Saturday Night Special’
- ‘Whiskey Rock-a-Roller’
- ‘That Smell’
- ‘Travelin’ Man’
- ‘Ain’t No Good Life’
- ‘Gimme Three Steps’
- ‘Call Me the Breeze’ (JJ Cale cover)
- ‘Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas)’ (Jimmie Rodgers cover)
- ‘Sweet Home Alabama’
- ‘Free Bird’