What Only Lynyrd Skynyrd Superfans Knew About Gary Rossington

It takes a very special band to survive years of drug and alcohol problems, near-tragic automobile accidents, a plane crash that took the lives of three members, and numerous violent incidents between bandmates. But nearly six decades removed from their formation and with another Van Zant (the late Ronnie's younger brother Johnny) having long since taken over as frontman, Lynyrd Skynyrd is, technically, still going strong. And while the Van Zant brothers were/are indeed very distinctive vocalists, there's arguably one other member that comes to mind when it comes to that Southern rock band (sort-of) named after their long hair-hating P.E. teacher

Unlike all of his bandmates in the 2020s, the late guitarist Gary Rossington, who died in March 2023, was with Skynyrd from the very beginning, back when they were a high school garage band from Jacksonville, Florida, that initially went by all sorts of different names, including My Backyard, the Noble Five, and the One Percent (via Lynyrd Skynyrd History). You probably knew him as one of the three — count that, three — guitarists showing their stuff on the nine-minute epic "Free Bird" and other classic hits. And you may have recognized him as the guy with the omnipresent fedora, which he wore in just about every public appearance since Skynyrd's 1987 reunion. But there's more to Rossington than iconic guitar solos and a cool hat, as the axeman had quite an interesting, if slightly checkered life story.

Rossington originally wanted to be a New York Yankee

Die-hard Lynyrd Skynyrd fans are probably aware that the band got to know each other as kids on the baseball field. However, it seems that one of those future Southern rock legends had bigger baseball dreams than most of his would-be bandmates. According to Lynyrd Skynyrd History, Gary Rossington wanted to make it to the major leagues and play for his favorite team, the New York Yankees. "I was a fat little kid – second baseman," he recalled. "I was a real good ball player."

Although Rossington was initially determined to play in the MLB, it was Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant who was the better player. He claimed in 1975 that he could have potentially played Double-A baseball after a standout American Legion career, where he had a "good arm" and once had the league's highest batting average while playing center field. Talking about Rossington's future prospects at that time, he said that the guitarist was a "good" player, but stressed that his priorities changed when he realized he liked rock 'n' roll — particularly the Rolling Stones — more than he liked baseball.

Long hair, school suspensions, and an unlikely ally

As established above, young Gary Rossington had a mostly normal childhood, but during his high school years in Jacksonville (via Lynyrd Skynyrd History), he and his bandmates frequently incurred the wrath of the man who would later inspire their band name — physical education teacher Leonard Skinner. It was his job to enforce Robert E. Lee High School's haircut policy, and after Rossington ran afoul of that policy one time too many, he found himself suspended.

Fortunately, Rossington had someone rather unexpected backing him up in Lacy Van Zant (pictured above on the extreme right), father of past and present Skynyrd vocalists Ronnie and Johnny and normally not a fan of long hair on boys, according to The New York Times. Shortly after Rossington was suspended from school, the elder Van Zant spoke to the assistant principal, explaining that Gary was being raised by a widowed mother and that she was relying on her son's musical endeavors to pay the bills. Long hair, he argued, was required on the job, and Gary was, even at his young age, technically a working man.

Despite Lacy's efforts to stick up for Rossington, the guitarist ultimately decided to drop out of school after Skinner, true to form, kept getting on his case for the length of his hair. 

He partly inspired one of Skynyrd's darkest songs

Shortly after the October 1977 plane crash that killed six people, including Lynyrd Skynyrd members Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, and Cassie Gaines, the band released "That Smell," a track off their final pre-crash album, "Street Survivors." The song's lyrics, which include the line "the smell of death surrounds you," make its topic painfully clear to listeners, and it was a pair of car accidents the year prior, one of which involved Gary Rossington, that inspired Van Zant to write the dark and foreboding tune.

As explained by Ultimate Classic Rock, Rossington and his fellow guitarist Allen Collins were both drinking at the time of their respective accidents, and while Collins escaped relatively unscathed, Rossington was hospitalized after he rammed his car into a tree, having fallen asleep at the wheel. Van Zant was so upset with the axemen that he fined them $5,000 each for what he saw as irresponsible, dangerous behavior.

"We're glad [Rossington's] gonna make it, he's tremendously lucky to be alive, but it was his fault," Van Zant fumed. "He passed out at the wheel of his brand new Ford Torino, with his foot on the gas. He knocked down a telephone pole, split an oak tree and did $7,000 worth of damage to a house. That's being just plain stupid. I told him that on his hospital bed."

Indeed, "That Smell" didn't waste any time in referencing Rossington's crash, as the first few lines of the song directly pertained to the accident — "Whiskey bottles and brand new cars / Oak tree, you're in my way."

Rossington's tribute to a pair of fallen rock legends

After Lynyrd Skynyrd disbanded in the aftermath of the aforementioned plane crash, the band's surviving members soldiered on with new musical projects. For Gary Rossington and Allen Collins, this meant forming the Rossington Collins Band. The new group also featured Skynyrd alumni Billy Powell on keyboards and Leon Wilkeson on bass, while Rossington's future wife, Dale Krantz, handled lead vocals (via AllMusic). The goal was to avoid any comparisons to Skynyrd, but with four ex-members and a very similar sound, it was pretty much easier said than done, even with a female vocalist.

Although the song isn't as well-known these days as other tunes that were written to honor John Lennon, the Rossington Collins Band's "Tashauna," from their 1981 album "This is the Way," paid tribute to the late rock icon shortly after he was murdered on December 8, 1980. The ex-Beatle is, in fact, mentioned by name toward the end of the song, as Krantz asks, "Dear Sir Lennon, where are you now?" 

According to Ultimate Classic Rock, "Tashauna" also served as a eulogy of sorts to Ronnie Van Zant, as his death (and the manner in which he died) was also referenced at the very start – "He called himself a free bird / they pulled him from the sky."

Rossington claimed he had heart attacks onstage

With the death of original bassist Larry Junstrom in 2019 (via Rolling Stone), Gary Rossington was left as the only surviving founding member of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Sadly, after reports of poor health in recent years, as reported by the Tampa Bay Times in 2018, Rossington died in March 2023. The guitarist had previously undergone quintuple-bypass heart surgery and was taking several nitroglycerine pills "to stay alive." He also told the Tampa Bay Times that he "had heart attacks onstage a lot," and while he didn't go into much detail about these medical events, Country Rebel reported that Rossington did suffer a heart attack at home on October 8, 2015.

"Gary's a tough guy," vocalist Johnny Van Zant once said in a statement. "He's lived through plane crashes, automobile wrecks, and everything else. I'm just glad that God works in mysterious ways. He was at home in Atlanta, and not on the road where things could have been worse."

Given his health issues, Rossington told the Tampa Bay Times that Lynyrd Skynyrd's farewell tour, which launched in April 2018, was known as such because he wasn't sure how much longer he had to live. "I don't want to just say, 'Well, we're never going to end,' because I don't want to die and then it end that way," he continued. "Which is a heavy thing to talk about, but I have to."

Ronnie Van Zant taught him how to drive

Gary Rossington's father was killed during the Korean War, according to Rock & Roll Globe. To him, Ronnie Van Zant, several years his senior, took the place of a paternal authority figure, a role Van Zant filled for other members of Lynyrd Skynyrd over the years. Rossington and his fellow guitarist Allen Collins got their first lessons in driving from Van Zant, and their first lessons in courting girls. And when they got together to form what became Lynyrd Skynyrd, Van Zant was very much the group leader.

But Van Zant was an often stern sort of father figure. He was a perfectionist when it came to music and drilled his players in long, uncomfortable rehearsals in the Florida swamps. When Lynyrd Skynyrd hit the big time, Van Zant was no more responsible than his younger friends when it came to drugs and alcohol. In one booze-fueled rager in Hamburg, Van Zant slashed up Rossington's hands with a glass bottle and broke his own hand on something or someone, as described in an article in SPIN magazine. Discipline for other members' antics could sometimes get physical.

By 1976, the year before his death, Van Zant seemed to mellow somewhat. He told the Los Angeles Times (via The Uncool) that true fatherhood made him want to have more of a plan for the future. Through the same interview, Van Zant passed on paternal advice and caution to Rossington and Collins. "Those boys will pay for it," he said of the car crashes both were involved in that year.

Gary Rossington struggled with drug addiction

Lynyrd Skynyrd enjoyed the excesses of the rock star life. From frontman Ronnie Van Zant down, the band indulged in drugs, alcohol, and wild behavior. For Gary Rossington, the effects of such behavior on his life and career became apparent by 1976. Heavily into drinking and Quaaludes, Rossington got into a serious car accident that year in his home of Jacksonville, Florida, according to American Songwriter. His recovery threw off Lynyrd Skynyrd's touring schedule, and it cost him $5,000 — the amount the band felt he owed them for the lost gigs. Rossington's condition was unsettling enough for Van Zant and Ed King that they wrote "That Smell" about his bad habits.

His drug use persisted even after the 1977 plane crash that cost Van Zant and other members of the band their lives. Seriously injured himself in the crash, Rossington developed an addiction to painkillers. He also used a lot of cocaine, both while playing in the Rossington-Collins Band and the reformed Lynyrd Skynyrd of the 1980s. Ostensibly the leader of the revived band, Rossington's drug use left him ill-suited to the task. According to SPIN magazine, Ed King did a lot of the work running Lynyrd Skynyrd while he played with them, but he told the magazine, "The band doesn't have a leader. It hasn't had one since Ronnie died. That's the problem."

Rossington entered rehab in 1996, around the time King left. He stayed sober through the rest of his time with Lynyrd Skynyrd.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

He named his guitar Bernice

A guitarist since he was a teenager, Gary Rossington went through a lot of guitars. Over the years, he showed and expressed a certain amount of sentimentality over them. He told Music Radar in 2017 that he still had the first guitar he ever owned, a Sears and Roebuck Silverstone that he and his mother split the cost for. But by 1971, his instrument of choice was a 1959 Les Paul. This was the guitar he named Bernice.

Rossington's generation was when the image of the lone guitar player as a rock and roll idol was at its peak, and many musicians of the era put great pride in their instruments. Rossington called Bernice his favorite guitar, and claimed to have written all of his contributions to Lynyrd Skynyrd's pre-1977 catalogue with it. He also claimed to have made exclusive use of Bernice in tours up until that time, although he was filmed using other instruments.

Bernice found a home with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rossington told Music Radar it had been in their collection for eight years at the time of their interview. "I kind of miss having that guitar around," he said. "I miss Bernice."