Today (October 20) marks one of rock's saddest anniversaries; it was on this day in 1977 that Lynyrd Skynyrd's plane crashed in a swamp near Gillsburg, Miss., on the way to a show in Baton Rouge, La.
The tragedy took the lives of Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and backup singer Cassie Gaines, his sister, tour manager Dean Kilpatrick and the plane's two pilots, while the other passengers all suffered severe injuries.
The crash sidelined Skynyrd for a full decade until surviving members regrouped with Van Zant's younger brother Johnnie taking his place, and now only guitarist Gary Rossington remains alive and with the band. Rossington tells us that he considers it his ongoing mission to keep both the music and his friends' memories alive:
"I'm so blessed to still be here and be around. I thank God every day I get up and every night for all he's blessed me with, that I could still be here enjoying this and seeing the people love the music. Unfortunately Ronnie and Allen (Collins) and them, they never, and Steve (Gaines), just a lot of them. Bob Burns recently died and they're no longer here and they...never got the chance to see that people really liked our music. We had a dream to make it in a band and try to be good and it came true, but right when it was happening the plane crashed, so they never got to see that 'Free Bird' was a classic song. It wasn't classic back then; it was still new, and 'Alabama' was played so much. We thought it would be, 'Alright, a song for that year,' But never dreamed it would be played 40 years later. It's unbelievable. It's just a big blessing, and I thank God I'm here to see it."
Rossington, however, is recovering from a recent heart attack that forced Skynyrd to cancel two shows last weekend; he's due in surgery next week to have another stent put in his chest. Nevertheless, Skynyrd plans to play at the Alabama National Fair on November 7 in Montgomery.
Gary Graff is an award-winning music journalist who not only covers music but has written books on Bob Seger, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen.