Sometimes when history is being made, the world tunes in with wide-eyed anticipation. Other times, it just kind of happens when no one is looking. That's how it was with Ronnie VanZant and a group of young guys he pulled together in the '60s who came to be known as Lynyrd Skynyrd.
VanZant was born on January 15, 1948, in Jacksonville, FL, and was raised on the rough Westside of the city where money was often scarce and street fights were the norm instead of the exception. His father, Lacey -- don't let the name fool you -- was a truck driver who had spent time working as a prizefighter when he was younger. He made sure his boys could fight well enough to hold their own. Ronnie VanZant was a great baseball player and dreamed of going pro one day, but it seemed his main love was music. He would travel with his father sometimes, listening to the truck radio the whole way. Fortunately, there was a piano and a guitar in the young VanZant's home that he could practice on. Many artists influenced him during those early years, one of them being country singer Merle Haggard. There would be other noteworthy influences later, like the Rolling Stones and Free.
When VanZant was 16, he became the lead singer for a group called Us. Things didn't work out as well as he had hoped, so he put together a band of his own, My Backyard, with Bob Burns, Gary Rossington, Allen Collins, and Larry Junstrom. The guys, some as young as 13, practiced every second that was possible. After a while there was a name change to the Noble Five and the group began landing gigs at local dances, the pay usually being gas money and drinks. The band gained a lot of notice right away -- all from neighbors who couldn't stand the noise.
The neighbors were given a break when the Noble Five found an empty house out of town on a huge farm. The guys nicked named the little place Hell House. It was small and hot and old, but it was isolated and they could play as loud and as long as they wanted. All of the practice paid off. Working under different names, like One Percent and Conqueror Worm, the fivesome performed in clubs. It was through their tongue-in-cheek name game that the band used Lynyrd Skynyrd for the first time. The name stuck.
By 1970, Lynyrd Skynyrd had recorded a demo and was even offered a contract by the Capricorn Records label. VanZant turned it down. For the next three years the band performed at bars, traveling hours from gig to gig. The group's sound matured along the way, the equipment improved, and the guys became masters at achieving the album rock and Southern rock sound and rhythm they wanted.
In 1973 Skynyrd was offered another record deal, this time from MCA. The guys signed, and VanZant was on his way into rock history.
The band toured worldwide over the next four years, and recorded albums that went gold and platinum. The little boy, who had once dreamed of going pro in baseball, had hit a home run with his music. But fate threw a terrible curve ball to VanZant and Lynyrd Skynyrd fans. In 1977, the tour plane the group was traveling in crashed. Lead singer Ronnie VanZant, only 29 at the time, was killed in the crash, along with guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister Cassie Gaines, and the group's road manager Dean Kilpatrick.