Lynyrd Skynyrd bassist Leon Wilkeson was able to dodge death two times (while on tour with the band), but proved not as lucky a third time. Born on April 2, 1952 in Jacksonville, FL, Leon Russell Wilkeson became a major Beatles fan just as he grew into his teens, as he sought to learn the bass in order to copy his favorite member of the Fab Four, Paul McCartney. Dropping out of his school band to focus on learning the bass, it wasn't long before a 14-year-old Wilkeson was approached by a fellow student, who told him that her brother was searching for a bassist in his band. The girl's brother turned out to be Ronnie VanZant, and soon after, Wilkeson signed on with VanZant's local group, the Collegiates. But due to plummeting school grades, Wilkeson had to drop out of the group at the behest of his parents. It wasn't long, however, before Wilkeson found himself in another local group, the King James Version, as he began to study the "lead bass style" of such accomplished players as Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, Jefferson Airplane's Jack Cassidy, the Animals' Chas Chandler, and the Allman Brothers' Berry Oakley. By the early '70s, word was out that Wilkeson was fast becoming on of Jacksonville's top bassists, and when old friend VanZant's new band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, found themselves without a bassist, Wilkeson got the gig.
Skynyrd had just landed a recording deal with MCA, which should have signaled smooth sailing for the group. But this didn't prove to be the case, as Wilkeson began to get cold feet just prior to recording sessions getting underway for their debut album, as he felt that he was still too young and not ready for life on the road. The bassist surprised his bandmates by bowing out and taking a job stocking ice cream at Farm Best Dairy Products. Former Strawberry Alarm Clock member Ed King subbed for Wilkeson during the recording of Skynyrd's 1973 debut, Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd, but just as sessions wrapped up, Wilkeson began having second thoughts about leaving the group. After discussing the matter with VanZant, Wilkeson was welcomed back into Lynyrd Skynyrd. With the group's outlaw/party hearty image and tough Southern rock style, Skynyrd quickly became one of the '70s top bands -- due to solid touring and such hit albums as 1974's Second Helping, 1975's Nuthin' Fancy, 1976's Gimme Back My Bullets, and One More from the Road, plus 1977's Street Survivors (in addition to such hit singles as "Free Bird" and "Sweet Home Alabama"). It was also during this classic era of the group that Wilkeson picked up a gimmick of wearing colorful hats while on-stage, which soon became his trademark of sorts.
With Skynyrd coasting along with hit albums and sold-out tours (as well as leading a Southern rock "movement," with the emergence of such similarly styled acts as .38 Special, Blackfoot, Molly Hatchet, the Outlaws, etc.), it appeared as though things would only get better for the band. But tragedy was lurking just around the corner. The group and its entourage were involved in a horrible plane crash on October 20, 1977 outside of Gillsburg, MS, which left several bandmembers dead (including VanZant) and the rest badly injured. Understandably grief-stricken, Wilkeson and the other survivors bowed out of the spotlight for the remainder of the '70s, as they attempted to put the broken pieces of their shattered lives back together (although Wilkeson did manage to lay down bass parts for a release by the project Alias -- 1979's Contraband). The dawn of the '80s appeared to bring great promise for most of the surviving bandmembers, as a new group formed, the Rossington-Collins Band, consisting of Wilkeson, in addition to such ex-Skynyrd members as guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins, plus keyboardist Bill Powell.
Skynyrd received another burst of renewed interest during the late '90s, due to an episode of VH1's Behind the Music that explored the group's turbulent career. But yet again, just as it appeared it would be smooth sailing here on out for Wilkeson and his bandmates, tragedy struck. The bassist was found dead on July 27, 2001 in a Ponte Vedra Beach, FL hotel room. Although he'd allegedly been suffering from chronic liver and lung disease, the cause of death was deemed from natural causes. Wilkeson's death also put the group in a strange position, since an agreement with Ronnie VanZant's widow stated that at least three of Skynyrd's longtime members would have to be in attendance for it to be able to tour and issue albums under the name "Lynyrd Skynyrd." The group continued on anyway, with replacement bassist Ean Evans taking Wilkeson's longtime spot.