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30 Years Ago: Lynyrd Skynyrd Guitarist Allen Collins Paralyzed in Car Accident

Michael Ochs Archives, Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

When Lynyrd Skynyrd reunited in the ’80s, it was largely through the efforts of co-founding guitarist Allen Collins — but by the time the group took the stage again, Collins’ career as a performing musician was over.

Like the rest of his former bandmates, Collins struggled to find a way forward after the 1977 plane crash that killed Skynyrd singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, vocalist Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray. And although he toured and recorded steadily after recovering from the injuries he sustained in the crash, tragedy continued to shadow his path.

In 1979, Collins teamed up with fellow Skynyrd vets Gary Rossington, Billy Powell and Leon Wilkeson to form the Rossington-Collins Band, and the new group’s first album, Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere, debuted to strong sales in 1980. But just as they were preparing for their first tour in support of the album, Collins’ wife died suddenly, the result of a miscarriage-related hemorrhage — and Collins, gutted by yet another devastating personal loss, entered a losing battle with addiction that would haunt him for years.

The Rossington-Collins Band split after releasing one more album, but Powell and Wilkeson stuck around as Collins shuffled the deck chairs and re-emerged with the Allen Collins Band. Eventually warming up to the idea of reuniting the rest of the Skynyrd survivors, Collins set about trying to assemble a band that, for a time, was referred to as Lynyrd Skynyrd II — and even briefly entertained the idea of enlisting Paul Rodgers to handle lead vocals.

Ultimately, Van Zant’s younger brother Johnny was recruited to take the mic for the reconstituted Skynyrd, and the group was on its way toward a 1987 reunion tour when disaster struck again. On Jan. 29, 1986, Collins was at the wheel during a one-car accident in South Jacksonville, Fla., that resulted in the death of his girlfriend and left him paralyzed from the waist down. According to a police spokesperson, his license had already been suspended “numerous times” for driving under the influence; after the crash, it was revoked permanently.

Collins pleaded no contest to charges of DUI manslaughter. Although he was no longer able to play guitar, he still served as the musical director for Skynyrd’s 1987 tour — and he used that position to pay back a small portion of the loss he’d incurred, wheeling himself out onstage prior to every show and speaking to the audience about what he’d done and what it had cost. The following year, he founded Roll For Rock Wheelchair Events and Benefit Concerts, an organization dedicated to raising awareness and providing opportunities for people with spinal cord injuries or related physical disabilities.

Sadly, though Collins managed to turn his life around, his weakened condition after the accident contributed to a variety of health issues, and on Jan. 23, 1990, he passed away after a struggle with chronic pneumonia. Only 37 at the time of his death, Collins was buried next to his wife.

Lynyrd Skynyrd have remained together since that 1987 reunion, but their road has remained a bumpy one, with a number of band members (including Wilkeson, Powell and drummer Artimus Pyle) facing legal issues at various points along the way. Collins’ Roll for Rock, meanwhile, remains active; to learn more or to help support the cause, visit its official Facebook page.

See Lynyrd Skynyrd and Other Rockers in the Top 100 Albums of the ’70s

Next: Top 10 Lynyrd Skynyrd Songs

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