Lynyrd Skynyrd Guitarist Gary Rossington Dead at 71
"It is with our deepest sympathy and sadness that we have to advise, that we lost our brother, friend, family member, songwriter and guitarist, Gary Rossington, today," the band wrote in an official statement. "Gary is now with his Skynyrd brothers and family in heaven and playing it pretty, like he always does. Please keep Dale, Mary, Annie and the entire Rossington family in your prayers and respect the family’s privacy at this difficult time."
It's unclear if Lynyrd Skynyrd will continue without the guitarist. Their longest-tenured member is now Johnny Van Zant, who began singing in place of his late brother Ronnie Van Zant in 1987. Rickey Medlocke, with Lynyrd Skynyrd again since 1996, also had a brief stint with the group in 1971–72.
Rossington passed after having endured an unspeakable tragedy when Skynyrd's plane went down, then his own health issues – which traced back more than a decade. Still, he remained part of every band lineup dating back to 1964. In fact, the setbacks only seemed to deepen his passion for music, and for life.
"I just thank the Lord every day for letting me live some more on this great planet, living and seeing things going on around me," Rossington told Swampland in 2003, not long after having one of several heart procedures. "I’ve got a little pond out in my back yard, and every time I catch a little fish, or see my daughters, or have a good meal, or watch the sun set out there on the lake, I just thank God for it. Every little thing you just appreciate, you know?"
Rossington originally teamed with friends Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins in 1964 to form My Backyard in their hometown of Jacksonville, Fla., and the trio – joined at first by Bob Burns and Larry Junstrom – helped start Lynyrd Skynyrd on a journey toward multi-platinum Southern rock success. Their big break came in 1974, when the band were invited to open for the Who.
"Man, that was so great," Rossington once told Music Radar. "That was the first time we got exposed to a lot of people up North and in the West. Up till then, we were just playing for folks in little teen dens and smaller shows around the South. We hadn't played a lot of big gigs at all. When we got on the Who tour, it was unbelievable. There were anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 people at every show. That blew our minds."
Soon, with the addition of Leon Wilkeson, Billy Powell, Ed King, Artimus Pyle and then Steve Gaines, Lynyrd Skynyrd were skyrocketing to stardom on the strength of songs like “Gimme Three Steps,” “Sweet Home Alabama” and, of course, “Free Bird,” making good on a dirt-poor little boy's dream. "We didn’t have much money when I was younger," Rossington told Guitar World in 2012, "so I had to collect Coke bottles and cash them in and get a paper route to afford a guitar."
Watch Lynyrd Skynyrd Perform 'Gimme Three Steps' in 1976
Then, tragedy struck. Van Zant and Gaines were among those killed when Skynyrd's chartered flight went down between gigs in 1977. The rest of the group was gravely injured – including Rossington, who had to have steel rods inserted after breaking both legs, both arms, both wrists and his pelvis. Still, he pressed on, later re-emerging with Collins in the Rossington Collins Band, before jump starting Lynyrd Skynyrd again in the late '80s – initially with other classic-era survivors including Powell, Wilkeson, Pyle and King. That's when Johnny Van Zant took over as frontman.
"It got taken away so fast, and tragically, but the music lives on through all of it," Rossington told Classic Rock Revisited. "We just love playing the music and being a part of it."
In time, he'd be the last one standing, as the 2009 death of Powell left Lynyrd Skynyrd without any other pre-crash members. By then, however, Rossington's health was faltering, too. He suffered a heart attack in October 2015, forcing Lynyrd Skynyrd to cancel the rest of that year's concert dates. At the time, daughter Mary Elizabeth said doctors had already "saved his life several times now. We were very close to losing him this time and just pray that they will develop even better techniques soon to deal with heart disease."
Rossington's more recent treatment had included adding or repairing stents inserted during previous surgeries, among them the quintuple bypass he underwent in 2003. But Rossington, who was also hospitalized with an abdominal infection in 2015, once again vowed to return – and did. Skynyrd were back on the road by January 2016, not long after Rossington's 64th birthday. "It’s gonna take more than a lil ole heart attack to keep me down," he said back then. More surgeries followed in 2017, 2019 and, most recently, in 2021.
The band released nine post-'70s studio projects under Rossington's leadership, the final two of which were Top 20 Billboard hits – 2009's God & Guns and 2012's Last of a Dyin' Breed. Lynyrd Skynyrd hadn't had an album chart that high since 1977's multi-platinum Street Survivors, the last with Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins. In 2016, Rossington released Take It on Faith, an album that featured the guitarist working alongside his wife Dale.
Music, Rossington admitted, was his only calling. "We have a joke about how this is all we know how to do," he told Guitar World. "Picking strawberries or picking cotton or something — I don’t know what I’d be doing."