Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee Gary Rossington

40 Years Later: Guitarist Gary Rossington and Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird"

Written by: Alexandra Fagan

On December 4, 1951, Gary Rossington was born. One of the founding members and guitarist of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rossington played his way into Southern rock history.

This year marks Rossington’s 63rd birthday and also the 40-year anniversary of Lynyrd Skynyrd's debut album, (Pronounced 'leh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd), featuring the hit song “Free Bird.” The original 1973 version of "Free Bird" was truly wrenching: a nine-minute salute to a departed Southern brother Duane Allman, highlighted by Ronnie Van Zant's mournful vocals and relentless soloing from Allen Collins and Gary Rossington. (Skynyrd's trademark three-lead guitar lineup hadn't crystallized yet.) Rossington’s instrument of choice was his 1959 Gibson Les Paul guitar that is now on display in the Museum’s Architects of Rock exhibit. Fifties-era Gibson Les Paul guitars are among the most sought-after and costly guitars in the rock world, and when Rossington was finally able to purchase a 1959 model, he named it after his beloved mother Berneice. Rossington played slide guitar on “Free Bird.” (pictured right: Gary Rossington 1959 Gibson Les Paul, on exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum)

Despite saturation radio play since its first appearance on the band's debut album, this heartfelt lament retains its emotional force. It eventually became the epitaph for Ronnie Van Zant and the other victims of the band's 1977 plane crash.

Nearly two decades later, as Lynyrd Skynyrd were accepting their awards at the 2006 induction ceremony, Rossington said: “I really would like to thank Ronnie Van Zant, Allen Collins, Leon Wilkeson and Steve Gaines for all the great songs they wrote that allows me to be here and all these guys. It’s an honor to have known them and played with them and them being all friends.”

Before the band's performance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction ceremony in 2006, Ronnie Van Zant’s little brother, Johnny Van Zant, said: “I’ve been singing Ronnie’s songs for many, many years. It’s been a pleasure and an honor. I wish he was here, I know he’s here tonight in spirit. I know everyone who has gone on to rock and roll heaven is in this room tonight in spirit. So anyway, in the words of my big brother, what song is it you want to hear?” FREE BIRD!