The Tragic Life of Allen Collins
Some people have such tragic lives don’t they? Sometimes it seems people of fame and fortune have their unfair share of infamy and misfortune too (is this a way the universe balances things out, or is this just a perception as we only hear about the famous ones subjected to tragedy?).
A couple of posts ago I talked about the unfortunate Barclay James Harvest band. But their trials and tribulations were nothing in comparison to US southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd. As we will learn below the whole extended band suffered awful trauma but take founding guitarist Allen Collins for instance. He was the lanky one dressed all in white, bushy long hair flowing in the wind, shredding his guitar during Freebird in one of the most famous guitar solos ever committed to film. The band were at the height of their powers playing to a stadium crowd at The Oakland Coliseum July 1977.
Just two months later a plane carrying the band and their crew between gigs ran out of fuel over Mississippi swampland. Falling just short of its destination the crash claimed the lives of three band members and left the survivors including Collins never the same again.
Allen Collins was at the genesis of Lynyrd Skynyrd when he joined lead singer Ronnie Van Zant and fellow guitarist Gary Rossington as long ago as 1964 to form a high school band in Jacksonville, Florida. Going through several name changes the Lynyrd Skynyrd name was finally taken on in 1969, a mocking tribute to the school’s notoriously strict PE coach, one Leonard Skinner.
Crafting a gritty “southern” sound through a creative blend of country, blues and heavy rock, Lynyrd Skynyrd developed a keen live following in their southern homeland before finally being “discovered” by producer Al Cooper with whom they recorded their debut album Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd (1973) — this was almost ten years after their initial formation so it was not surprising that they had by then a wealth of strong songs and had honed a super tight live act.
The album contained several staples and the classic Freebird. With it’s ballad piano and slide guitar opening morphing into heavy rock and searing guitar solo, this song, first conceived by Collins and Van Zant in the late 60s, was a forerunner to other epic rock songs of similar structure like Stairway to Heaven and Bohemian Rhapsody.
Lord knows, I can’t chay-ay-ay-ay-ay-aaaange! Is there a more exciting moment in rock than the shift of gear midway through Freebird?
Legend has it that it was Allen Collins’s partner, Kathy, who asked him one day: “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?” This became the famous opening line which was later augmented by a gentle piano introduction which had been written by the band’s roadie. So impressed were the band that they formally asked roadie Billy Powell to join as their keyboardist.
20th October 1977
In October 1977 the band riding a euphoric wave of popularity and success set out on a US tour to promote their new Street Survivor album. Just five days into the tour disaster struck.
The aircraft used to transport the band and their entourage from gig to gig was a rather vintage 1948 Convair 240. Rumour has it the same plane had already been rejected by the band Aerosmith, not only because it was felt the plane itself was unsafe but also on grounds of an unreliable flight crew (who had allegedly been witnessed drinking during the inspection).
It would appear it was obvious the plane had problems and was on its last legs. Sound technician Ken Peden had reported seeing flames from one of the engines on what turned out to be the plane’s penultimate flight and apparently it had been decided it would be grounded as soon as it reached their next destination, Baton Rouge. It had also been observed by some passengers that the fuel gauges were deemed unreliable and fuel levels prior to flights were checked by literally dipping a stick inside the engines.
The Convair departed Greenville a little after 4pm on October 20th heading for Baton Rogue — a 3 hour flight. Aboard were the two pilots, and 24 passengers. But, at around 6:40pm, just minutes from their destination the pilots reported that fuel was low. One engine cut out. The pilot reportedly attempted to transfer fuel from the remaining engine to the dead engine but accidentally dumped all the fuel from that engine as well leaving the plane without power. All went quiet until impact.
Billy Powell would recall his experiences in an interview with Rolling Stone only a month later: “We had decided the night before that we would definitely get rid of the plane in Baton Rouge. So we started partying to celebrate the last flight on it. The right engine started sputtering, and I went up to the cockpit. The pilot said they were just transferring oil from one wing to another, everything’s okay. Later, the engine went dead. [Drummer] Artimus [Pyle] and I ran to the cockpit. The pilot was in shock. He said, ‘Oh my God, strap in.’ Ronnie had been asleep on the floor and Artimus got him up and he was really pissed. We strapped in and a minute later we crashed. The pilot said he was trying for a field, but I didn’t see one. The trees kept getting closer, they kept getting bigger. Then there was a sound like someone hitting the outside of the plane with hundreds of baseball bats. I crashed into a table; people were hit by flying objects all over the plane. Ronnie was killed with a single head injury. The top of the plane was ripped open. Artimus crawled out the top and said there was a swamp, maybe alligators. I kicked my way out and felt for my hands — they were still there. I felt for my nose and it wasn’t, it was on the side of my face. There was just silence. Artimus and Ken Peden and I ran to get help Artimus with his ribs sticking out.”
The plane had skipped and skidded across tree tops, then smashed into a swampy area, just short of farmland. It has become confused conjecture what happened next but apparently some of the survivors nursed the injured and some went for help in the fading light. Rumours that the farmer had shot at the bloody survivors appearing out of the trees in the dusk, further injuring one, were exaggerated.
Six lives were claimed in the crash including Ronnie Van Zant, new guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister vocalist Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray.
As a mark of respect MCA Records immediately withdrew the original “Street Survivors” album cover showing the band surrounded by flames (which had been released only 3 days earlier), and replaced it with the band striking a similar pose against a plain black background. The album rose rapidly in the charts to become the band’s second platinum selling album.
Like the rest of his bandmates, Collins struggled to find a way forward after 1977, and further tragedy seemed to dog his path in particular. Collins and fellow survivors did not reform until a one off gig in January 1979 where they performed a poignant instrumental version of Freebird with a lone mic stand positioned centre stage in respect to Ronnie Van Zant.
In 1980 Gary Rossington, Billy Powell and Leon Wilkeson joined Collins to form the Rossington-Collins Band. Female lead singer Dale Krantz was recruited deliberately to avoid comparisons with Van Zant. But just as they were preparing to tour in support of their new album, Collins’ wife died suddenly, the result of a miscarriage-related haemorrhage. Collins, devastated by yet another personal loss, entered a losing battle with addiction that would haunt him for his remaining years.
The Rossington-Collins Band soon split but Collins reemerged with Powell and Wilkeson under the name the Allen Collins Band. Eventually warming up to the idea of reuniting the rest of the Skynyrd survivors once again, Collins set about trying to assemble a band that, for a time, was referred to as Lynyrd Skynyrd II. Van Zant’s younger brother Johnny was recruited to take the mic but as the group was preparing for another reunion tour in 1986 tragedy struck yet again. Collins, who had already had numerous traffic related convictions, crashed his car in Jacksonville killing his then girlfriend and leaving himself paralyzed from the waist down and unable to play again. Literally adding insult to injury Collins was charged with manslaughter and was tasked to appear on stage, throughout the new tour, in his wheelchair, to warn the audience about the dangers of drunk driving.
His weakened condition after this latest accident contributed to further failing health and in 1990 he passed away after a struggle with pneumonia at the age of only 37.
A fairly unrecognisable version of Lynyrd Skynyrd have remained together since that 1987 reunion, but their road has remained a bumpy one, with a number of band members in dispute and facing legal issues over the band’s legacy and the use of the band name, and even persistent accusations on the cause of the fateful plane crash and the actions of various individuals in the immediate aftermath.
The Real Leonard Skinner
Leonard Skinner is the man who inspired the Lynyrd Skynyrd band name. The gym teacher and high-school coach famously came down on Ronnie Van Zant and his school friends for wearing their hair too long, although he later said that his strictness was exaggerated: “They were good, talented, hard-working boys… worked hard, lived hard and boozed hard.”
He wasn’t a fan of their music though — his son recalled him asking, “What the hell kind of noise are you listening to?”
Who Needs Neil Young Around Anyhow?
By all accounts, the famous lyrical war of words between Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd was more like a spirited debate between respectful friends than an actual feud.
Well I heard Mr. Young sing about her, well I heard old Neil put her down, well I hope Neil Young will remember, a southern man don’t need him around anyhow.
Young’s songs Alabama and Southern Man took aim at the South’s checkered race relations past, with references to slave ownership and cross burning. Ronnie seemingly felt Young was painting too many good people with the same old, bad brush, and responded with the Sweet Home Alabama lyric. However, both repeatedly declared their respect for each other.
Ronnie Van Zant — died in the 1977 plane crash
Steve Gaines — died in the 1977 plane crash
Billy Powell — died from a heart attack in 2009
Bob Burns — died in a car crash 2015
Allen Collins — died from pneumonia in 1990
Leon Wilkeson — died from liver disease 2001
Ean Evans — died from cancer 2009
Hughie Thomasson — died from a heart attack 2007
Cassie Gaines — died in the 1977 plane crash
JoJo Billingsley — died from cancer 2010