Happy Birthday Ronnie Van Zant: Remembering the Legendary Former Lynyrd Skynyrd Frontman

by Jennifer Shea
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Those who knew him believed Ronnie Van Zant had an eerie prescience about his fate. On at least one occasion, the Lynyrd Skynyrd frontman said he wouldn’t live to see his 30th birthday.

And, as it turned out, he didn’t.

Ronnie Van Zant Seemed to Know What Was Coming

On Oct. 20, 1977, the aging twin-engine Convair 240 plane that the band had leased dropped out of the sky and into the swamps of Gillsburg, Mississippi, as Rolling Stone recounts. Lynyrd Skynyrd never finished their 600-mile journey from Greenville, South Carolina to Baton Rouge, Louisiana that night.

Van Zant, Steve and Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray Jr. didn’t survive the crash. The 20 others on that plane suffered serious injuries.

Some in their party had been reluctant to board the aircraft, which had been spouting flames from its right engine two days before. But Van Zant was totally calm.

“Ronnie said, ‘Hey, if the Lord wants you to die on this plane, when it’s your time, it’s your time. Let’s go, man. We’ve got a gig to do,’” guitarist Gary Rossington told the Orlando Sentinel in 1988.

Even after they found out that the plane was running out of fuel and would need to make an emergency landing, and even after they had received instructions on crash procedure, Van Zant was serene.

“Ronnie Van Zant walked to the back of the plane to get a pillow, and as he walked forward, he shook my hand,” drummer Artimus Pyle said. “We looked at each other and smiled, and he continued forward and sat down. Ronnie knew that he was going to die.”

A Rocker and an Avid Fisherman

Over the course of his short life, Van Zant managed to found a legendary rock band and father two children. He was also an avid fisherman, and once aspired to play professional baseball.

Van Zant had loved to sing from an early age. On his first day of elementary school, he got sent to the corner for singing “Ricochet Romance” and “Beer Drinkin’ Daddy” in the classroom, according to LynyrdSkynyrdHistory.com.

The band chose the name Lynyrd Skynyrd as a gesture of sorts to a gym teacher named Leonard Skinner, who eventually drove Gary Rossington to quit school with his strict insistence on adherence to dress codes. That was one of many ways that the band’s early years informed their identity.

Moreover, Ronnie once said their years playing around Jacksonville, Florida really shaped them as a band.

“It really tightened us up as a band,” he said. “When you’re from the South, you learn to work your ass off, and we did. It was hellatious. Hellatious and the best years of our lives.”

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