On Oct. 20, 1977, a light plane carrying guitarist Steve Gaines and vocalist Ronnie Van Zant crashed in the swamps near Gillsburg, Miss., killing the heart of the hard-drivin' band Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Ten years later, the Southern rock 'n' roll that died in the swamp has been resurrected - brought to life by the surviving alumni of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Johnny Van Zant, Ronnie's younger brother.The result has been the unbelievably successful Lynryd Skynyrd Tribute Tour - a tour that has played to more than 600,000 devoted fans in more than 30 cities nationwide.
The band will play the Salt Palace June 23 at 8 p.m. Opening will be the Rossington Band, led by Skynyrd guitarist Gary Rossington.
"We're going to stop calling it a tribute tour," said bassist Leon Wilkeson. "Some people think if it is a `tribute' tour that it must be like fake beer, that they won't be getting the real thing. And nothing could be further from the truth."
Wilkeson is not just whistling Dixie, either. The band not only sounds surprisingly tight, it sounds as good as Lynryd Skynryd sounded during its heyday. And vocalist Johnny VanZant sounds exactly like his legendary brother.
"I get asked a lot if I could close my eyes on stage and picture the old band playing and Ronnie singing," Wilkeson said. "The sound is truly incredible."
With the exception of Johnny Van Zant, the band members are original Lynyrd Skynyrd: Gary Rossington on guitars, Wilkeson on bass, drummer Artimus Pyle, keyboardist Billy Powell and guitarist Ed King.
Band members got the idea of a 10-year commemoration of Lynyrd Skynyrd a couple of years ago when Wilkeson was approached about reforming the Powell-Collins band, a post-Skynyrd configuration.
When the three performed at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, the crowd went crazy. The crowd reaction prompted Rossington to join the reunion. Later, they found King working as a computer programmer in New Jersey.
"We thought about calling it LS2, but then we decided to make it a tribute tour - a tribute to the fans, a tribute to the band that died," Wilkeson said.
The response to the tour has been beyond anyone's wildest expectations, and now there is talk about making the reunion of Lynyrd Skynyrd permanent. Wilkeson said that is doubtful because most of the band has their own musical projects that were interrupted for the tour.
"Whatever happens, we are glad we tried it and it worked," Wilkeson said. "It's been like a dream come true."
An album of live cuts from the tour, "Southern By the Grace of God," captures the intensity and enthusiasm of the reunion, as well as the uncanny likeness of Ronnie and Johnny Van Zant.