Ronnie Van Zant
|Ronnie Van Zant|
|Birth name||Ronald Wayne Van Zant|
January 15, 1948|
Jacksonville, Florida, U.S.
|Died||October 20, 1977
Gillsburg, Mississippi, U.S.
|Genres||Southern rock, blues rock|
|Instruments||Vocals, guitar, piano, drums|
|Associated acts||Lynyrd Skynyrd|
Ronald Wayne "Ronnie" Van Zant (January 15, 1948 – October 20, 1977) was an American lead vocalist, primary lyricist, and a founding member of the Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. He was the older brother of current Lynyrd Skynyrd lead vocalist Johnny Van Zant, and of the founder and vocalist of 38 Special, Donnie Van Zant. He was the father of singer Tammy Van Zant, and cousin of musician Jimmie Van Zant.
He was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida, to Lacy (1915–2004) and Marion (1929–2000) Van Zant. Ronnie aspired to be many things before finding his love for music. Notably, he was interested in becoming a boxer (as Muhammad Ali was one of his idols), and in playing professional baseball, even playing American Legion baseball. Ronnie also tossed around the idea of becoming a stock car racer. He would say that he was going to be the most famous person to come out of Jacksonville since stock car racer Lee Roy Yarbrough.
The band went through several names before deciding on the name Lynyrd Skynyrd. Van Zant formed Skynyrd (then called My Backyard at the time, their earliest name) late in the summer of 1964 with friends and schoolmates Allen Collins (guitar), Gary Rossington (guitar), Larry Junstrom (bass), and Bob Burns (drums). Lynyrd Skynyrd's name is a mock tribute to a gym teacher that three of the members (Allen Collins had gone to a different high school, Nathan B. Forrest High School) had in high school, Leonard Skinner, who disapproved of male students with long hair.
The band's national exposure began in 1973 with the release of their debut album, (Pronounced 'Lĕh-'nérd 'Skin-'nérd), which has a string of hits and fan favorites including: "I Ain't the One", "Tuesday's Gone", "Gimme Three Steps", "Simple Man," and their signature song, "Free Bird", which he later dedicated to the late Duane Allman of The Allman Brothers Band.
Lynyrd Skynyrd's biggest hit single was "Sweet Home Alabama" from the album Second Helping. "Sweet Home Alabama" was an answer song to Neil Young's "Alabama" and "Southern Man." Young's song "Powderfinger" on the 1979 album Rust Never Sleeps was reportedly written for Skynyrd, and Van Zant is pictured on the cover of Street Survivors wearing a T-shirt of Young's Tonight's the Night and in the 2 July, 1977 Oakland Coliseum concert (excerpted in Freebird... The Movie).
Van Zant married Nadine Inscoe on January 2, 1967. The couple had a daughter, Tammy (born 1967), before divorcing in 1969; Tammy would later go on to become a musician in her own right. He married Judy Seymour in 1972 after meeting her at The Comic Book Club through Gary Rossington in 1969 (the club closed in 1975 and is now a parking garage). They remained married up until his death in 1977 and Judy remarrying to Jim Jenness and founding The Freebird Foundation up until its dissolution in 2001. They had one daughter, Melody, born in 1976. Judy Van Zant-Jenness founded the Freebird Live in 1999, a music venue located in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. It features Lynyrd Skynyrd memorabilia and is co-owned by Melody Van Zant.
Van Zant was an avid fisherman. He enjoyed baseball, and was a fan of the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees. As a child, he played American Legion baseball and aspired for AA league baseball, as he recalled in a 1975 interview.
On October 20, 1977, a Convair CV-300 carrying the band between shows from Greenville, South Carolina, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, crashed outside Gillsburg, Mississippi. The passengers had been informed about problems with one of the plane's engines and told to brace for impact. Van Zant died on impact from head injuries suffered after the aircraft struck a tree. Bandmates Steve Gaines, and Cassie Gaines, along with assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary, and co-pilot William Gray were also killed. Remaining band members survived, although all were seriously injured.
According to former bandmate Artimus Pyle and family members, Van Zant frequently discussed his mortality. Pyle recalls a moment when Lynyrd Skynyrd was in Japan: "Ronnie and I were in Tokyo, Japan, and Ronnie told me that he would never live to see thirty and that he would go out with his boots on, in other words, on the road. I said, 'Ronnie, don't talk like that,' but the man knew his destiny." Van Zant's father, Lacy, said, "He said to me many times, 'Daddy, I'll never be 30 years old.' I said, 'Why are you talking this junk?' and he said, 'Daddy, that's my limit.'" Van Zant's father later noted that, "God was a jealous god. Taking him for reasons I don't know." Van Zant was 29 years old at the time of his death.
Van Zant's younger brother, Johnny, took over as the new lead singer when the band reunited in 1987.
Van Zant was buried in Orange Park, Florida, in 1977, but was relocated after vandals broke into bandmate Steve Gaines' and Ronnie's tombs on June 29, 2000. Van Zant's casket was pulled out and dropped on the ground. The bag containing Gaines' ashes was torn open and some scattered onto the grass. Their mausoleums at Orange Park remain as memorials for fans to visit.
According to the cemetery listing website Find-a-Grave, Van Zant was reburied at Riverside Memorial Park in Jacksonville, near the grave of his father Lacy and mother Marion. Both his current resting place and the empty mausoleum in Orange Park are listed. The following statement was made on the Find-a-Grave entry of his current resting place in Jacksonville: "Due to the June 29th, 2000 vandalization of his original grave site, his casket was moved to this new location and buried in a massive underground concrete burial vault. To open the vault would require a tractor with a lift capacity of several tons. It is also patrolled by security."
A memorial park funded by fans and family of the band was built in honor of Van Zant. The Ronnie Van Zant Memorial Park is located on Sandridge Road in Lake Asbury, Florida, nearby his hometown of Jacksonville.
Several members of his family have immortalized him in their music. Johnny, prior to joining Lynyrd Skynyrd, memorialized Ronnie in the 1990 title track "Brickyard Road" (co-written along with brother Donnie Van Zant and family friend Robert White Johnson, who had also produced the album) and in the music video with the reformed band for the posthumously-released track "What's Your Name" in which a white hat similar to Ronnie's sits atop a microphone at the end of the video. Tammy, who was only 10 years old when he died, dedicated the album title track, "Freebird Child" as well as the music video to Ronnie in 2009. Jimmie Van Zant recorded the tribute track "Ronnie's Song" on the album Southern Comfort (2000).
"The All-Night Bus Ride" which is the 8th episode of Season 1 of Showtime's show Roadies was made in honor of Van Zant and the band.
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- US National Transportation Safety Board (June 19, 1978). "Aircraft Accident Report – L & J Company, Convair 240, N55VM, Gillsburg, Mississippi, October 20, 1977" (PDF). National Technical Information Service. pp. 27 pages. Retrieved 2009-03-22.