Six weeks ago, bassist Leon Wilkeson died.
By JOHN PATRICK GATTA
BROOKFIELD -- Tragedy has become such a consistent part of Lynyrd Skynyrd's existence that it has nearly overpowered the long-running Southern rock act's musical legacy.
It began in 1977 with the deaths of frontman Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, back up singer Cassie Gaines, in a plane crash in a Mississippi swamp. It also seriously injured several other band members.
The band had just cleaned up its bad-boy ways and was on the brink of superstardom after the release of its sixth album, "Street Survivors." It took 10 years to overcome. A tribute tour reunited the surviving members (guitarist Gary Rossington, keyboardist Billy Powell and drummer Artimus Pyle) with Van Zant's younger brother, Johnny, handling the vocal duties.
Guitarist Allen Collins' absence tarnished that tour's success. He could not appear because of an auto accident that left him paralyzed. He died in 1990.
But Skynyrd carried on, performing hundreds of shows over the years to fans who embraced the triple guitar attack, blues-and-boogie style and blue-collar sentiments found in "Gimme Three Steps," "Sweet Home Alabama," "Saturday Night Special" and, of course, "Free Bird."
The sound: Along with the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd came to embody the Southern rock sound. Althoughthe Allmans took their blues influences into jazzy directions, the members of Skynyrd used their fondness for the British Invasion acts to create strong melodies and catchy choruses.
The new lineup stuck together and released five albums of new material plus a holiday release and a live album that was recorded in 1997 at Coca-Cola Star Lake Amphitheatre.
Six years ago, they strengthened their ranks by adding Hughie Thomasson, formerly of the Outlaws, and Rickey Medlocke, the former Blackfoot leader who played drums with Skynyrd in the early '70s.
Bassist dies: Then, six weeks ago, beloved bassist Leon Wilkeson passed away in his sleep in a Florida hotel room. He had been fighting a battle with liver and lung disease for several years.
Although it took the remaining musicians a decade to reunite after that first experience with mortality, the current membership merely rescheduled the remaining dates of its 2001 summer tour after Wilkeson's sudden departure from its ranks.
It's not that Rossington, Powell, Van Zant, Medlocke, Thomasson, drummer Michael Cartelone and background vocalists Dale Krant-Rossington and Carol Chase have become cold-hearted to all this misfortune. And if they did, who could blame them?
Tough: Instead, it seems that Lynyrd Skynyrd has developed a tougher-than-tough skin to deal with one tragedy after another. The result is a determination to carry on in their work in spite of such personal obstacles.
As Van Zant explained in an Internet story on the Web site sonicnet.com, "We have survived some bad things over the years and Skynyrd will survive this.
"Leon was a player and so are we, so we're gonna finish what we started."
Besides, it's not as if the members weren't prepared in some way for this latest incident. Wilkeson, who was nicknamed the Mad Hatter due to his penchant for wearing numerous outlandish hats during concerts, had missed nearly two dozen since Skynyrd reformed. Just as he did in the past, Ean Evans will take his place onstage.
Wilkeson's former bandmates have not ignored his passing. A backdrop depicting their fallen comrade is erected now when they play "Simple Man." Also, they've asked fans to pay their respects by wearing "their favorite, most outrageous hats" to the concert.
A new studio album is expected next year. Four tracks containing Wilkeson's signature playing style have already been recorded.