Al Kooper may not give a damn, but with Lynyrd Skynyrd hot and the Atlanta Rhythm Section burnin’, Southern Music is rising again.
“There’s only two things happening in Georgia,” Atlanta Rhythm Section lead singer Ronnie Hammond exclaimed onstage in front of 5000 screaming Florida music lovers, “and that’s Gregg Allman and the Atlanta Rhythm Section. Bands like Grinderswitch should go back to the car wash where they belong.”
Rather than do that, Grinderswitch went backstage, waited until Hammond was alone… and beat him up.
IN THE WAKE of the social and political ferment of the past twenty years, the Confederacy has opened up quite a bit. This “New South” has become known for its restive kids, its recording centers in Memphis, Muscle Shoals, Atlanta, New Orleans and Miami, and its own brand of rock ‘n roll. The musical trail-blazers were the Allman Brothers, a scrappy bunch of kids from Daytona Beach led by guitarist Duane Allman, who fused black R&B and jazz rhythms with a sound technique inspired by early Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. In a context of free-form jamming a la the Grateful Dead, the group quickly became legend and inspired a record company gold rush to capitalize on their sound.
The music industry is notorious for milking trends (witness in the past ten years “the Liverpool sound,” “the San Francisco Sound,” “the Boss-Town sound,” “the Detroit sound,” “the Philadelphia sound,” not to mention “folk rock,” “acid rock,” “glitter rock”), and the corporate minds have outdone themselves in merchandising Southern music. This new commodity’s kingpin is Phil Walden, former manager of Otis Redding, now manager of the Allman Bros. As president of both the Allmans’ record company, Capricorn, and the largest (some say the only) booking agency for Southern groups, Paragon, Walden forms an economic axis south of the Mason/Dixon line that holds every band, not to mention every music biz mogul, in awe. He also seems to inspire fear and disdain.
Walden foresaw the potential impact of Southern music a few years ago and signed a handful of groups (Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie, Grinderswitch) who have carefully nurtured a trademark sound which owes much to the Allman Bros, but pays out little in content beyond that. Their highly identifiable style makes them very popular as live bands, and Paragon keeps them active, especially around the South.
Paragon’s best group, Lynyrd Skynyrd, was formerly managed by Phil’s brother, Alan Walden, who was eventually dumped when the band began to think he was getting the biggest cut for the least work. Skynyrd is the only group of the lot that transcends the Southern Music label. Like the Allmans when they were hot, Skynyrd have coined their own musical signatures – ten years ago the three founding members (singer-songwriter Ronnie Van Zant, guitarists Gary Rossington and Allan Collins) were playing Yardbirds songs at parties; today, the local groups are playing Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Only one real challenge to Walden’s power in the South so far has been mounted. Al Kooper, who started two late-’60s trends when he formed BS&T and then jammed the first Supersession, moved to Atlanta two years ago, calling it “the Liverpool of the South” and predicting “major companies are going to buy up every act in town before long.” In association with his manager, Stan Poley, Kooper proceeded to form his own label, Sounds of the South, and sign the two best bands he could get his hands on, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Mose Jones. Before the year was out, Kooper had moved to L.A.. leaving Mose Jones in Atlanta and eventually selling Skynyrd’s contract through MCA records to Who/Stones manager Peter Rudge for $1 million.
The Reburning of Atlanta
Brian Cole, drummer for the now-defunct Mose Jones, spends his time these days writing poetry, working on his house in Atlanta and rehearsing with a few friends from Florida with a wary eye out to form another group. He doesn’t have much money, but that’s not an unfamiliar situation for him – when Al Kooper signed Mose they were hardly making any, even though they were considered the top Atlanta bar band.
“We were naive,” Cole explains. “We always take a person at their word, and when someone comes and indicates concern – ‘Here’s $250 each, pay your phone bills so we can keep the lines of communication open, and by the way just sign here’ – we just thought they were nice people. We didn’t expect to get screwed. Kooper told us he knew how to be successful, so we did what he told us. After we recorded the first album (Get Right) and were satisfied that it was a good reproduction of our live sound, we went on the road and while we were gone Kooper remixed it and changed it completely, putting strings and mellotrons all over the place, making it sound like the Box Tops. We didn’t want him to produce the next album so he walked – by that time Skynyrd had started to happen so he dropped us like a hot potato, wouldn’t answer our phone calls.”
Mose Jones tried to go back to playing the Atlanta club circuit, but by this time club owners wanted bands that did Lynyrd Skynyrd material. Finally, as the only way out of an ironclad contract which they claim they’ve never seen since it was signed, they split up. “For a while it seemed there was a power struggle between Kooper and Walden,” Cole comments, “but Kooper had less at stake. He was a carpetbagger – he could take the bread and split. The advance money Kooper got from Polydor was by rights partly ours, but we didn’t ask for it. The whole experience was good for me – I had to learn the hard way.”
The one band which neither Kooper nor Walden was able to sign, the Atlanta Rhythm Section, remains the most interesting group in the South. ARS is managed by Buddie Buie, a songwriter-producer who decided to assemble a group of songwriters and top studio musicians he’d come to know during his days as producer for the Classics IV. Pianist Dean Daugherty, drummer Robert Nix and lead singer Rodney Justo had worked with Buie in 1966 when they were part of a group called the Candymen. Guitarist J.R. Cobb was with the Classics IV and collaborated with Buie on the group’s three biggest hits: ‘Spooky’, ‘Stormy’ and ‘Traces’. As two of the most sought-after session musicians in town, guitarist Barry Bailey and bassist Paul Goddard were no strangers to Buie either.
ARS recorded one album with the idea that if a hit single could be broken from it they’d go on the road. The album went nowhere and Rodney Justo split. But Buie, who had left off working at Atlanta’s biggest studio, Master Sound, to do things his way in a small studio owned by the Rhythm Section and their publisher Bill Lowery, kept the band busy as a session group. Then, engineer Rodney Mills introduced them to a singer who’d worked as his assistant, Ronnie Hammond, and Hammond’s been their vocalist ever since.
If you drive out of Atlanta proper, past massive thatches of red clay outcroppings and pine trees alongside 85N, and take the exit to Doraville past the Admiral Benbow Inn, you will get to Buford Highway, the heart of Doraville. An Atlanta suburb immortalized by ARS in a song of the same name, Doraville is, aside from a few residential streets, composed mostly of industrial parks like Oakville Industrial Court, where the Rhythm Section has their studio. Studio One is a glass-fronted office like every other franchise in Oakville Industrial Court, but at night it’s the only lighted cubicle.
Inside, the atmosphere is relaxed, shabby comfort. A formica desk faces the door, littered with partly-filled styrofoam cups and beer cans, a large ashtray brimming with twisted butts, dog-eared playing cards and scattered poker chips. For seats there are metal folding chairs and a displaced blue back seat from a van. Jackets and crumpled papers are all over. Behind the central desk, a metal frame cabinet houses a few scattered promo records, a plastic fly swatter, and a plaque awarded Steve Clark (who manages the studio and is currently producing the next Joe South record) which reads: “Member of United Air Lines 100,000 Mile Club. In appreciation of your valuable contribution to air transport progress.” (Clark, the joke goes, tells his wife he travels a lot.) Several gold records hang crookedly on the wall: ‘Traces’, ‘Stormy’ and ‘Spooky’, the first Association album (produced by Clark), Cherish, and Tommy Roe’s ‘Sweet Pea’ (also produced by Clark).
This particular night the plan is to work on the boogie routine, so the group is pretty loose and friends are encouraged to stick around and party. The band members start arriving at about eight, each with his evening’s booze stash. The guitarists, J.R. and Barry, are drinking Johnny Walker Red. Bassist Paul Goddard has a case of Hamm’s beer in the back of his car. Singer Ronnie Hammond is drinking Mauro Daphne Greek wine. In the studio itself, Rodney Mills is working on the drum sound, a solemn ritual which occupies a good deal of his warm-up before each session. Good humored but sober out of necessity, Mills runs the board with casual precision. “I think you’ll be surprised at the way we approach recording,” Paul Goddard ventures as the session is about to start. “We cut unlike any group you’ll see. We play a song night after night until it comes out right.”
The band takes their place – Nix in a sound box with his drums, Hammond in the vocal box, and the rest of the band, sitting on metal chairs in the control room. Buie sits on the mixing board facing them. They start in playing the Jimmy Reed song, Buie stopping each time and commenting on different lines. They play it through four times, record five takes, then take a break to listen to what they’d done.
General consensus is that the track still isn’t right, so Buie decides to move on to their version of ‘Outside Woman Blues’. Buie again stops the first half-dozen takes before the second verse until he comes across a tempo that pleases him. In Studio One’s relaxed air, Buie controls the band subtly. His role is to play the motivating and critical force, and he manages it firmly without being overbearing. He scratches his head while listening to the playback. “Is that too slow,” he asks, “or am I crazy?”
The band cuts the song again. And again. The rhythm track is crisp, Goddard and Nix cooking in unison even though they’re 100 feet apart. Daugherty sits massively in front of his Wurlitzer electric piano, plunking out the perfect backing but showing little or no emotion. Bailey takes a blistering solo, his face impassive as he sit crosslegged in a slight slouch, cigarette dangling contemplatively from the side of his mouth. Cobb leans forward slightly for his solo, grimacing as he rips off a cluster of notes. The take is very good and they all seem to feel it. Buie says: “Let’s do it one more time,” and they run through it again.
By the time playbacks are ready, it’s six a.m. and the playing is done for the night. But this place is home for the ARS, nobody’s in a hurry to leave, and they listen to all the tracks, talk, have a drink and generally relax. Robert Nix looks exhausted, his red cowboy shirt drenched with sweat – he was having trouble with the drum sound all night, but he stays with Daugherty in the control room, listening earnestly. Outside, Barry Bailey sits on the makeshift couch and observes quietly, “We work eight, ten hours a night – a long time. Probably too long by about two hours.”
The next day I got a chance to talk to engineer Rodney Mills before the session. He’d come to Atlanta in 1966 as part of a group called the Bushmen and picked up engineering on the side. “Back in ’66, the Bushmen and the Candymen were tops – there weren’t many groups around. There were only four studios in Atlanta then, and the big local artists were Billy Joe Royal, Joe South and Dennis Yost. There was no conception of a ‘Southern sound’ then, record companies wouldn’t pick up on Southern acts. No matter what acts are signed out of the South now, it’s tied in with the Allman Brothers – before them, nobody cared. The funny thing is, Duane and Gregg were not people’s roots – they were no different than the bands I was in, except that they came from Florida. Of course, Southern guitar players were always hot – Joe South was a big session guitarist at one time, playing with Dylan and Aretha Franklin; Duane was the session guitarist when he was into that, and Barry Bailey has done a lot of work with Allen Toussaint in the past few years.”
When the ARS take their places to learn the new song that night, the jocular feeling of the previous session is gone. “Myself and Robert are the only ones who’ve heard this one through,” Buie explains. There is no need for drums and vocals on the run-through, so everyone crowds into the control room to listen as Barry Bailey plays the basic track on guitar. The tune gets traded around until everyone knows the changes, then Bailey plays it again, J.R. picks up on it, adding frills, with Paul Goddard following along.
It’s slow going. You can sense the players feeling their way through the progression as if groping down a dark hallway looking for a light switch. Dean Daugherty still isn’t satisfied with his piano part, though, and Bailey explains a point to him without saying a word – he nods his head and grunts, playing one idea for the verse, and then another. Buie steps in to direct: “You’ve got to listen to all Barry’s accents.” Bailey plays the two alternate changes again, J.R. Cobb switches guitars, picking up his Fender custom to complement Barry’s tone. “Take it from the bridge again,” Buie urges, and they lurch into the tune. And the combination clicks. All four musicians glide into a syncopated pattern that seems to carry them along effortlessly with the exuberance of an emerging song. Buie smiles, nods for Nix to go into the drum booth, and they cut a successful track.
Outside in the front room, J.R. and Paul are reminiscing. “When we first opened this place up,” J.R. says, “anybody who walked in the door could cut a demo. We used to get some weird guys comin’ in with the craziest stuff you could imagine.” Suddenly, a sweet, crunching solo comes ringing out. Everyone stops. Inside the control room, Bailey, taciturn as usual, is wrenching out a classic solo from a gold Les Paul Gibson with a motorcycle race sticker on the body. He cuts several takes of it and Goddard ambles in to take a look. “Buddie has him record solos until his fingers bleed,” Paul says, shaking his head, “then splices the best one into the song.”
After the solos are laid over the backing track in a rough mix, the band tries a soft ballad called ‘All Night Rain’, with Ronnie this time fitting on his vocal. At 3:30 in the morning, the song fits my mood perfectly, and I sit back to take it all in. These guys are just so at home amidst the broken chairs and stair railings. Tapes and cigarette-filled ashtrays are scattered everywhere as a splashy harmony guitar part reminiscent of ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’ cushions softly through the room. “Shit!” Buie jumps up and clomps inside to show Ronnie Hammond the vocal part he has in mind. It’s late, Ronnie hasn’t sung all night, and Buie decides the tune will be tried some other time. Bailey, picking by himself in a corner, drawls the opening to ‘Travelin’ Man’ and the band kicks into it immediately. For the first time since I’ve seen them in the studio, they are all grinning wildly, and they tear through a 15-minute instrumental like kids at recess. Moments like this always seem to go unrecorded. Ronnie Hammond sits down next to me and offers some wine. “It takes all night for us to get to this point,” he says, a little out of breath, “and moments like this are what we remember.”
I wanted to talk to Joe South before I left Atlanta, so after a few hours sleep that morning, I returned to Studio One. South had just split after recording a vocal, but Robert Nix and Dean Daugherty were still there from the night before, burning off some artificial energy. Steve Clark played the South tapes, eight mind-boggling songs that Joe had written in late-night reveries at a local hamburger counter.
South is a guiding spirit, an introverted loner touched with genius and coming off some very hard times after being an Atlanta legend through the mid-’60s. They say he hasn’t been the same since one day a few years ago when his brother, Tommy South, was at the studio and said he was going to go home and blow his brains out. Everyone laughed, but Tommy went home and blew his brains out.
Joe split to Hawaii after his brother’s death, but since returning he’s gotten married, had a kid, and is trying hard to come back. One song’s title on the record seems to sum up his situation: ‘God Forgave Me, Why Can’t You?’
Robert raved about the new material. With more than a touch of awe, he said, “We came in here one day and there’s Joe lyin’ on the floor with his head propped up against a chair, cutting an overdub, playing his guitar backwards.” One of Steve Clark’s favorite aphorisms is dedicated to (perhaps even plagiarized from) Joe: “Paranoid don’t necessarily mean they’re after you.” As I left the studio for the last time, I noticed a manila folder scotchtaped to the wall. It read:
To Studio One staff. Greetings and salutations:
A guitar, a ‘baby Martin,’ is missing from among the instruments which I stored here during my series of sessions recently. It would not ordinarily disturb me, but the guitar was purchased as a Christmas gift for an eight-year-old island boy, Kimo Barlow. I promised him that I would send him a guitar that he could ‘reach his hand around.’ If you know the whereabouts of this instrument, I will greatly appreciate its return. Reward: $500. No questions asked.
Thank you – Peace, Joe South
Skynyrd Rocks the Boats
Florida is Lynyrd Skynyrd’s home turf. Over the past decade, they’ve built a reputation there for intense drinking and fighting, a legend which comes very close to characterizing what this Southern music phenomenon is all about. Skynyrd are larger-than-life culture heroes, but their audience is not distant from them. On the contrary, it seems that most of the kids who follow the group see Lynyrd Skynyrd as an extension of themselves. After a few beers and some reds out in the blazing Florida sun, fighting becomes a way of life, so Skynyrd is not so much acting out their audiences’ fantasies as providing a justification as well as a medium for what is a normal form of self-expression.
I arrive at Miami’s Holiday Inn #4, where Skynyrd is billeted, not quite knowing what to expect from these reputed madmen. As I step off the outdoor elevator onto the third floor, Ronnie Van Zant strolls across the patio, a burger in one hand and a styrofoam cup of black coffee in the other, gazing intently at a poolside congregation of bathing belles. I call out a hello and he whips around, crouching – he seems ready to meet anybody, fast. A firm handshake, a brief intro – he doesn’t acknowledge having heard I was coming but welcomes me along anyway. The MCA Miami promo man comes along with a boxful of records and hands Ronnie a half-dozen. Van Zant passes them unhesitatingly to me, with a friendly nod. I sense instantly that this is no redneck crazy.
“Just lookin’ at the sights.” He winks, offers me a seat and starts talking between bites of burger. “We just got here a little while ago ourselves. Took a couple of downs last night to sleep, woke up, had a beer and got sick, so I’m startin’ back at the beginning.” I mention liking ‘Saturday Night Special’ from the new album (recorded at Studio One with Rodney Mills engineering) and that I’d recently spent time with the Rhythm Section. “I think they’re probably the best band in the South,” he says emphatically. Hard as it seems to believe, he claims he’d given up hard liquor. “It was either quit drinking or quit singing. It was burning my throat out,” he notes. “The doctor told me I could drink wine, and a few beers never hurt anybody.”
Later I talked with Allen Collins about the band’s relationship with Kooper. “He tried to tell us what to do, but we wouldn’t let him. He once brought up this idea to do a Grand Funk-like song. We said we didn’t do that shit. But he has done some nice stuff – the mellotron part on ‘Tuesday’s Gone’, f’rinstance. We didn’t want that in, but it ended up sounding good. His horn charts are always nice, too. There’s good and bad parts to everybody. I’m not saying anything against him. but we ain’t gonna use him anymore. We heard the mix for this new album when we came up to do a show in New Jersey and it was wrong, so we sent Ed King out to L.A. to remix the whole thing.”
The concert that evening at the Miami Marina was the weirdest rock show I’ve seen. The stage was a small barge, surrounded by a veritable logjam of small boats, large boats, canoes and rafts. The barge was moored out in the water about 40 feet from a grandstand amphitheatre built at a sharp angle to the water’s edge. The basin between the barge and the dock was filled with partying boaters, dozens of cans and bottles propped on the decks.
Some people tread water for an hour-and-a-half just to be near the stage. On the balmy night it was still, at that point, not the most uncomfortable seat in the house – that was reserved for the people crushed up against the deckside railings. It was obvious from the start that there were just way too many people in the place, but plenty more were still coming in from all sides. The Charlie Daniels Band played a spirited opening set, and the crowd started to boil.
It turned out there were 7,400 tickets sold for a 6,000 capacity “house.” But, including the people who snuck in, there were a solid 10,000 kids on hand. When the police felt the overstuffed hall could handle no more bodies, they closed the entrance – refusing to admit anyone, ticketholders included. In the absence of immediate reassurance of refunds, the crowd went berserk. One group rushed the barricades, only to be driven back by a cordon of police with attack dogs.
Inside, a roaring sea of people, psyched to hell for Lynyrd Skynyrd, bellow their approval as the band swings into ‘Whiskey Rock ‘n Roller’. As the crowd surges forward, Skynyrd plays a hellified ‘Needle and the Spoon’, then roars into ‘Saturday Night Special’, the three guitarists working tightly together.
Ronnie Van Zant barely moves – a slow, somnambulistic intensity holding him as if in a trance induced by the surging metal pulse he stands in the eye of. He commands attention. Rossington flashes on ‘Don’t Ask Me No Questions’, and Collins evokes spectres of Yardbirds Beck with ‘Train Song’. The audience seems to get more out of control as the music gains momentum. Nobody notices the P.A. failure during ‘Call Me the Breeze’, and by ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ people are going crazy. They’re trying to scramble onto the small bridge linking the barge with the dock. Van Zant shouts at a couple of kids to stop fighting, then shrugs and says, “You paid your money, do what you want.”
As the encore, ‘Free Bird’, builds to a peak, the amphibious fans are seized with the desire to climb the ramp. The wooden slat fences have failed before the crush, and now the large part of one side collapses into the water. One girl stands on the edge on the stage, staring at Allen Collins’ crotch. He leans toward her during his solo. Her face expressionless, she bobs her head in desultory time with the music. The fight for King of the Ramp gets more desperate as the song takes off, kids throwing haymakers at each other with mini surfboards. In rage at the stagehands who are trying to keep them off, or maybe just to make waves, the kids in the moat start splashing water onto the stage; Miraculously, wires that could sizzle manage to hold, and just as an arc of water is about to descend on him, Collins is tackled by Ronnie Van Zant and pulled to safety.
The song and the gig end in confusion. A disgusted Ed King mutters on the way back to the hotel. “Sometimes I wonder if I’m supposed to go out and play,” he says, a little dazed, “or just be in show business.”
The band was up early the following morning for the bus ride to St. Petersburg. They prefer to travel by bus so they can sleep. Gary Rossington sat in the front compartment and talked while the rest of the band dozed. Gary got the idea to form a group ten years ago when he met Allen in eighth grade and Ronnie a year later. They had played Pop Warner baseball together, but seeing the Stones on Ed Sullivan made them want to play rock ‘n roll instead. “After about four years playing at parties, we played Jacksonville clubs for $20 a week for the next five years. We used to play all night and go to school during the day. Never slept. By ’68, we were playing anything on the radio plus ‘Satisfaction’, ‘Day Tripper’, Yardbirds, Blues Magoos. They called us a psychedelic band and for awhile we couldn’t get any work, so we left to go to Atlanta, where we met Kooper.”
They recorded an album-and-a-half worth of material five years ago in Muscle Shoals, but according to Rossington, “Our manager didn’t know what to do with it. I think it’s the best album we did, even though it’s old. You can tell the playing’s sloppy, but the material is better. When our first album came out it was still a dream to us. I didn’t believe we were playing to sold-out houses or riding in a bus. We used to ride in an equipment truck. Everything’s moved so fast – this is what we’ve worked for all our lives and it’s a dream come true.”
Like the rest of the band, Gary credits Al Kooper with arranging their first big break but admits it was difficult to get along with him. “It was hard working for him that first album. We were rushed, had no money, ate once a day if we were lucky, all stayed in two rooms. We did a lot of things he didn’t like, but it came out good. Like on the first song, ‘I Ain’t the One’, he changed the break. Since it was new to us, we did it that way. After, we realized we didn’t like it. We were pressed for time and money but we didn’t want it out, so we did it over.
“Leon Wilkeson was in the group when Kooper signed us, but two weeks before we were to do the album, he quit, so we got Ed King in to play bass. We got Leon back and Ed switched to guitar. At first it was really weird, ’cause we didn’t know how to do it – all three guitars would play the same thing. We didn’t know if it was gonna work, we just tried it out. We had a real good place to practice, and got inspired, started writing – the first ones got thrown out. There’s a few places where I gotta hit one little string to complement Ed – take ‘Alabama’ – I wrote the main thing, Ed came up with little loops that complemented the basic idea, Allen put something else on that. We work on guitars all day sometimes, or all week.
“I think of the group as a team,” Gary explains. “Ronnie, Ed, Allen and myself are the basic core of the band. If I quit, it wouldn’t hurt that much. Same with Al and Ed. But if Ronnie quit it would fall apart – he holds everything together. I think he’s one of the best writers in America. He just writes true stories. Decisions are made jointly by the four of us, but he has always made the final decision ’cause he was a little older and smarter than the rest of us.
“We haven’t changed,” he concluded before heading to the back of the bus for a nap, “even though some people’s attitudes have changed towards us. We’d like to start writing a lot more and touring less. For four years we’ve been constantly on the road, never at home. What we call a day off is traveling…”
We drove for hours past flat scrub lands and swamps filled with birches and palms and short, squat bushes with prickly leaves, past an occasional town, trailer parks, shopping centers. By mid-afternoon we arrived in St. Petersburg, and I talked with Ed King in the hotel restaurant. King’s first band was the Strawberry Alarm Clock, a subject which pains him enough to make him not want to talk about it.
King met Skynyrd when they backed up an Alarm Clock tour. “It was toward the end, when the group had really fallen and we were playing the lowest kind of gig. Skynyrd had just changed from calling themselves the One Per Cent – February, 1970, I think it was – we did gigs together for these crooked promoters, worked for a couple of months. In ’72 they called me in to play bass on the first album – I’d always wanted to play with them.”
According to King, the three guitar set-up “had to happen – I can write songs but I can’t write ’em on bass. We kept experimenting, jamming until it felt right, then we wrote ‘I Need You’ and ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ with the three guitars and we were set.”
King also has some observations about Kooper. “We’ve always stood up to him. Ronnie was ready to beat the shit out of him one time when we were making the first album. One out of every ten or twelve of his ideas is okay. We sent him home after he played us his mix of the album. The concept of every mix was bizarre – I was offended and I told him so. I wasn’t sure if he really cared anymore. Mose Jones was Kooper’s guinea pig and they listened to every word he said. They were easy to manipulate. We had set ideas of what we wanted to do.
“Don’t think the pressure of having that hit single and playing large gigs doesn’t get to us,” he adds. “Bob, our old drummer, wasn’t strong enough and he broke under the strain. The pressure’s on me all the time. The popularity doesn’t mean anything except more responsibility. We don’t want anybody to leave the band any more. Everybody’s heart’s got to be in the same place.”
I cornered Ronnie Van Zant in the dressing room before the show and asked him about the Muscle Shoals tapes. He said they spent a year there and learned a lot from the people he affectionately terms “the swampers.”
“We went in there and they said ‘Don’t you know the bass and drums are supposed to play together?’ We didn’t even know how to count time to songs – we had just two speeds: slow and fast. I don’t understand this phrase ‘I’ve paid my dues.’ We didn’t have any money and lived on peanut butter and jelly, and I loved it. I don’t regret any of it. We never expected to make it this far, but we worked hard to get here. The money doesn’t mean shit – I really don’t care about it at all. All I’m concerned with is the chance to play concerts like we’re doin’ now. We could even stand to come down a few notches – I’d like to see everybody who wants to see us get in.
“I don’t care what the promoter says, I don’t care what the writers say, I just care about those people out there who paid to see us. I know I’ve pawned coke bottles and stuff in the past to get to see a concert, and when it gets to the point like last night where people are bein’ burned, I start to wonder if it’s all worth it. Like that guy who came to see the Charlie Daniels Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd and ended up having his arm mangled by a police dog – that takes away from anything good about the gig last night. Or those people splashing water on stage – I had to pull Allen back ’cause he was standing on the edge of the stage and somebody could have pulled him in the water and fried him – I’d have lost a good friend and I’ll tell you that would have been the end of Lynyrd Skynyrd.”
By this time, Charlie Daniels has finished his set and come in for a few words with Ronnie. I wander outside into the corridor to see what is going on. A long-haired kid, about 18 or so, with a gruesome gash on his right temple is manacled and being staggered down the hall by three grim-faced cops. Close behind, another kid. equally discomfited but less battered, is being dragged. A crowd of cops with sticks raised for action surround the rear entrance to the auditorium, waiting for kids to slither through the backstage door one-by-one, so they can club them into submission. The people outside had little idea what was going on – the police chose to let them work up their wrath unmolested in the parking lot.
Skynyrd is ready to go on. As they wander toward the stage entrance, Van Zant Comes over to me and says, “See here, tonight more people are getting hurt. I’m really beginning to wonder if it’s all worth it.” They go out and play a blazing set for the wildly enthusiastic crowd, climaxing with a super version of ‘Free Bird’. As they leave the stage, Ronnie flashes me a ‘What did you think?’ look. I nod back in approval and he smiles, saying “We had a good time. That’s what I’m talking about.”
The band packs into the limos and heads back to the hotel. The bus is to leave in less than two hours for the eleven-hour drive to the next town. Ronnie invites me down to the bar for a drink. As we pass the front door of the hotel, a van filled with kids pulls up and one of them calls out. Van Zant stops to talk while I go inside. After a few minutes, he comes in and explains that the kids had wanted to party and he had had a hard time putting them off. We go into the bar, sit down and wait to order a drink. The waitress comes over, asks for the rock star’s ID, and refuses to serve him when he fails to produce one. He takes the $20 spending money allotted to each member of the band every day and standing to go, presses it into the waitress’ hand. She tries to refuse but he walks out, commenting, “That’ll make her think about it.”
Al’s Big Deal
AL KOOPER has been praised for his foresight in looking to the South early for the next music hotbed. He has also been called a carpetbagger. Kooper established the now-defunct Sounds of the South label. He has produced all three of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s albums and one failure for Mose Jones. When reached for comment, Kooper was conciliatory about Mose Jones. “This is gonna be my cross to bear,” he admitted. “I have no bad feelings. I feel sorry for them being victimized, but one thing I found out after 17 years in this business is there’s a few people out there who are bitter – you can’t help that. Look at Blood, Sweat & Tears – they murdered me when I left that group and I didn’t think I deserved that.
“If Mose Jones takes me over the coals,” he continued, “I won’t say a bad word about them. I thought they were good kids, they worked hard, and I did everything in my power to help them. I will take one-fifth of the blame for them not making it, but to say it’s me entirely is silly. They had two singles in a row that we leaned on but couldn’t bring home. I still don’t understand it – Mose Jones was more commercial than Lynyrd Skynyrd. It’s a drag for me that they didn’t make it ’cause I put more time and money into them than Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“I left Atlanta because I couldn’t communicate with MCA [the corporation with which Sounds of the South had a distribution deal]. I moved to L.A. so I could be on top of them. Three months after I debuted the Sounds of the South label, MCA didn’t renew the contract. They never paid as much attention to Mose Jones as they did to Skynyrd, and that was one of my biggest problems. They just didn’t promote the product equally.
“When I sold Skynyrd’s contract, they could have gotten any producer they wanted. I almost had a fucking nervous breakdown on this album. They were dissatisfied with a few things – too much tambourine on ‘Saturday Night Special’, the background voices on ‘Am I Losin”, and the cowbell in ‘On the Hunt.’ They’re nice guys except when it comes to recording. It’s a nightmare to work with them in the studio and I suppose it’s the same for them with me. They take their recordings very seriously and they definitely should produce themselves.”
© John Swenson, Crawdaddy!, July 1975