Gary Rossington, the Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist and the last surviving original member of the band, has died at the age of 71.
No cause of death was given for the musician, who died on Sunday, nearly four months before the band was set to embark on its next tour.
The guitarist had been dealing with health issues for some years, including a heart attack in 2015 and emergency heart surgery in 2021.
In an official statement, Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote: “It is with our deepest sympathy and sadness that we have to advise, that we lost our brother, friend, family member, songwriter and guitarist, Gary Rossington, today. Gary is now with his Skynyrd brothers and family in heaven and playing it pretty, like he always does.”
In 2016, Rossington told Billboard magazine that he’d decided to keep playing, despite his health problems.
“It’s just in my blood, y’know?” he said. “I’m just an old guitar player, and we’ve spent our whole lives and the 10,000 hours of working to understand how to play and do it. So I think once you’ve got something going for yourself, you should keep it up and keep your craft going. When you retire, what’s next? I like to fish, but how much of that can you do, right?”
Born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1951, Rossington has been in the band since 1964, when it was a trio named Me, You, and Him, with bassist Larry Junstrom and drummer Bob Burns. Rossington wanted to be a baseball player, but after hearing the Rolling Stones, turned to music instead.
Baseball led to Lynyrd Skynyrd, however: Rossington, Burns and Junstrom met singer Ronnie Van Zant, who played on a rival baseball team, at a game and they jammed together in the carport of Burns’s parents’ house.
After a few name changes, they eventually settled on Lynyrd Skynyrd, named for Leonard Skinner, a strict teacher at 16-year-old Rossington’s school. Skinner had a zero-tolerance policy for boys with long hair – like Rossington, who was suspended and soon dropped out of school.
The band’s debut album was released in 1973, and featured the nine-minute track Free Bird, which became one of Skynyrd’s most famous songs. Rossington co-wrote “Sweet Home Alabama,” a hit from their second album, as well as several other Skynyrd tracks, including “I Ain’t The One,” “Things Goin’ On,” “Don’t Ask Me No Questions” and “Gimme Back My Bullets.”
In 1977, a plane carrying the band crashed in Mississippi, killing Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister and backup singer Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick and both pilots. Twenty people on the plane survived, including Rossington, who was knocked unconscious; he awoke with the plane’s door on top of him.
Though he broke both of his arms, legs, wrists and ankles and his pelvis, Rossington fully recovered but battled against drug usage for years, which began with his heavy dependence on pain medication during his recovery.
“We couldn’t imagine going on after something like that,” he once said. “We were a brotherhood and when you lose your brothers you can’t just go on.”
Skynyrd disbanded but reformed in 1987 and has continued ever since with several lineup changes, but Rossington was the only member of the band to appear on all of its albums. Johnny Van Zant – Ronnie’s brother and Skynyrd’s frontman since 1977 – once said: “I don’t think you can have Lynyrd Skynyrd without Gary Rossington.”
Rossington outlived several of his fellow Skynyrd guitarists, including Allen Collins, Ed King, Hughie Thomasson and Rickey Medlocke.
In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked Lynyrd Skynyrd at No 95 on its 100 greatest artists of all time list and the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.