Turn It UP! My years with Lynyrd Skynyrd…. by Ron Eckerman

Not long ago I had to fly somewhere and I’m a nervous flyer. I usually dread getting into a plane but I was determined I would enjoy this flight to Texas and then Colorado. We got into the air with my right ear-popping like crazy and I decided to listen to an audiobook once we were flying. I opened my audible library selection and just picked one at random. Well, needless to say, I picked this one. I was 30 minutes into the book before I discovered the irony of the situation. I quickly picked another book (Grateful Dead bio) and listened to that but…I finished this one on the way back while… driving safely on the ground.

This is not an autobiography of the band… it is an account of their mid to late-70s tours. The book was written by an insider (the road manager) book from 1974 to the 1977 plane crash. Lynyrd Skynyrd was a wild bunch who was ruled by lead singer Ronnie Van Zant with an iron fist. It was partly about babysitting a bunch of up-and-coming rock stars and yes…very entertaining. These guys learned from the best… they had opened for The Who on the Quadrophenia tour in 1973. Keith Moon showed them the path to destruction in hotels across the globe. They took it to a new level though…not only fighting with people who annoyed them…they fought each other. Contrary to popular belief…most of them were well-read and intelligent men but with a wild side. 

The band was managed by Peter Rudge who was known to be very cheap with bands. He also managed the Stones and The Who. It was Ron Eckerman’s (tour manager) job to collect the money and figure out the most economical way of traveling. In early 1977 he saw that traveling by plane would be cheaper than by bus. The band toured constantly and was rarely at home adding to the short tempers. They lost their guitar player Ed King in 1975 because of that plus madness exploding out of pure exhaustion. Keeping a road crew together while you are not touring was near impossible unless you play over 200 – 250 shows a year. 

Reading this book is truly like being transported in time back in the seventies rock world. It was back to a time when bands had to build up an audience. It didn’t happen with a youtube video or a Facebook page. There were no auto-tune or backing tracks to save you in concert. Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of the best live bands around. They played at Knebworth in 1976 and were heralded in the press as the next great band in league with the Stones and Who. They never got that chance and were different than most bands. They had no production values at all…just a mirror disco ball. Ronnie Van Zant did not dance around like Mick Jagger or Steven Tyler…he was more like a field general directing his troops to conquer the audience. 

After losing Ed King, a great California guitarist… they picked up Oklahoma native Steve Gaines who would have had a chance to be a huge star. Gaines was an absolute phenom on guitar and had he not died at 28 in the plane crash, he might well be a guitar legend now. The book is hilarious in places but you know what is coming. They climbed the rock ladder and the new album Street Survivors showed what they might do. The album was not a “southern rock” album…it was a rock album by a band from the south. 

They never would get a chance to fulfill their promise. The new album was their biggest yet and in two weeks’ time, they would have headlined Madison Square Garden for the first time. It really did look like they were about to be elevated to the top bracket of touring rock bands.

I was a kid when all of this was going on but I am amazed at how much the world has changed since then. If a band, no matter how successful, would do what they did in today’s world…the band would be in jail and shunned. Not only Lynyrd Skynryd but Led Zeppelin, The Stones, The Who, and a host of other rock bands. The book will truly transport you back to that time. Even if you are a fan or not…it’s worth a read. Ron Eckerman was in the plane when it crashed and his description is truly chilling. 

Eckerman took the blame for the crash but it wasn’t one man’s fault. A short while after releasing the book he died of acute myeloid leukemia. His wife said he never got over the guilt for the crash and he died three years after the book was published. 

Lynyrd Skynyrd – Saturday Night Special

The riff in this song is ominous sounding. As usual Van Zant’s lyrics fit the music perfectly. This song seems strange knowing that many members had guns and were widely known as a wild band.

This song is about the cheap guns you could buy on the street for 20 bucks called Saturday Night Specials. Van Zant was advocating more control over the illegal ones that were so easy to get.

Lynyrd Skynyrd weren’t against legal guns. Many of them had them. Leon Wilkeson, the bass player, actually took to wearing a holster and a real gun onstage but it was only loaded with blanks. On one tour they were opening for Black Sabbath at Nassau Coliseum, Long Island. Black Sabbath fans apparently didn’t like them and rushed the stage with taunts.

When one fan got too close, Wilkeson drew his pistol and fired a blank over the heads of the crowd. Everybody immediately backed off and the show completed without any more trouble. Yep…they were a wild bunch.

The song peaked at #27 in the Billboard 100 and #63 in Canada. It was off of their Nothin’ Fancy album released in 1975. The album peaked at #8 in the Billboard Album Charts and #43 in the UK. It would be their last album produced by Al Kooper.

For this song, drummer Bob Burns had to take a break from touring and Artimus Pyle was brought in to replace him. Pyle was given just a couple of days to rehearse the song in a rented Atlanta club before they hit the road again.

This was the last album that Ed King appeared on with the original band. Ed was from Southern California and the only non-Southerner in the lineup. He said he felt like an outsider in the band. He was originally in the Strawberry Alarm Clock and joined Lynyrd Skynyrd just in time for their original album and played bass on that. He would soon switch back to electric guitar and would help write Sweet Home Alabama.

One night on tour in Pittsburgh King was fed up and left in the middle of the night. They had 4 weeks remaining on the tour.

Ed King: We had a show in Pittsburgh one night. (May 26, 1975) Ronnie and my guitar tech got thrown in jail the night before in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They were really late getting to the show. My guitar strings weren’t changed for the show. By the end of the night, I had broken two strings. All the way back to the hotel Ronnie was just raising hell about it. When we got back to the hotel, I just said that this is just really screwed up. This came at the very end of all kinds of stuff on that tour. I just didn’t need it anymore.

Despite this…. some people forget just how good live they were. They could go toe to toe with the Stones or any other touring band at the time.

Mick Jagger laid some ground rules at the 1976 Knebworth Festival for Lynyrd Skynyrd…they could do what they wanted except walk down the prop tongue part of the stage. That was a stupid thing to tell this band…they did exactly that.

The Stones played later but the day belonged to Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Gary Rossington: “It was a strong message that Ronnie was conveying, Those cheap handguns were no good for hunting or anything else – they were just made to kill people. And those guns were easy to find. We came from a rough part of town, the west side of Jacksonville. There were a lot of bad people there, and every week you’d hear that somebody got shot or killed.”

Although the song didn’t hit the top 20, it has remained a staple on classic rock radio for years.

This is a live version in 1976 at the Knebworth Festival after Ed left the band and Steve Gaines took his place. Gaines was probably the best guitar player they ever had.

Saturday Night Special

Two feet they come a creepin’
Like a black cat do
And two bodies are layin’ naked
Creeper think he got nothin’ to lose
So he creeps into this house, yeah
And unlocks the door
And as a man’s reaching for his trousers
Shoots him full of thirty-eight holes

Mr. Saturday night special
Got a barrel that’s blue and cold
Ain’t good for nothin’
But put a man six feet in a hole

Big Jim’s been drinkin’ whiskey
And playin’ poker on a losin’ night
And pretty soon ol’ Jim starts a thinkin’
Somebody been cheatin’ and lyin’
So Big Jim commence to fightin’
I wouldn’t tell you no lie
Big Jim done pulled his pistol
Shot his friend right between the eyes

Mr. Saturday night special
Got a barrel that’s blue and cold
Ain’t good for nothin’
But put a man six feet in a hole

Oh, it’s the Saturday night special

Hand guns are made for killin’
They ain’t no good for nothin’ else
And if you like to drink your whiskey
You might even shoot yourself
So why don’t we dump ’em people
To the bottom of the sea
Before some ol’ fool come around here
Wanna shoot either you or me

Mr. Saturday night special
Got a barrel that’s blue and cold
Ain’t good for nothin’
But put a man six feet in a hole

Mr. the Saturday night special
And I’d like to tell you what you could do with it
And that’s the end of the song