Leon Wilkeson

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The Independent Online

Leon Wilkeson, guitarist: born Jacksonville, Florida 2 April 1952; died Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida 27 July 2001.

The bassist Leon Wilkeson was a founding member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the southern US rock group who sold 35 million albums and are most famous for "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Free Bird", defining tracks of the mid-Seventies.

Wilkeson survived the 1977 plane crash which killed the band's original singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, backing vocalist Cassie Gaines and their personal manager Dean Kilpatrick. Ten years later, Lynyrd Skynyrd reformed for a tribute concert with Ronnie's brother Johnny Van Zant as frontman. The reunion became permanent, although only Wilkeson, the guitarist Gary Rossington and keyboardist Billy Powell had lasted the 30-year course.

Born in 1952, Leon Wilkeson grew up in the industrial sea port of Jacksonville, Florida, with most of the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Named after Leonard Skinner, a gym coach at their local high school who disapproved of rock music and long hair, the group's first settled personnel comprised Ronnie Van Zant, Gary Rossington, Billy Powell, Leon Wilkeson as well as the guitarist Allen Collins and drummer Bob Burns.

By 1971, they had acquired the services of a manager, Phil Walden. They were perfecting a potent brew of blues, boogie, Rolling Stones and Free influences, and cut demos at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Memphis, Alabama. Following the success of the Allman Brothers Band, the musical South was rising again and the hot-shot session player-turned-producer Al Kooper came looking for acts to sign to his label Sounds of the South. While in Atlanta, Kooper spotted Lynyrd Skynyrd playing Funochio's bar and jammed with them on several occasions. "We didn't have anything else going for us. We would have done anything to get out of the southern slave circuit," Wilkeson said later.

However, when Kooper offered Lynyrd Skynyrd a record deal in late 1972, Wilkeson couldn't handle the pressure and quit temporarily. He briefly worked in an ice-cream factory but helped prompt his replacement, the former Strawberry Alarm Clock guitarist Ed King, who played bass on Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd, the group's début album and its nine-minute version of "Free Bird". Building from a moody, maudlin intro to a frenzied guitar crescendo, the track became a Hell's Angels favourite, and charted in Britain on three separate occasions.

Having overcome his early jitters, Wilkeson was back in the fold two days after the completion of these recording sessions and King switched back to six strings to create Lynyrd Skynyrd's characteristic three-pronged guitar sound. Previously, the band had barely ventured out of the South but in the autumn of 1973 opened on tour for The Who. "We'd only ever played bars and there we were at the Cow Palace in San Francisco in front of 18,000 screaming fans. We'd never seen that big a crowd," said Wilkeson. High on booze and adrenalin, Lynyrd Skynyrd blasted through a short set and went down a treat. This prestigious support slot introduced the group to blue- collar America and they soon celebrated the first of many gold discs.

Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote "Sweet Home Alabama" as a reaction to Neil Young's "Alabama" and "Southern Man". "We felt he was putting down the whole state, the whole South," said Wilkeson. The song hit a nerve and the US Top Ten in 1974. The following year, Lynyrd Skynyrd made their British début and remained regular visitors, appearing in front of 200,000 people at an open-air concert headlined by the Rolling Stones at Knebworth in 1976.

Now managed by the formidable Englishman Peter Rudge and with the guitarist Steve Gaines replacing Ed King and drummer Artimus Pyle in for the ailing Bob Burns, Lynyrd Skynyrd had joined the major rock'n'roll league: boozing, brawling – sometimes among themselves – and doing drugs, selling a million copies of their double live album One More for the Road in the US alone and chartering their own plane for a 60-date nationwide tour.

On 20 October 1977, the pilots of the group's Convair 240 badly miscalculated the fuel they had on board and the plane crashed into a swamp near Gillsburg, Mississippi. Four members of the band and their entourage died, while the others suffered serious injuries. MCA quickly withdrew the just-released album Street Survivors – already certified gold with sales of 500,000 – in order to replace the original sleeve depicting the musicians surrounded by flames.

Most of the survivors of the crash, including Wilkeson, took stock and joined forces in the Rossington-Collins Band. When Rossington formed a duo with his wife in 1981, Collins, Wilkeson and Powell stuck together. "There might not have been a Lynyrd Skynyrd but some of us never stopped working together." Wilkeson said.

Indeed, the legend of Lynyrd Skynyrd had grown to such an extent that a one-off reunion event in 1987, with Ronnie's younger brother Johnny stepping up to the microphone, became a full tour and on-going venture. Lynyrd Skynyrd went back on the road, back in the studio and released several albums including last year's festive offering Christmas Time Again.

Wearing a trademark stetson or a leather top hat, Wilkeson always cut a distinctive figure on stage. He may have fought with the other members and suffered at the hands of a girlfriend who once held him hostage at gunpoint and later stabbed him with a knife, but, when Leon Wilkeson had to overdub bass parts on two 1977 live tracks for inclusion in Free Bird . . . The Movie (1996), the memory of his lost southern brothers moved him to tears.

Pierre Perrone

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