Leonard Skinner. Better known as Lynyrd Skynyrd. Wished he wasn't

PE teacher whose name was taken by rock band as act of revenge dies aged 77

David Usborne
Wednesday 22 September 2010 00:00
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To most of the world, the death of 77-year-old former gym teacher Leonard Skinner in a Florida nursing home will have seemed like a sad but ultimately insignificant moment. To fans of the vintage American band Lynyrd Skynyrd, though, the passing of Mr Skinner will go down as a little piece of rock history.

In the late Sixties, he worked in the Jacksonville school where the band that gave us "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Free Bird" spent their teenage years. His influence on the group meant that he gave them the moniker that would stay with one of the most commercially prolific groups of the Seventies for the rest of their careers.

Not that it was a willing donation. Mr Skinner, who died on Monday, was known for strictness. His mistake was one day to single out a young lad named Ronnie Van Zant for wearing hair just beyond the cusp of his collar. If he hadn't sent the boy to the headmaster's office, the folklore of the band might have been very different.

But as it was, Van Zant, who was later expelled from the high school for other episodes of defiance, at some point had the idea at getting back at his old gym teacher. He had a small band at the time called One Percent. Well aware that his school nemesis would loathe what he played, he decided to rename the group in dubious tribute. The change in spelling, seemingly, was designed to get the old teacher's goat even more.

The band's references to their former teacher did not abate with time: in 1975, they used a sign from an estate agent business that he had moved on to run as the cover of the album Nuthin' Fancy, neglecting to remove his name or telephone number. Skinner was inundated with calls from fans from around the world.

In the end, though, the rebels and the disciplinarian reached a kind of peace. Mr Skinner, who went on to run a bar in Jacksonville in northern Florida, was later to say that he could never grow to love the music the band played, but he did after a while admit to feeling more flattered than infuriated as its success grew.

And he expressed his sadness when Van Zant and two others of the original band members perished in a plane crash while on tour in 1977, even if he couldn't help a little reprimand too. "They were good, talented, hardworking boys," Mr. Skinner said at the time. "They worked hard, lived hard, and boozed hard."

In later years, he even struck up friendships with surviving band members. "Coach Skinner had such a profound impact on our youth that ultimately led us to naming the band, which you know as Lynyrd Skynyrd, after him," Gary Rossington, the only remaining member of the original group, confirmed yesterday. "Looking back, I cannot imagine it any other way. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this time."

The band, which used to display the confederate flag, long associated with slavery, at the back of the stage while on tour to stress its southern American roots, is still performing, with Van Zant's younger brother, Johnny Van Zant, as lead singer.

Among those recalling how the old teacher came around to the idea that the band was partly of his making was Susie Moore, his daughter. "He embraced it. As he got older, he mellowed and then he was able to embrace all types of music, really, even country."

And in an interview with the Florida Times-Union last year, he said that in the end, the whole thing about his run-in with Van Zant had hardly been his fault. The boy's hair was too long and that was that. (His attempts to slick it down with Vaseline didn't have him or any of the teachers fooled.)

"It was against the school rules," Mr Skinner said simply. "I don't particularly like long hair on men, but again, it wasn't my rule."

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