As the third anniversary of the tragedy approaches, four Skynyrd survivors have regrouped with three musician friends under a fresh name taken from Gary Rossington and Allen Collins, the guitarist co-founders of the original group. The Rossington Collins LP, Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere, boosted now by a hit single, Don't Misunderstand Me, is on the brink of turning platinum. Powered by the electrifying blues-rock of a sizzling new lead singer, Dale Krantz, 29, the band has also won over critics and concert-goers along their 69-city U.S. tour.
Hard living and misadventure were part of the Skynyrd legend that led to seven gold and four platinum LPs and to classics like Sweet Home Alabama, "The highest times of my life were playing with those people," recalls Collins, 28. The accident, reportedly caused by lack of fuel, ended 14 years of near-constant barnstorming. "It was the worst thing that ever happened to me," says Rossington, 28. He was rushed to a Jackson, Miss., hospital with multiple burns and injuries, while bassist Leon Wilkeson, drummer Artimus Pyle and pianist Billy Powell were hospitalized with severe fractures and injuries. "One day we had everything, the next day there was nothing. We were on top of the world, and we were thrown down."
Convalescence took months. Collins' left arm was thought to be irreparably injured, and a doctor suggested amputation. Collins' father, Larkin, came to the rescue, directing the surgeon: "Don't you dare cut it off! You can do anything, but make it work." Powell, Wilkeson and Rossington left the hospital with their share of stitches and bruises, but it was Collins who sank into the deepest depression. "I thought I was going crazy. I just wanted to forget about it, but I couldn't. I didn't care about nothing," he says.
Then Rossington and Collins, who grew up together in Florida and formed the Skynyrd nucleus with Van Zant, got together to mull the future. "What are we going to do?" Rossington recalls asking. "Just sit around like two old men?" He adds, "We weren't quitters. We had just had it with people telling us, 'You can't do it.' " Picks up Collins: "I said, "I'm going to do it!"
The pair, with Van Zant's widow, Judy, now 32, had made a pact weeks after the crash never to use the Skynyrd name. They settled on "Rossington Collins" when Papa Collins had it printed up on a T-shirt. The pair warmed up by producing an album for friends in Orlando, with Powell, Wilkeson and Pyle, all three 28, playing backup. Instinctively, the five were soon jamming and planning again. "We realized," says Collins, "we had our new band right there."
They added a longtime pal, Atlanta guitar whiz Barry Harwood, 28. Aside from impeccable studio and touring credentials, Harwood had survived a near-fatal car wreck. But even before rehearsals, drummer Pyle was in a serious motorcycle accident and had to be replaced by a friend of Harwood's, Derek Hess, 29.
The toughest decision for the "All-Scar Band" (as they ruefully describe themselves) was choosing a new lead vocalist. Out of respect for the gifted Van Zant (and for any male successor), they shrewdly sought a woman and settled on Krantz, a native of Angola, Ind., and a graduate of Indiana University. The band knew her backup vocals with .38 Special, a group led by Van Zant's kid brother, Donnie. Her reaction to her first audition: "I thought my heart was going to come right out of my chest."
The new R-C Band, driven by Krantz' Joplin-esque gyrations and lyrics, has a gritty, distinctive sound. "What we tried not to do," says Rossington, "is rip off the accident." The lone homage to Skynyrd in their repertoire is the encore Free Bird, once the group's anthem, done now as an instrumental. "I still get chills when I play that song," says Collins. When one booker promoted an upcoming R-C concert by playing radio spots of Skynyrd classics, the band canceled the appearance.
Pulling the group together has already exacted a high price in its members' homes around Jacksonville. Dale admits her five-month marriage to Raymond Watkins, one of the band's roadies, is already shaky ("We went through some kind of hell over this thing"). Harwood was divorced this past June. Rossington just split from his wife of almost three years, Martha. "We got married, spent a month together, and two weeks later was the crash. There was no choice when it came down to playing again or staying married," he explains, "and we were too smart to be faking it."
Powell and Collins, though, are married with seven kids between them. Collins' other "pride and joy" is a rare '54 Mercedes, once owned by Van Zant. "Every day I am reminded of the past," muses Collins. "Alabama will come on the radio, or a friend mentions Ronnie..." The ex-Skynyrds still remain close to Van Zant's widow and his daughter, Melody, 4. Royalties from Ronnie's prolific songwriting support them, and a multimillion-dollar suit on behalf of the band and crew against the lessor and manufacturer of the airplane is pending.
Clearly, the new success has helped reduce the pain. "We've been through it all and have come back out," says Rossington. "I feel like if I have to die right now, I'm happy. I did everything I could, not just once, but twice."
The jacket of the debut album by the Rossington Collins Band features a phoenix risen from flames enveloping three golden tombs. The symbolism is obvious to fans who mourned the demise in October 1977 of the formative Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. Three of its members—lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, backup vocalist Cassie Gaines—were killed and the others critically injured in a Mississippi plane crash while flying to a tour date in Baton Rouge, La.