Legends of the Les Paul: Gary Rossington
A new mini-series for Gibson.com, Legends of the Les Paul celebrates great guitarists who made specific Les Paul models their passion, merging artist and instrument into the creation of legendary music.
The career of southern-rock founder Gary Rossington is one that has been dogged by tragedy, but his tone and playing style ring out as archetypal Les Paul-fueled boogie-rock, and his mark on the history of the instrument is everlasting.
Southern Rock Originals
Rossington was born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1951, and while still in his teens formed the roots of what would become Lynyrd Skynyrd. He came by his Les Paul much the way many a vintage-guitar hunter has dreamed of stumbling on their own rare find—boyfriend leaves girlfriend, girlfriend “revenge-sells” boyfriend’s priceless Les Paul—and the instrument became a major part of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s three-guitar assault. So tied to Rossington’s formative recordings is this great Les Paul that it’s difficult to imagine hearing his rich, fluid, singing leads achieved on anything else.
The band’s 1973 debut album logged an eternal cover-band request in the single “Free Bird,” as well as popular Skynyrd tunes “Gimme Three Steps” and “Simple Man,” but it was the sophomore outing, Second Helping, that produced their biggest hit in “Sweet Home Alabama.” By this time, third guitarist Ed King, formerly of Strawberry Alarm Clock, had joined Rossington and Allen Collins to secure Lynyrd Skynyrd’s signature sound.
The band cruised through the mid ’70s as the world’s premier southern rockers, when the first of two successive tragedies struck. After overdoing it on drugs and alcohol on Labor Day weekend in 1976, Rossington ran his brand new Ford Torino into an oak tree; by some freak coincidence, Collins was also injured in a separate car accident that same weekend. The Collins/Van Zant song “That Smell” on the band’s next album would tell the story of Rossington’s substance abuse, and the crash, featuring the lyric:
“Whiskey bottles, and brand new cars
Oak tree you’re in my way
There’s too much coke and too much smoke
Look what’s going on inside you.”
Just over a year later, on a flight from the fifth date of the Street Survivors tour in Greenville, South Carolina, the band’s chartered plane crashed in the woods outside McComb, Mississippi, killing lead singer Ronnie Van Zant and new guitarist Steve Gaines, as well as other members of the crew, while badly injuring the remaining six band members. Rossington broke both arms, both legs, both wrists, both ankles, and his pelvis, and suffered a slow recuperation after many operations, with metal pins installed in several repaired joints.
Subsequent pressings of the cover of the fatefully ironic Street Survivors album—named for the previous year’s car crashes, with a photo of the band engulfed in flames—would instead show the band standing before a somber black background. In 1986, bandmate Allen Collins was involved in another car accident, which took the life of his girlfriend and left him paralyzed from the waist down. He died in 1990 from complications brought on by his injuries.
Through subsequent projects and the reformation of Lynyrd Skynyrd (of which he is the only original member at the time of writing), the Les Paul remained Rossington primary instrument, although he frequently turned to reissue models in later years. The Limited Edition Gary Rossington Les Paul, hand-aged by Tom Murphy, was introduced by Gibson Custom in 2002 (pictured below).