Ronnie Van Zant

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Ronnie Van Zant
Van Zant circa 1976
Background information
Birth nameRonald Wayne Van Zant
Born(1948-01-15)January 15, 1948
Jacksonville, Florida, U.S.
DiedOctober 20, 1977(1977-10-20) (aged 29)
Gillsburg, Mississippi, U.S.
  • Musician
  • songwriter
  • Vocals
  • guitar
  • piano
  • drums
Years active1964–1977
Associated acts Lynyrd Skynyrd

Ronald Wayne Van Zant (January 15, 1948 – October 20, 1977) was an American musician known as the lead vocalist, primary lyricist, and founding member of the Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. He was the older brother of two other rock vocalists: current Lynyrd Skynyrd lead vocalist Johnny Van Zant and Donnie Van Zant, the founder and vocalist of 38 Special. He was the father of Tammy Van Zant and Melody Van Zant. [1]


Early life

He was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida, to Lacy Austin (1915–2004) and Marion Virginia (Hicks) Van Zant (1929–2000). Ronnie aspired to be many things before finding his love for music. Idolizing boxer Muhammad Ali, he considered a career in the ring, and while playing American Legion baseball dreamed of Minor League success. [2]

Lynyrd Skynyrd

Van Zant formed a band called My Backyard [2] late in the summer of 1964 with friends and schoolmates Allen Collins (guitar), Gary Rossington (guitar), Larry Junstrom (bass), and Bob Burns (drums). The quintet went through several names before deciding on Lynyrd Skynyrd, a mock tribute to gym teacher Leonard Skinner (who disapproved of male students with long hair) that all but Collins had at Robert E. Lee High School.

The band's national exposure began in 1973 with the release of their debut album, (Pronounced 'Lĕh-'nérd 'Skin-'nérd) , which had a string of hits that included "I Ain't the One", "Tuesday's Gone", "Gimme Three Steps", "Simple Man," and what became their signature, "Free Bird", later dedicated to the late Duane Allman of The Allman Brothers Band.[ citation needed ]

Lynyrd Skynyrd's biggest hit single was "Sweet Home Alabama" from their follow-up album Second Helping, an answer to Neil Young's "Alabama" and "Southern Man." Young's song "Powderfinger" on the 1979 album Rust Never Sleeps was reportedly written for Skynyrd, and Van Zant is pictured on the cover of Street Survivors wearing a T-shirt of Young's Tonight's the Night [3] and in the 2 July 1977 Oakland Coliseum concert (excerpted in Freebird... The Movie ). [4]


On October 20, 1977, a plane carrying the band between shows from Greenville, South Carolina, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, ran out of fuel outside Gillsburg, Mississippi. The passengers had been informed about potential problems with the Convair CV-240 and were told to brace for a crash. [5] Van Zant died on impact from head injuries suffered after the aircraft struck a tree. Bandmates Steve Gaines and Cassie Gaines, along with assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary, and co-pilot William Gray, were also killed. The rest of the band was seriously injured. [6] Van Zant was 29 years old.

According to former bandmate Artimus Pyle and family members, Van Zant frequently discussed his mortality. Pyle recalls a moment when Lynyrd Skynyrd was in Japan: "Ronnie and I were in Tokyo, Japan, and Ronnie told me that he would never live to see thirty and that he would go out with his boots on, in other words, on the road. I said, 'Ronnie, don't talk like that,' but the man knew his destiny." [7] Van Zant's father, Lacy, said, "He said to me many times, 'Daddy, I'll never be 30 years old.' I said, 'Why are you talking this junk? You will never be 30 years old?’ and he said, 'Daddy, that's my limit.'" Van Zant's father later noted that, "God was a jealous god. Taking him for reasons I don't know." [7] Ex-bandmate Ed King also reported hearing Van Zant saying he would never live to be 30 years old, saying Van Zant said it so often that he "had gotten sick of hearing it". [8] Lynyrd Skynyrd backup singer JoJo Billingsley recalled that Van Zant had begun referring to himself as "The Mississippi Kid" in the months before his death despite being born and raised in Florida. She noted that, eerily, Van Zant's only connection to Mississippi was the fact that he would ultimately die there. [9]

Van Zant's younger brother, Johnny, took over as the new lead singer when the band reunited in 1987.

Ex-Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Ed King recalls the intense sadness of Van Zant's funeral, noting that people in attendance were so overcome with grief that they were literally falling down. [8] Van Zant was buried in Orange Park, Florida, in 1977. His body was relocated after vandals broke into his tomb and that of bandmate Steve Gaines on June 29, 2000. Van Zant's casket was pulled out and dropped on the ground. The bag containing Gaines' remains was torn open and some scattered onto the grass. [10] Their mausoleums at Orange Park remain as memorials for fans to visit.

Ten years later, the new location of their interment was accidentally revealed by a Craigslist ad. A family selling two plots they decided not to retain, ran a Craigslist ad and stated the plots were in the Jacksonville Memory Gardens Cemetery in Orange Park, Florida, adjacent to Ronnie Van Zant's tomb. [11]

According to the cemetery listing website Find-a-Grave, Van Zant was reburied at Riverside Memorial Park in Jacksonville, near the grave of his father Lacy and mother Marion. Both his current resting place and the empty mausoleum in Orange Park are listed, with the statement: "Due to the June 29th, 2000 vandalization of his original grave site, his casket was moved to this new location and buried in a massive underground concrete burial vault. To open the vault would require a tractor with a lift capacity of several tons. It is also patrolled by security." [12]

Personal life

Van Zant married Nadine Inscoe on January 2, 1967. Around this time, Van Zant also worked at his brother-in-law's auto parts store, Morris Auto Parts in Jacksonville. It was said that Van Zant was a virtual catalog of automotive parts, he had a near photographic memory for them. The couple had a daughter named Tammy, before divorcing in 1969; Tammy would become a musician. He married Judy Seymour in 1972 after meeting her at The Comic Book Club through Gary Rossington in 1969. [2] (The club closed in 1975 and is now a parking garage.) [13] They remained married up until his death in 1977. They had one daughter, Melody, born in 1976. Judy Van Zant-Jenness founded the Freebird Live in 1999, a music venue located in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. It featured Lynyrd Skynyrd memorabilia and was co-owned by Melody Van Zant. Judy married Jim Jenness and founded and ran The Freebird Foundation until its dissolution in 2001.

Van Zant was an avid fisherman. He enjoyed baseball, and was a fan of the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees. As a child, he played American Legion baseball and aspired to play professional baseball, as he recalled in a 1975 interview. [2]

Van Zant had several run-ins with the law, most notably in 1975, when he was arrested for hurling a table out of a second-story hotel room window. [14] [15]


The Ronnie Van Zant Memorial Park, funded by fans and family of the band, was built on Sandridge Road in Lake Asbury, Florida, nearby his hometown of Jacksonville.

Several members of his family have memorialized Ronnie in their music. His brothers Johnny and Donnie co-wrote the title track of John's 1990 album "Brickyard Road" [16] with family friend and album producer Robert White Johnson. In the reformed Lynyrd Skynyrd's music video for the posthumously-released track "What's Your Name" closes with a white hat similar to Ronnie's sitting atop a microphone. Ronnie's daughter Tammy, who was only 10 years old when he died, dedicated the album title track, "Freebird Child" as well as the music video to her father in 2009. [17] Van Zant's cousin Jimmie Van Zant recorded the tribute track "Ronnie's Song" on the album Southern Comfort (2000). [18]

Alt country band Drive-By Truckers also paid tribute to Ronnie and members of the original band on their Southern Rock Opera album.

"The All-Night Bus Ride", the 8th episode of Season 1 of the Showtime series Roadies , was made in honor of Van Zant and the band.

In the 1978 song "Reflections" [19] on the Charlie Daniels Band album Million Mile Reflections , the third verse talks about Van Zant saying "And Ronnie, my buddy above all the rest. I miss you the most and loved you the best.". With a dedication on the back of the original record sleeve with a poem the last line reading "Fly on proud bird, you're free at last." Signed Charlie Daniels 1978.


  1. 1 2 Charlotte Dillon. "Ronnie Van Zant | Biography & History". AllMusic . Retrieved May 26, 2016.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Wailer Website Services. "The Official Lynyrd Skynyrd History Website – History Lessons". Retrieved July 12, 2014.
  3. "Lynyrd Skynyrd and Neil Young: Friends or Foes? An Analysis of Sweet Home Alabama and Southern Man". Thrasher's Wheat. Retrieved June 2, 2012.
  4. Lynyrd Skynyrd - Freebird - 7/2/1977 - Oakland Coliseum Stadium on YouTube
  5. US National Transportation Safety Board 1978, p6.
  6. Check-Six 2007.
  7. 1 2 ""Behind the Music Remastered: Lynyrd Skynyrd" ( Ep. 207 ) from Behind The Music Remastered | Full Episode". Retrieved December 30, 2011.
  8. 1 2 The Ray Shasho Show, BBS Radio 1 Network, 2016
  9. If I Leave Here Tomorrow: A Film About Lynyrd Skynyrd, Passion Pictures, Directed by Stephen Kijak, 2018
  10. Anderson 2000.
  11. Craigslist posting reveals Ronnie Van Zant's burial site WKMG, April 19, 2012
  12. Soorus 2002.
  13. " Many of the area's music landmarks no longer exist 07/05/98 |". Archived from the original on October 9, 2012. Retrieved July 12, 2014.
  14. "What did the band Lynyrd Skynyrd contribute to music?". Retrieved May 26, 2016.
  15. Kline, Jeff (April 28, 1976). "Lynyrd Skynyrd Known For Fights As Well As Music". Lakeland Ledger.
  16. Johnny Van Zant - Brickyard Road on YouTube
  17. "Freebird Child". Freebirdchild.Com. Retrieved May 26, 2016.
  18. Jimmie Van Zant - Ronnie's Song on YouTube
  19. Charlie Daniels band-Reflections on YouTube

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