By Terri Tabor

Daily Journal

What’s Lynyrd Skynyrd doing now?

Selling cars at a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership in Jacksonville, Fla., according to lead singer Johnny Van Zant.

“Now Leonard is selling cars, can you imagine that?” said the lead vocalist during a Tuesday telephone interview from a hotel suite in West Palm Beach, Fla.

If it’s hard to picture the classic rockers wheeling and dealing, it’s because Van Zant isn’t talking about the band, but rather the high school gym teacher, Leonard Skinner, for whom the band took its name 31 years ago. The name was an attempt to immortalize the school gym teacher who kicked guys with long hair out of his gym.

Van Zant recently ran into Skinner while buying a Jeep Cherokee at the dealership. While talking to the salesman, Van Zant heard, “Would Leonard Skinner please pick up line one?”

“I thought somebody was pulling a joke,” he said. “That was a coincidence.”

Even though Van Zant wasn’t a founding member of the band, he still thinks a lot of the man behind the name that has earned him fame. “He’s really a nice guy. Heck, he’s had a blast with this.”

While the real Leonard Skinner is selling cars, the group Lynyrd is on their ’96 summer tour which opened in West Palm Beach Thursday night.

For this tour the band welcomes two new guitarists Rickie Medlocke from Blackfoot and Hughie Thomasson, former Outlaws member. Van Zant said they needed some “ringers” to take the place of guitarist Ed King who left the group to recover from a heart condition. “Both of those guys have come in here and really done a heck of a job,” he said.

The recent addition isn’t the first time the band has had to warm up to new members. In its 31-year history, the band has played “fruit-basket turnover” with its members and now the only remaining founding member is Gary Rossington.

The biggest loss to the band came in 1977 when the band’s plane crashed into a swamp in Gillsburg, Miss. Lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister and backup vocalist Cassie Gaines, and road manager Dean Kilpatrick died in the crash while Rossington, Allen Collins, Billy Powell and Leon Wilkeson were all seriously injured. After suffering physically and emotionally, the surviving members laid the band to rest.

Ten years later, a new Lynyrd Skynyrd formed for a reunion and tribute tour. The group consisted of some of the former “Skinners” with Johnny Van Zant, brother of Ronnie Van Zant, on lead vocals.

“I’m probably as close to [Ronnie] as you can get,” he says and then adds that he doesn’t try to imitate his brother. “I just try to do my own thing the best way I can. The fans have really accepted me and I appreciate that.”

Van Zant says the group expected the tour to be a one-time deal, but after the huge reception they received from the fans, the group decided to keep on producing music and in 1991 made their official comeback.

With Rossington, Medlocke, Thomasson, Wilkeson on guitars, Van Zant on lead vocals, Powell on piano, Owen Hale on drums and percussion and Dale Krantz-Rossington on backup vocals, the group still has that “Skynyrd” sound that is signature of songs like “Freebird,” “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Tuesday’s Gone.”

Despite the group’s turnover, Van Zant still feels they are just as good as the original Skynyrd. “That’s one thing about Lynyrd Skynyrd, it’s been up, it’s been down, but it’s still all around,” he says.

Van Zant admits that the original Skynyrd will never be again. “That was then, this is now. I hate to even say new band and old,” he says adding that he thinks the current group is just as good.

“I’m sure if you’ve ever liked Lynyrd Skynyrd you won’t be disappointed.”

Van Zant said the group is looking forward to touring with the other half of their classic rock show, The Doobie Brothers, who have also gone under band reformation. Formed in 1971 the band has been an icon of classic rock with hits like “Listen to the Music,” “Black Water,” and “China Grove.”

“It’s a rock-n-roll show,” Van Zant said and added that between the two, millions of records have been sold. But even in the hoopla of alternative music that has characterized the ’90s, Van Zant isn’t worried about the fate of their classic rock genre of music.

“I always say Columbus took a chance and look what he found,” he said. “We didn’t get into this to become millionaires. We got into this to play music.”

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