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Ronald Wyane "Ronnie" Van Zant (January 15, 1948-October 20, 1977) was the lead vocalist, primary lyricist, and a founding member of the Southern Rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. He was the older brother of .38 Special founder and vocalist Donnie Van Zant and current Lynyrd Skynyrd lead vocalist Johnny Van Zant.
Born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida to Lacy (1915-2004) and Marion (1929-2000) Van Zant. Van Zant aspired to be many things before finding his love for music. Notably, Ronnie was interested in becoming a boxer (as Muhammad Ali was one of his idols) and in playing professional baseball. Ronnie also tossed around the idea of becoming a stock-car racer. In fact, he would say that he was going to be the most famous person to come out of Jacksonville since Lee Roy Yarbrough. However, after seeing The Rolling Stones with his future bandmates, Ronnie decided on his future career path.
Van Zant formed Skynyrd late in the summer of 1964 with friends and schoolmates Allen Collins (guitar), Gary Rossington (guitar), Larry Junstrom (bass), and Bob Burns (drums). Lynyrd Skynyrd's name was inspired by a gym teacher the boys had in high school, Leonard Skinner, who disapproved of students with long hair.
The band's national exposure began in 1973 with the release of their debut album, (pronounced 'lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd), which has a string of hits and fan favorites including: "I Ain't The One", "Tuesday's Gone", "Gimme Three Steps", "Simple Man" and their signature song, "Free Bird", which he later dedicated to the late Duane Allman of The Allman Brothers Band.
Lynyrd Skynyrd's biggest hit single, although "Freebird" was a close second, was "Sweet Home Alabama" which came off the album Second Helping. "Sweet Home Alabama was an answer song to Neil Young's "Alabama" and "Southern Man". The common belief that Van Zant and Young were rivals is incorrect; they were actually fans of each other and considered collaborating on several occasions. 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.
Van Zant was married twice. His first marriage was to Nadine Inscoe and during this marriage Ronnie's first daughter Tammy Van Zant was born. During his second marriage to Judy, Melody Van Zant (his second daughter) was born. Van Zant was known to be superstitious; he hated snakes and hated to fly. Despite his unflattering mention in "Sweet Home Alabama", he was a close friend of Neil Young and the two admired each others work very much. He was also a huge fan of Jimi Hendrix. Many of his bandmates said of him that "he would give the shirt off his back to anyone".
On October 20, 1977, a Convair 240 carrying the band between shows from Greenville, South Carolina to Baton Rouge, Louisiana crashed outside of Gillsburg, Mississippi. The passengers had been informed about problems and told to brace for impact. Ronnie was found in his seat and seatbelt fastened. Bandmates Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray were also killed. Remaining band members survived, although all were seriously injured.
Van Zant often told those closest to him he would never live to see 30 and he wanted to die with his boots on. He died three months short of his 30th birthday.
Van Zant's younger brother, Johnny Van Zant, took over as the new lead singer when the band reunited in 1987.
Van Zant was buried in Orange Park, Florida in 1977, but was relocated after vandals broke into his and bandmate Steve Gaines' tombs on June 29, 2000. Van Zant's casket was pulled out and dropped on the ground. The bag containing Gaines' ashes was torn open and some scattered onto the grass. Their mausoleums at Orange Park remain as memorials for fans to visit.
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. The following statement was made on the Find-a-Grave entry of his current resting place in Jacksonville: 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 capability of several tons. It is also patrolled by security.
"To me, there's nothing freer than a bird, you know, just flying wherever he wants to go. And, I don't know, that's what this country is all about, being free. I think everyone wants to be a free bird."