(Pictured: Lynryd Skynyrd, on the road in 1976.)
Classic-rock radio, and album-rock radio before it, has certain songs upon which its entire ethos and reputation is built. One of the most important is “Free Bird.”
“Free Bird” was on Lynryd Skynyrd’s debut album, released in 1973, and it certainly would have gotten album-rock airplay from the time the album came out. But it didn’t catch on as a single until after “Sweet Home Alabama” (from their second album) had opened the way in the fall of ’74. Although a couple of smaller radio stations could claim to be on it first, KDWB in Minneapolis/St. Paul led the flight of “Free Bird.” The station charted it in late October 1974, and it stayed in the Top 10 there through much of December and January. WYSL in Buffalo and WAKY in Louisville would also chart it high before 1974 was over. The record (edited to 4:41 from 9:08) cracked the Hot 100 at the end of November and rose to #19 for two weeks from January 25, 1975.
In late 1976, Lynryd Skynryd released the live album One More From the Road. Ronnie Van Zant asks the audience at a show in Atlanta, “What song is it you want to hear?” There follows a 14-minute version that completely stomps the original, looser and more soulful, with a gorgeous piano replacing the organ heard on the album version, and a long piano solo that is surprising in the context of a song better-known as a triple lead-guitar blazer. (This is the version a lot of classic-rock and album-rock stations, including my college station, played, although I haven’t heard it on the radio recently.) An edited version of it, cut to 4:55, was on a few Top 40 stations by the end of October 1976. It had neither the reach nor the run of the studio version, although it reached #11 on WLS in Chicago on the first chart of 1977. It spent eight weeks on the Hot 100, peaking at #38, on January 8, 1977.
One way of looking at “Free Bird” today is as its own self-comment on 70s rock ‘n’ roll excess. It was nine minutes long in 1973 because it could be, not necessarily because it needed to be, and the half-length 1974 single loses nothing significant except the stately organ-and-piano introduction. But by 1976, the song’s reputation was such that it wouldn’t sound right at anything less than epic length. On the One More From the Road version, you can hear the crowd go wild around the 11-minute mark as the band kicks into a still-higher gear, and their reaction is unexpectely thrilling. The song takes nearly 90 seconds just to end, but there’s no sense that the band is doing anything more than the song, and the audience, deserves. Even though it’s edited from the same performance, the 1977 single comes off like a pale copy. The song is there, but none of the excitement.
The place of “Free Bird” in rock history was cemented by Lynryd Skynyrd’s 1977 plane crash. The bird in the song would be forever conflated with the band members lost, even though it’s likely that the band would have closed every show with it until the end of time anyway. Before the crash, the band frequently dedicated it to the memory of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley. In the years since, the surviving members of the band have often performed it as an instrumental in tribute.
On the Subject of Tributes: I often use Ron Smith’s Chicago Top 40 Charts 1970-1979 as a resource at this website. Smith’s books did for the weekly charts of WLS and WCFL what Joel Whitburn has done for the Billboard charts. Ron Smith died suddenly earlier this month at the age of 66, which does not seem very old to me at all. He was a radio personality and movie producer as well as an author and researcher. He and I exchanged a bit of e-mail over the years, and I am grateful for what he provided to this low-rent site of mine, and for what his books will continue to provide even though he’s gone.
After I’d mostly finished this post, Monty Python member Terry Jones died. I worshipped at the Python altar practically from the moment they came ashore in America. I adored—and still adore—their erudite absurdity. They were the smartest funny people I’d ever seen. So I am grateful to Terry Jones too for what he provided to a low-rent jokester such as I, and for the inspiration his works will continue to provide even though he’s gone.