A quarter of a century ago, he took over the role once occupied by his brother. In 1987, Johnny Van Zant became lead vocalist for Lynyrd Skynyrd. The band was readying for a reunion tour. Though it started out shaky, that tour led to a group which is still performing and making music today.
The plane crash that tragically took the lives of original band members Ronnie Van Zant – the band’s lead singer and Johnny’s brother – guitarist/vocalist Steve Gaines, backing vocalist Cassie Gaines, as well as others not in the band, continues to be a topic for discussion.
For Johnny Van Zant, this 25 year journey has, in a sense, brought him closer to his deceased brother. Filling Ronnie’s shoes has led to this. Lynyrd Skynyrd still tours. They put out a new album this year, Last of a Dyin’ Breed. If you time traveled back to 1987, most people probably would not have imagined the band would still be together today, after such tragedy. The group, however, has continued on, with Johnny and founding member/guitarist Gary Rossington, among others, keeping this Southern rock band’s style of music alive.
In 2006, the original band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
You can read the highlights or listen to the entire CYInterview with Johnny Van Zant below. Johnny reflects on how he stepped into his brother Ronnie’s position as lead singer for Lynyrd Skynyrd, among other topics:
Listen to the entire Johnny Van Zant CYInterview:
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Looking back over the last 25 years, Johnny never thought the group would still be around, making new music and touring the world:
“I’ll be honest with you, I thought we were gonna do a six week tribute tour and that was gonna be it. So you know and then after the six weeks, it almost felt like we kinda had another plane crash, that’s not the right way to say it, but we were kind of distraught again. It was kind of like wow, you know, that was it. And myself and Gary [Rossington] and Ed King was in the band at the time we all felt, well, let’s get together and write a few songs … Whether we call it Lynyrd Skynyrd or whoever you know, whatever we do, let’s just try to write some stuff and see what happens … I’ll be honest with you, it doesn’t seem like 25 years with it all. It’s pretty amazing. …
It just seems like, you know, it’s been so quick, you know, and to my disbelief I can’t believe it’s 25 years to be honest. But I’m so happy to have been able to carry the song. I always looked at it like my brother was the quarterback and I was a receiver and we’ve been running for that touchdown for the last 25 years, you know.”
Singing hits like Sweet Home Alabama, Freebird or new material from Last of a Dyin’ Breed has brought Johnny closer to his deceased brother Ronnie. Being the group’s lead singer has given him a chance to learn more about who his brother was. Though he had big shoes to fill, Johnny says he’s done the best he can, with his Southern rock vocals, in continuing the quality music of Lynyrd Skynyrd:
“I think by doing this I’ve really gotten a lot closer to my brother. I learnt what he was really about, his heart and soul and he was a poet for the common people. He really was. He could write anything and people could understand it and relate to it and we tried to carry that on you know for what we’ve done here you know, to carry it on the last 25 years and it’s been a great honor and a great pleasure for me. … I gotta die one day and Ronnie, you know, hell, I don’t want to get to them pearly gates and he grabs me by the collar and pulls me in and knocks me out. I want to do it justice and I always have tried to do it justice and surely I’ve made mistakes along the way and probably some nights are better than other nights, but hey I’ve tried to give it my all the whole time.”
Two songs on the band’s new album, Something to Live For and Nothing Comes Easy contain messages about the state of America and its political landscape. Stating that he is a Republican, the lead vocalist talks about what America needs. Lynyrd Skynyrd was slated to perform at the Republican National Convention this year, until the potential of dangerous weather canceled the event:
“We gotta get something going. We can’t wait around. And you know what, our fans are the working class people of America and as well as this band is. You know none of us is raised with a silver spoon, you know, and for some reason because, we’ve gotten a lot of flack, especially me about being a Republican. You know for some reason everybody thinks that Republicans are rich spoiled people, you know, and they’re not gonna give to the poor and all that type of stuff, that’s the wrong, your thoughts are wrong. …
You know what, we just need, we need another Ronald Regan. That’s what the hell we need. You know what I mean and that’s my opinion. But I’ve had fans go, well, I’m not gonna listen to their music because you they’re for, they’re Republican. I thought how very shallow and very self-centered is that, you know. … I thought we lived in America and we’re supposed to be able to speak our minds and be able to, freedom of speech, you know, and, you know, everybody has an opinion.”
As someone who sings about the state of America on The Last of a Dyin’ Breed and is engaged in the political process of this country, Johnny says Americans need to pull together and unite. He says the period after 9/11 was the only time in his life he remembers the people of this country coming together and that’s what the USA needs to get back on track:
“The only time in my lifetime that I’ve really seen this country united was after 9/11 and that made me feel, it killed me in a lot of ways because it took something that bad for this country and the people of this country to go, we are united. And you know that made me feel good as an American to see us pull together and it’s gonna take us to pull together like that to get things back on track.”
Last year Mr. Van Zant dealt with some health issues and it was reported in the media that he was hospitalized. Johnny explains what happened to him and the health scares he dealt with:
“I had pre-melanoma and so I had to go in and get it cut off and I had very little time. I went to the doctor and said, ‘Can I wait till November? I’ve got some time off in November.’ And this is in I think June, July last year. And they said, ‘No. By November this thing could turn into full fledged cancer.’ And so I had to go get it cut off. I had two days off so shoot, I had it done one day and had one day off. And then the next day I was flying out to South Dakota and got out there and played the show and was heading back to the hotel, I started feeling really weird and was like, man, I don’t feel good. …
Where this was at was right near my spine. So patch, I had to kind of pull on it a little bit, I pulled it off, I went oh my God, so it had gotten infected. So I went to the hospital. When something like that happens, they cut your back open and it sounds gross, they have to let it drain and then it has to heal from the inside out. So I felt pretty good, they let me out. As a true rock and roll trooper, we were playing over in Minnesota the next night and I got on the bus the next morning and whenever I left the hospital, they let me go, they said, ‘You start running a fever, you need to go right back to the hospital.’ …
They put me back in the hospital and I came down with mercer staph infection and mercer and so that’s a very dangerous thing. And I actually thought it was gonna take me out. I was like, something that little’s gonna take me out, but very dangerous. But you know, hey I was off for about 12 days and went back out and rock and rolled the rest of the year, but I’m feeling great man. Thank you for asking.”
Photo by Alessandro Molina.
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