Lynyrd Skynyrd “Free Bird” – The Story Behind The Song
“If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?” The opening line of Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s “Free Bird” was inspired by Allen Collins‘ wife, Kathy, who had asked him this question during a fight. The song tells the story of a man explaining to a woman why he can’t settle down. Most of the lyrics were written by Ronnie Van Zant, but Allen Collins had the music done years before that. Collins continued to refine the song right up until it was recorded for Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd in 1973.
Originally, the song was a ballad with no guitar solo at the end. Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded it that way in 1972.
The Early Recording of “Free Bird” from Muscle Shoals
The Album Cut of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird”
The piano on the early version was replaced with keyboards at the suggestion of their producer, Al Kooper. Al was a founding member of Blood Sweat and Tears and had his own record label. He saw a Lynyrd Skynyrd show in Atlanta and signed them to his label.
As it appears on Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd, the song is 9:08. The final vocal, “Fly high, free bird, yeah,” comes in at 4:55. The last four minutes of the song are all guitars forming what is widely considered one of the greatest instrumentals of all time. Skynyrd had three guitarists: Allen Collins, Ed King, and Gary Rossington. Having three guitarists gave the band the freedom to have extended guitar jams. A radio edit exists that cuts the last four minutes down to ONE, but nobody plays it.
“Free Bird” has traditionally been Lynyrd Skynyrd’s closing number for their live shows. After Ronnie Van Zant’s death, his brother, Johnny, had a hard time performing the song because it was emotionally overwhelming. In the beginning, he sometimes didn’t sing it and the band played it as an instrumental while the crowd sang the words.
In the lyrics, “Free as a bird,” is used many times, but the actual title, “Free Bird” is used just once. It’s the final lyric of the song before the guitars take over. Ronnie Van Zant wrote the lyrics, but he procrastinated. According to a 2002 Blender interview with Gary Rossington, Ronnie felt the song “had too many chords to write lyrics for.” Rossington continues, “But after a few months, we were sitting around, and he asked Allen to play those chords again. After about 20 minutes, Ronnie started singing, ‘If I leave here tomorrow,’ and it fit great.”
Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd was released on August 13th, 1973
The band chose this album’s name because they knew no one would know how to pronounce it.