Lynyrd Skynyrd is one of the bands we discovered early on in the Bay Area. When their first album was released, your friendly neighborhood Crustacean-DJ was Music Director of KZSU Stanford and a weekend /fill-in DJ for KSJO in San Jose.
Since we were in the “South Bay,” we had an affinity for Southern rockers. At the time, playing “Freebird” at a college radio station was cutting edge, and not edits of any songs. We would play Michael Oldfield’s Tubular Bells one album side at a time, and could mix Led Zeppelin with Chuck Mangione, Joni Mitchell and James Brown. “Progressive Rock” on the FM was winning in the radio ratings. We were the social media. Interactive with the listeners. “Freebird” was popular with our audience, and the request lines were a source of our programming, and that and local album sales was how we decided that the music we were playing was working. The KISS principle…Keep It Simple, Stupid!
So, when Bill Graham’s Day of the Greens on July 4th Weekend in 1977 had Lynyrd Skynrd second billed to Peter Frampton, they played on July 2nd and July 4th. Since they had a 727 sent by Promoter Barry Fey to pick them up after the show in Oakland on July 2nd and bring them back in time for the July 4th D.O.G., they agreed to play Willie Nelson’s Picnic in Tulsa Oklahoma on July 3rd.
The plane had a lot of room, so they invited some of their Bay Area radio friends to fly with them on this tour date. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, so even though I was using the KSJO Van to move to a house in Campbell, I left all my stuff in it, parked on the driveway and met up with Skynyrd at the Claremont Hotel to catch the flight that night.
Instead of flying directly to Tulsa, our plane was also supposed to pick up Waylon Jennings in LA as well. Since it was a chartered flight, we landed in Burbank and they dropped the back door down to the tarmac out of the tail section and waited. I was standing outside of the plane with Steve Gaines sharing a smoke when we heard a rumbling growl approaching the airplane. Up drove a troop of Hells Angels on their Harleys, with their girlfriends and a case of beer. Seems old Waylon decided to catch another flight to the gig, and had told some biker friends they could fly with us.
The H.A.s parked their Hogs by the hanger and boarded. Dean Kilpatrick, the road manager of the band, passed the word that all of us in the Lynyrd Skynyrd posse would move to the front of the plane and cede the back to the bikers with their babes and beer. Kind of pulling out wagons in a circle, I wound up in the aisle seat across from Ronnie Van Zandt. The band had just released the Street Survivors album, and would tour the rest of the year in support of it. It was nearly 3am when we flew on to Tulsa, and I decided that a couple of airplane bottles of Johnny Walker Red would help me take a nap. At the time, Ronnie had stopped drinking, and over indulging. The song “That Smell” was about getting away from excess, and he watched me down the whiskey. He was having none.
I finished the second and said to him, “I gotta get some sleep. It’s gonna take us all night to get to Tulsa. Ronnie smiled and said “Man, that’s nothin. In our plane it would take us twice as long and we’d be lucky if we made it.” That DC-3 their management leased for them was the plane that crashed in October, taking the lives of Ronnie, Dean, Steve and his sister Cassie Gaines.
Their set at Willie Nelson’s Picnic smoked, and their super-human crew managed to pack up their gear in Oakland, pack it on to the plane, get it all set up on the stage in Tulsa in time for their set at noon, break it all down again, load out, onto the plane and then set it up at Oakland when returned to Oakland that night. My hat was off to them and the band for playing three of the strongest sets I’ve ever heard from any rock band anytime, and sleeplessly flying half-way across America and back in the process.
A highlight of the Tulsa trip for me was the ride back to the hotel their after the performance. One of the roadies put me in a limo. Sitting in the back between two beautiful woman and behind a cloud of really good marijuana was Willie Nelson himself. We chatted, and years later we met again backstage at Neil and Pegi Young’s Annual Bridge School benefit at Shoreline in Mountain View. He remember our little meeting in Tulsa. So much for short term memory loss…
When we got back to Oakland in was after Midnight, and the band had a room for me the Claremont. After checking in, I went over to a room with a bunch of the members of the band and crew, and brought a live performance cassette of the band that I managed when 20 years old in New York City. It had a song called “I’m On The Road Again,” which I thought would be perfect for Skynyrd. The band, Garfield Place (named after the street in Brooklyn where the band had a flat they live and rehearsed in) did what we referred to as Country Rock Fusion. Upon hearing the tape, the Skynyrd guys asked when it was recorded, and were blown away to learn it was in 1970, long before Al Kooper discovered them. Garfield Place had a lot of influences, including the Allman Brothers, but it sounded so much like a Southern rock band, the guys were wondering if we we copying Lynyrd Skynyrd.
After their set at the July 4th Day on the Green, blowing away headliner Peter Frampton for the second time in three days, I said goodbye backstage to Ronnie Van Zandt, and handed him the cassette with an “x” on the side with “I’m On The Road Again.” He put it in his shirt pocket, and that was the last time I saw him or heard the song. I still remember most of it. Maybe I’ll sing it to Johnny and Gary sometime. That was also my last trip to Tulsa. Ironically enough, in 1991 at the Concord Pavilion, I saw Bill Graham backstage at a Lynyrd Skynyrd show, and that was the last time I saw him as well. Miss all the friends who have exited along life’s highway. and in another blog…or in the book version, I’ll include how Bill Graham prevented a stabbing in front of the stage during Peter Frampton’s set on July 4th, 1977…and of course you’ve never heard about it. More Lobster Tales to come. Thanks for reading…and for listening.
Musically yours, The Lobster