Lynyrd and Me
(Retrospective: A Lynyrd Skynyrd Story)
By Jere Beery
The main reason I'm sharing this story now is because I just turned 60 years old in March and I have been reflecting on my life. This story relates a very unique relationship I had with one of America's greatest Rock & Roll bands.
In 1969, I was discharged from the Navy after spending a year and a half hospitalized from severe wounds I received in Vietnam. I was only 21 years old and medically retired from the U.S. Navy. My wounds were so bad that I was not really expected to accomplish much in my life.
At that time, the one thing I truly found comfort and inspiration in was music. While I was in the Navy I played bass guitar in a four piece rock band, and my 6 string acoustic guitar was my best friend during times of depression while in the hospital. So, when I got out of the Navy in 1969 I decided to explore the world of music. I started hanging out at a bottle club located on Forsyth Street in Jacksonville Florida, ‘The Comic Book Club’. I discovered that not only did I enjoy the live music, but dancing was great physical therapy for my many injuries. And the waitresses wore really hot skimpy outfits consisting of white short shorts, and a white navy-type top that showed off their midsections. Good music, booze, and good looking gals, what more could a young man ask for?
Ship's band, ‘The TownTakers’; Jere Beery, Billy Fussnecker, Kenneth Allen, Mike Lovas (1966)
The Comic Book Club was really two clubs in one. From 7pm until midnight the club was a teen club, catering to kids under 21 years of age. At midnight the club would run everyone out and reopen at 1am as a bottle club for adults only. The club only served ice, cups and setups, and people would pay a cover charge to bring in their own booze. It was the only club in Jacksonville at that time to do business both as a teen club and a bottle club. The local bars in town were required to close at 2am, so after they closed everyone would head uptown to party until dawn at the Comic Book. It was a very popular place to be, and as it turns out, a historic place for music.
Within a very short period of time I made friends with the club manager, Jimmy Provost, and the house band, ‘Kijafa’ (aka Sunshine). Before long, I was doing odd and end jobs around the club for a few bucks a week and all the live music and dancing I could ever wish for. I became good friends with the bottle club band; guitarist; Charles ‘Smitty’ Smith, bass guitarist; Carl Crawford, and drummer; Donnie Sharbono. I started doing special lighting for the band and running their sound board. I was damn near living at the Comic Book Club, putting in many hours designing and building new effects and lighting for the group, while simultaneously doing jobs around the club for Jimmy Provost.
During this period of time I also made friends with the band that played the teen club. Ronnie VanZant, Gary Rossington, Allen Collins, Larry Junstrom, and Bob Burns were the members of a rock band called ‘The 1%’. They were extremely popular with the young crowd in the Jacksonville area.
Ronnie and I were about the same age, but the other members of The 1% were a few years younger and still in high school. Allen, Gary, and Bob attended Robert E, Lee High School on the west side of Jacksonville. I don't remember if Larry Junstrom was still in school or not. I seem to remember he was a little older. Larry and I didn't talk much. I was closer to Ronnie, Allen, Gary, and Bob.
Since we all worked at The Comic Book Club, we spent a lot of time in each other's company and we all became good friends - and we often partied together. On several occasions, when Ronnie wasn't around, Gary and Allen would come to me and talk me into buying them some booze. Somehow, we managed to keep that secret from Ronnie for months before he found out it was me that was getting them liquor. That led to a brief confrontation between me and Ronnie. I remember Ronnie reading me the riot act and I promised him I would never buy them booze again. Ronnie was not a very large individual, in fact I was a couple of inches taller than he was. But, he was raised on the rough side of Jacksonville with a bad-ass reputation, and I didn't dare cross him. I wasn't necessarily scared of him, but Ronnie's presents had a way of demanding respect, and I saw no reason to test him or his resolve. You had to know Ronnie to know what I'm talking about. Besides, I wasn't in any physical condition to be fighting any one. After that encounter, Ronnie and I became even better friends. We had an 'understanding'.
The Comic Book Club had the reputation of the place to go for great music and impromptu jam sessions. Bands from all over North Florida and South Georgia would show up at the Comic Book on the weekends. And local bands would drop by after the bars they played at closed. Therefore, there was never a shortage of musicians wanting to sit in and jam. During the two years that I worked there I heard some of the greatest music anyone could possibly imagine. Sometimes, after a concert had taken place at the Jacksonville Coliseum, well-known groups and musicians would come in and jam until dawn. This included band members from Three Dog Night, Allman Joy (Allman Brothers), Wayne Cochrane and the CC Riders, Joe Savage, Strawberry Alarm Clock, and Led Zeppelin, just to name a few.
Jimmy Provost was the manager of the Comic Book Club, but the club was owned by a very successful local businessman, Art Eisen. Mr. Eisen owned several topless bars in the Jax downtown area as well as the Comic Book. Jimmy Provost was a very large man weighing around 400 pounds. He was a French Canadian with a thick French accent. It was no secret that Provost had friends with ties to organized crime both in Canada and Florida. During a brief time in early 1970, Jimmy Provost acted as booking agent for Ronnie and the 1% band. Provost would line up gigs for the band and they would go play other small clubs in the Jacksonville area. On several occasions I was given the task of going to these local clubs (like the Little Brown Jug) and collect the band’s money. Provost would take his cut and give Ronnie the rest. This arrangement only lasted a few months.
There are virtually no photographs of the inside of the original Comic Book Club. There was a very good reason for this. Jimmy Provost prohibited anyone from taking pictures in the club. His reasoning was simple. Among average Joes that went to the Comic Book - there were also drug dealers, pimps, bookies, prostitutes, pool hustlers and ex-cons. The Comic Book was a very rough place at times, and these people did not want their picture taken. Therefore, Jimmy banned cameras in the club. This is the reasons that very few pictures (if any) of Ronnie and the band inside the Comic Book Club exist.
Sometimes, Jimmy would have some gangster-type friends drop by from out of town and he would close the club down to everyone but him, his friends, selected girls, and me and the band. Jimmy would put a sign on the door 'Closed For Inventory'. He would make jokes about counting the ice cubes and cups. The Comic Book became a private party place for Jimmy and his friends. I won't go into details, but whatever Jimmy's friends wanted, Jimmy provided, money was no object. Jimmy had 'connections' on the JPD as well. So, no one ever interrupted one of Jimmy's private parties.
One local band the frequented the Comic Book was ‘The King James Version’, a three piece rock group. The bass player for the group was a guy named Leon Wilkerson. Leon’s nickname was ‘Thumper’, from Thumper the fictional rabbit character from Disney's animated movie Bambi. He got that nickname for the consistent way he played bass.
Around the end of 1970, the teen club band, Ronnie and ‘The 1%’, were starting to get the attention of promoters in the Jacksonville area. One afternoon while ‘Kijafa’ was practicing at the club, Allen and Gary dropped by and asked our collective opinion of a new name they were considering, ‘Lynyrd Skynyrd’. As much as I hate to admit it now, we all thought it was a dumb name. Little did we know how wrong we were.
When I wasn’t at the club, or hanging out with Smitty, Carl, and Donnie, I spent a lot of time at a small recording studio off of Philips Highway. The studio was called ‘Counter-Point’, and was owned and operated by a good friend of mine, Wally Eaton. Wally was the original bass player for ‘Dennis Yost and the Classic Four’. Wally had been in an auto accident which caused him to quit the band, but not before he had acquired four gold records for; ‘Spooky’, ‘Stormy’, ‘Traces’, and ‘Every Day with You Girl’. Wally was trying to get back into the music business by opening up his own multi-track studio. One very attractive girl that worked as a session backup singer for Wally was Leslie Hawkins. Leslie wasn’t with any one particular band at that time, but she had a very good voice and hung out at Counter Point picking up a few bucks and experience singing backup on whatever project Wally would be working on. Leslie would later join the Skynyrd group as a backup singer. I used the time I spent at Counter Point to learn everything I could from Wally about multi-track recording.
I don’t remember the exact date, but one night at the Comic Book things got really hot. Without notice Leon Wilkerson quit ‘The King James Version’ and joined the newly formed ‘Lynyrd Skynyrd’ band. All of a sudden Larry Junstrom found himself without a job, and lead guitarist for the King James Version (Bill something) found himself without a bass player. Bill was furious! In one brief moment the King James Version went from a working three piece band to a two piece out of work band. After Bill shoved his guitar through the front of his Marshal amp, he stormed out of the club looking for Ronnie. Fortunately for Bill, he never found Ronnie that night. Ronnie was no wussy and would have taken Bill apart in a Westside second. I personally witnessed Ronnie knock a guy out cold in the parking lot of the R&R Bar for talking trash about Ronnie’s girl friend. The R&R was another popular Jax night spot off Main Street. The loud mouth never knew what hit him.
Leon Wilkerson was not Ronnie’s first choice to replace bass player Larry Junstrom. Carl Crawford was by far the best bass man in the Jacksonville area at that time. Anyone that remembers Carl will support this statement. Not only was he one hell-of-a bass player, but Carl had a great voice that was ideal for hard-driving rock & roll. Ronnie, Allen, and Gary made several unsuccessful attempts to recruit Carl into the newly formed Lynyrd Skynyrd band before approaching Leon. Carl declined their offer and continued to play with Kijafa.
Some time later, while hanging out at Counter Point, Wally received a call from a sound engineer from another recording studio in Jacksonville. After Wally got off the phone he asked me if I wanted to go with him to hear Lynyrd Skynyrd's new demo over at ‘Shade Tree’ studio just off Beach Boulevard. When we got there we listened to the very first demo of ‘Free Bird’ ever recorded and another song titled; ‘Need All My Friends’. I had heard Ronnie and the band play Free Bird many times at the Comic Book. In fact, I heard Free Bird before it even had words. But this new version was very different. When they played Free Bird at the teen club it was a slow song from start to ending. This new demo of the very same song started out just like I remembered it, but half way through the song it went into a driving double-time jam all the way out. What an improvement! Quite frankly, as much as I hate to admit it, I always thought their original version of Free Bird was somewhat boring. But this new version changed the entire feel of the song and my opinion. It was definitely an attention getter. Little did I know at the time I was listening to Rock and Roll history in the making.
For the next few weeks it was obvious that the boys of Lynyrd Skynyrd had found backing for their blossoming career. On several occasions I was approached by Ronnie, Gary, and Allen to join the group as their roadie. I turned down the offer each time and continued to work for three more years with Kijafa. I heard later that Billy Powell was hired in my place as roadie. Billy would later become the group’s keyboard player. Larry Junstrom found a new home playing bass with Ronnie VanZant’s brother Donnie and his band, ‘38 Special.’
By mid-1972, Kijafa and me had moved to Atlanta and were playing at a popular club in Underground Atlanta, 'The Palace'. We changed the name of the group to ‘Sunshine’ and gained a loyal Atlanta following of fans.
The last time I saw the Skynyrd band together was on December 4, 1972. They were playing at another popular Atlanta music hall called, Funocchio's. It just happened to be Gary Rossington’s birthday and he invited me, Smitty, Donnie, and Carl to party with the band after the gig. They were staying at a mission-style apartment complex in Buckhead. I don’t even remember how we got home that night. But, I do know we had a ball! No one partied harder than the Skynyrd boys! Their partying would become legendary over the years, and for good reason. A Lynyrd Skynyrd party usually ended up with a large bill for damages.
In 1973, Smitty was murdered in Atlanta. The band 'Sunshine' was no more. We all went our separate ways. I don't know what happened to Donnie Sharbono, but I did run in to Carl in 1998 in Newnan, Georgia. Decades of drug and alcohol abuse had reduced Carl to a mere shell of the man I had known in the 70’s. He was in a bad way and failing health. Carl told me he gave up music shortly after Smitty was killed in Atlanta. That was very sad for me to hear because Carl was so talented and he could have gone a long way in the music industry.
Gary Rossington, Bob Burns, Larry Junstrom are the only three surviving members of the original ‘1% band’. Ronnie was killed in the 1977 plane crash and Allen died in 1990 from complications connected with being paralyzed from a 1986 car crash. I ran into Bob and his wife Marsha in 2003 in Atlanta. But, I have lost track of him now.
Bob and Marsha in 2003
Looking back on it now, I can draw some conclusions and observations. Ronnie VanZant was a very unique individual. Ronnie was a very talented poet and writer who drew on his observations of the street and experiences in everyday life to create one-of-a-kind lyrics. Ronnie never claimed to be a front man or entertainer and he never pretended to be a great singer. He would be the first to admit this fact. His gift was a pure and profound earthy southern writing style which resonated from the bare soles of his feet as he stood center stage. Ronnie wrote about life and death. He painted vivid portraits of life with his lyrics, and he touched people with his raw sincerity and honesty in every song. Even his humorous songs had a gritty reality to them, like 'Give Me Three Steps'.
I can't remember ever seeing Ronnie write anything down. I'm certain he probably did at some point, but I don't remember that. I can only remember him with both hands draped over the microphone, his head down, standing as if the microphone and stand were apart of his very being, trying different phrases and wording until he found something he liked. Once he locked in to something, it became stone and he moved on to the next phrase. I spent many hours at the Comic Book listening to Skynyrd practice and arrange their material. At the time, I had no idea how special that opportunity was. They were just a band, and I was just a guy that worked at the club.
Ronnie ruled as leader of the Skynyrd band. Whatever Ronnie said was law, and no one dared challenge him. Ronnie demanded loyalty and commitment from Allen, Gary, Bob, and Leon - and they all fed off Ronnie's passionate drive for perfection. It was all for one, and one for all. In my opinion, that was the real key to their success. Sure, they had their fights and arguments. And sometimes a busted lip or bloody nose was incurred. But in some strange way these spats only made them tighter as a group. Ronnie always won, no one was ever seriously injured, and all was forgiven in a very short period of time.
When Skynyrd played a song, it was performed in total unity, as if one person were producing all of the individual parts simultaneously. Each note played to complement the next. Allen and Gary would spend countless hours, day after day honing their guitar skills. Eating and sleeping came second to their quest for musical perfection. They fed off of one another and challenged each other to create sounds and playing techniques that were totally original and unique. Nine times out of ten, if you saw Allen, Gary was with him. They went everywhere together.
Bob Burns was born to play drums. His high-strung personality and hair-trigger attitude added an edgy driving force to the group and their music. Bob had a rough childhood and abusive father. Beating the hell out of the drums was a way for Bob to release his build-up inner anger and pain. I'm not telling you anything Bob wouldn't tell you himself. Bob was always on the edge, and eventually he would quit the group because of emotional instability. Bob would be permanently replaced by drummer Artimus Pyle in 1974. That fact does nothing to dampen or taint Bob Burns’s contributions to Lynyrd Skynyrd and Rock & Roll history.
Me and Bob in 2003
Bob Burns in 2003
After the 1977 plane crash, surviving band members struggled with what to do next. In or about 1979, Allen, Gary, Leon and Billy started their own group, the Rossington Collins Band. They cut two albums that were moderately successful and received positive reviews. However, in 1986 tragedy struck yet again. Allen was involved in a car crash which paralyzed him and killed his girlfriend. The once vibrant lead guitar player that was known for his ability to jump 3 to 4 feet high while playing hot guitar licks had been reduced to living out his life in a wheelchair.
From what I have heard, after months of soul searching, and at the request of family and friends, Gary Rossington, Billy Powell and Leon Wilkerson agreed to revive the Lynyrd Skynyrd band in the form of a tribute group. Ronnie's younger brother, Johnny VanZant took his brother's place as front man and lead singer for the Lynyrd Skynyrd Tribute band. In 2001, death visited the group yet once more. Leon Wilkerson died from liver failure. The current Tribute band continues to tour today playing sold out venues and performing all of Skynyrd's hits. However, the song Free Bird is now performed as an instrumental without vocals in honor of Ronnie VanZant.
Over the years since the death of Ronnie and other key members of Skynyrd, Johnny VanZant has matured into a very confident performer and representative for Ronnie and the VanZant family. Most recently, Johnny teamed up with younger brother Donnie and recorded under the name 'VanZant'. All in all, the VanZant family tradition of producing great music continues, and I'm certain Ronnie would be very proud of his younger brothers and the legacy he left them.
In the forty years since my days at the Comic Book Club, I have met many, many talented musicians, and I have listened to just as many tight and polished bands. However, I have never witnessed a group with the internal drive, raw talent, and undeniable passion, commitment, and fortitude for music that Ronnie VanZant and the Skynyrd boys had. Good bands are a dime a dozen, and great bands are born everyday. But, bands that leave an indelible mark on music and American history are extremely rare. The simple fact that Lynyrd Skynyrd songs continue to be featured in movies, television commercials, and ad campaigns on a regular basis provides credence to their historical influence. The artistic fiber of their music is permanently woven into the fabric we call ‘Americano’…
Well, that’s my story about Lynyrd and me. I am fairly confident that my recollection of dates is accurate. Although the many years that have passed have blurred some of my memories, my time at the Comic Book Club still remain crystal clear. I was witness to Rock & Roll history and for that I will always be humbly grateful.
As for me, I went on to do some fairly incredible things considering I’m a disabled veteran. During the 80’s I enjoyed a brief career in the motion picture business. However, my disabilities caused me to quit the movie biz. For the past 25 years I have been a veteran’s advocate fighting for improved healthcare for our men and women in uniform. Most recently, I have had the privilege of writing several public service announcements for Mr. Willie Nelson and Mr. Charlie Daniels. Both Willie and Charlie are big supporters of our veterans. I guess it would be fair to say, in a small way, I am one of the very few people on the face of this earth that has written anything for Willie Nelson and Charlie Daniels. To hear the Willie Nelson and Charlie Daniels PSAs, visit this link; http://www.stardustent.com/offemedia.htm
Me in 1974
Sometimes, when I think back, I wonder ‘if’ I had accepted the offer to join Ronnie and the group as their roadie, would I have been on that airplane in 1977? That is a question that I will never know the answer to. One thing is for certain though, I am, and always will be an original member of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Family, and their biggest number one fan. And I am so grateful to have been a friend to Ronnie, Bob, Gary, and Allen.
There is no telling how far Ronnie and Skynyrd could have gone in the music World if they had not been torn apart by tragedy. Lynyrd Skynyrd was a one-of-a-kind band that will never be matched for the amount and quality of music they produced in their brief career. Their contributions to Rock & Roll defined an entire category of music, ‘Southern Rock’. Their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2006 was more than earned and well deserved. An interesting side note, Lynyrd Skynyrd was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on March 13, 2006, my birthday...
What happened to the Comic Book Club? The entire city block where the club was located was eventually torn down to make way for new development in the downtown area. I have no idea what happened to Jimmy Provost, but he was not in good health when I knew him. So, I assume he has probably passed away also. The only thing that remains of the Comic Book Club and the Rock & Roll history that was made there - are the memories that those of us who were there still have...
[Postscript; Skynyrd keyboardist Billy Powell (56) died of a heart attack on January 28, 2009. Gary Rossington and Bob Burns are the only two surviving members of the original Lynyrd Skynyrd band.]
Postscript: If anyone knows the whereabouts of Gary Rossington, or Bob Burns, please let them know I'm trying to contact them.