Ron Onesti: Remembering Lynyrd Skynyrd
On Oct. 20, 1977, Southern rock superband Lynyrd Skynyrd suffered a tragic loss after the small plane they took from a show in Greenville, South Carolina, crashed in a wooded area of Mississippi, killing three band members and three crew members.
And on Oct. 20, 2017 (40 years to the day after the crash), Artimus Pyle, the band's drummer at the time and one of 20 survivors, chose The Arcada for his special concert commemorating that fateful night.
I had the opportunity to work with Artimus before, just a couple of years ago. I put together an outdoor Southern Rock Bash that featured the Outlaws, Molly Hatchet, the Marshall Tucker Band and Pyle's tribute to the early era of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
He was gracious to also appear on my radio show on WGN-AM, talking about the crash. That is when I first learned of some of the interesting facts surrounding the horrid event. So when the 40th anniversary approached, I reached out to my old friend Artimus and he said: "I was thinking about your place as the perfect venue to hold this special event." The deal was done in 10 minutes.
So the day came, Oct. 20. On my way in, I had the windows down and my normal one-hour drive from my house to The Arcada went by in a flash as I jammed to the extended versions of "Free Bird," "Simple Man," "Give Me Three Steps" and "Sweet Home Alabama" on my CD player in the car.
Artimus, in his white cowboy hat, was cordial and animated, just as I had remembered. I toured him around the theater and we wound up on the third floor where he saw our new 1920s-style speakeasy and restaurant. He was floored!
"I ain't never seen a place like this," he said. "Let's sit down in your VIP room, and I'll answer those questions you said you had for me."
So we sat in our Jean Harlow Room talking about that night the plane went down. I asked him if it is true that Cassie Gaines (Skynyrd's backup singer and sister of band guitarist Steve Gaines) had a premonition about the crash. He said she sure did, and she really didn't want to go on the plane. Cassie wanted to drive with the equipment to the next gig. But Ronnie Van Zant, lead singer who also perished, convinced her to go. "If it's your time to go, it's your time to go," he said.
I was curious why most plane crashes result in 100 percent fatalities, but 20 of the 26 passengers survived. He said the plane ran out of gas and kind of glided into the field, but very fast. Those experiencing the worst impact died. The flight crew died because they were in the front, and band members not wearing seat belts died after being thrown from the plane and into trees.
If you research this, you will find many accounts of this event, but it really happened. After the crash, with broken ribs, Artimus made his way to a nearby farm to get help. The residents of the farm shot at Artimus, fearing he was trying to rob the off-the-beaten-path property. They eventually saw what happened and called authorities, who had difficulty finding the wreckage because without gasoline, there was no fire, so the crash site was hard to see.
Artimus brought with him to The Arcada the family of Steve and Cassie Gaines, all the way from Florida. He also had another survivor of the crash, a member of the band's crew, with him. Pyle showed scars from the crash and walked with a cane. Everyone was solemn and soft-spoken as the 10 of us sat in the room, reliving that day.
Then, Artimus looked at me and asked for a bottle of champagne. I got the bottle and handed out the glasses. "I don't really drink much," he said. "But this is the exact moment 40 years ago that the plane went down. Let's toast to Ronnie, Steve, Cassie and the others we lost that day, and since then."
I was so humbled to have shared that personal moment with former members of the band who were there that day, and their families. This was a completely unplanned moment, one I will never forget.
Later, near the end of Artimus' live show before he got to the final song, he once again told his story on stage. He brought up members of the families of those who perished that day. I was fortunate enough to join him on stage and ask him those questions. He then toasted to his fallen friends, and a slow piano "Free Bird" overture began to play.
I went backstage and got a large American flag we keep for anthem singers and posted it on the drum riser. The crowd rose to its feet, moving in unison, all practically joining hands and hugging in salute to Lynyrd Skynyrd.
When the singer began the song with the ever-familiar lyrics, "If I leave here tomorrow, will you still remember me?" you could see the audience tear up with grief and remembrance.
Yes, it was another special night at The Arcada. The music was rockin', the emotions were flowin', and the memory of the original Lynyrd Skynyrd band was saluted. Another example of the power of music to unite people, and the ability of "Sweet Home Arcada" to bring it home to the true fans of rock 'n' roll.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.