Lynyrd Skynyrd was managed by my friend Peter Rudge from late 1973. Rudge’s main pre-occupation at this time was The Who, for whom he’d worked in a quasi-managerial capacity since 1969.
As Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp shirked their responsibilities and fell out of favour, Rudge became The Who’s day-to-day manager in 1971, then set up in business in New York to look after their US affairs. His company was called Sir Productions and their offices were located on 57th Street, not far from Carnegie Hall. In October, 1973 Lynyrd Skynyrd supported The Who on their US Quadrophenia tour and Rudge took over their management around this time. In due course he would also manage .38 Special, whose singer Donnie Van Zant was the younger brother of Ronnie, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s charismatic singer and principal songwriter, and two other bands – The Dingoes, from Australia, and LeBlanc & Carr, from Muscle Shoals.
Peter Rudge was a smart, fast-talking, street-wise Cambridge University graduate who loved sport and could handle himself well if things became physical. At Cambridge he’d booked bands for college events and on one occasion in 1966 booked The Who for a college ball. According to his account, he’d received a telegram from The Who’s management 24 hours before the gig cancelling but instead of accepting the situation he’d got on a train to London and marched uninvited into Kit Lambert’s offices at Track Records in Old Compton Street demanding the group perform and threatening to sue them if they didn’t. Lambert was impressed by this show of bravado and offered him a job on the spot. In the event he graduated first, then turned up at Track where he was given the onerous task of ‘looking after’ The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown. It was only a matter of time before his business acumen led to him ‘looking after’ Track’s main attraction, The Who. His speciality was organising US tours and he became so good at it that Pete Townshend recommended him to Mick Jagger when The Rolling Stones were looking for someone to run their international tours after the death of Brian Jones. Rudge’s ultimate ambition was to build up a stable of successful acts and Sir Productions was the umbrella under which this goal was to be achieved. It had eight employees, including a girl on the west coast, an accountant and a travel agent.
I worked for Sir from March 1977 until the end of that year, at which point Rudge drastically reduced the size of the company, a decision brought about as a direct result of the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash. The reason I worked there in the first place was because of my long-standing friendship with Peter which came about through my fondness for The Who. During my years on Melody Maker Rudge had told me that if I ever felt like leaving MM, he’d give me a job, and he was as good as his word. At Sir I worked on promoting his bands and getting them publicity, but I also went out on the road with both The Dingoes and LeBlanc & Carr as their tour manager, dealing with day to day events on the road, collecting and disbursing cash, making sure the rest of the crew did what they were supposed to do and everyone got from place to place and to the gigs on time. By the time I got to Sir, Rudge’s relationship with The Who was fast deteriorating, largely because he’d been devoting a disproportionate amount of time to The Rolling Stones, and The Who felt he’d somehow betrayed them by shifting his loyalty. Also Bill Curbishley, strongly supported by Roger Daltrey, had emerged as a formidable rival for The Who’s management.
During 1977 I saw Lynyrd Skynyrd perform about half a dozen times, arranged various press and radio interviews for them and helped produce the press kit that accompanied the ill-fated Street Survivors album. By this time Skynyrd were at a peak of popularity, their previous (double live) album One More From The Road having sold over a million copies. Much of their popularity could be put down to Rudge’s hard work ethic – they played something like 200 gigs a year under his management, and just got better and better at it. Now the top prize of a headlining show at Madison Square Garden was within their grasp.
The seven individual members of Lynyrd Skynyrd all drank like fishes, took all known illegal drugs, fucked anything female on two legs and liked nothing better than to fight with their fists, either against others or amongst themselves. Singer Ronnie Van Zant, who sang barefoot because, he said, he liked to feel the stage burn beneath his feet, was the toughest of the lot and he could more or less silence any of the others with the threat of a beating. Before their shows Skynyrd liked to psyche themselves up in their dressing room, winding themselves up by breathing deeply together like US football players, passing the Jack Daniels around in a ritual drink, willing each other on to perform as if their lives depended on it. Rudge, a sports fanatic, encouraged this. It worked, too.
Group meetings in Rudge’s big office were all day and night affairs at which bottle after bottle of Jack Daniels was consumed, piles of coke snorted, and carton after carton of cigarettes smoked. Voices were often raised and the language was as bad as you could hear anywhere. Anyone who’d crossed them was dead meat. MCA Records threw a party for them that summer at a bar near Nathan’s Restaurant which almost got out of hand when someone made a loose remark to one of Skynyrd’s women. Keith Moon, then living in LA, turned up in a loud pinstripe suit, drunk as a kite, and Rudge told me to keep Moon away from him as he’d probably beg for money. It was my first intimation that Moon, of all people, was broke – and sick with booze too. He was very podgy, glassy eyed and mournful.
I took particular pleasure that same summer when Skynyrd appeared as the penultimate act on an all day show at Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium and half the audience of 100,000+ walked out during Peter Frampton’s very limp closing set. They’d played an hour’s set – short for them – and restricted themselves to their best known songs, performed back-to-back with a minimum of fuss and maximum of swagger. The closing ‘Freebird’, their best known song, brought that huge crowd to their feet and as I watched from the side of the stage, just behind their amplifiers, it seemed to me that all 100,000 of them were stomping and cheering as the band played faster and faster, running away down the tracks to the song’s stupendous finale. Perfect. Philly conquered. Rudge and the band were laughing all the way to the bank, or so we all thought.
Unfortunately all the graft – and, believe me, Skynyrd grafted – came to nought as a result of the events of October 20. I was actually due to fly to Baton Rouge in Louisiana the following morning, pick up the Street Survivors tour which was three days old and co-ordinate various interviews I’d set up for them along the way, mostly at Texas radio stations, and I was looking forward to it as I’d never been to Texas before and a visit to the Lone Star State alongside Lynyrd Skynrd was likely to be an interesting experience. I would, of course, have travelled on the same private plane as the group and had the crash occurred 24 hours later I might not have been here to tell this tale.
My first intimation that anything was amiss came when a girlfriend of mine in St Louis called Debbie Moore rang me at home in New York. She told me she’d just heard on the local news that a private plane had come down in Mississippi and that it was ‘believed’ that the rock group Lynyrd Skynyrd was aboard. Did I know? Of course I didn’t. I then called UPI who confirmed that a small plane had indeed come down near a place called McComb. I then tried to call Rudge at home. His wife Frankie answered. Peter had just heard too. He was on his way to the office. I grabbed a cab and went straight there. I was the first to arrive and the phones – all five or six lines – were all ringing at once. It was pointless to try and answer them. I called UPI back and explained who I was and how I would be prepared to help them with regard to accurate information on Lynyrd Skynyrd if they could keep me up to date with developments from McComb. We agreed to help each other and stayed in touch all night.
Then Rudge arrived. He’d been to pick up a carton of cigarettes because he knew it would be a long night. I told him everything I knew and what I’d done. He looked distraught and opened a bottle of red wine but he somehow maintained his composure until, eventually, around 1 am, we heard that Ronnie was dead. Then he went alone into the office kitchen and wept. In the meantime all the office staff had arrived. The girls who worked at Sir manned the phones all night, crying as they did.
The various wives and girlfriends of the guys in the band and the road crew, almost all of whom lived in and around Jacksonville, were on the lines permanently, wanting to know the latest news from McComb. Eventually they all gathered at the home of Ronnie’s wife Judy and what dreadful scenes of hysteria and grief that house must have witnessed that night I can barely imagine. We relayed the news, almost all of it bad, as best we could to the girls in that house, every one of them unsure whether their men were dead or alive. The job of telling Judy that Ronnie was dead fell to Rudge. Radio stations were calling, wanting statements from me; reporters were calling. I believe my choked-up voice was heard on over 30 stations across the USA that night. Friends of Rudge and the band called offering help; private planes were put at our disposal. It went on all night and I got home dazed at around 9 or 10 am the next day. A night like that is not something you forget easily.
Six people died – Ronnie, guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister Cassie (who sang back up), their tour manager Dean Kilpatrick, and both pilots. All the band sustained bad injuries, as did some of the roadies and lighting crew. Those at the front of the plane came off worst, those at the back were less badly injured. Inevitably the group and those closest to them were at the front, with the part-timers at the back. The word was that Ronnnie was flat out drunk, lying in the aisle, when the plane went down. No one could move him to a seat, let alone strap him in. He and the rest of the band had been drinking hard all day in a hotel in Greenville, South Carolina, waiting while the plane was got ready. Someone said something about the pilots having been drinking too.
All sorts of stories came out at the inquest: how the band, and Ronnie in particular, had complained to Rudge that the plane was dodgy and he’d complained to Ron Eckermann, their tour manager and told him to get it fixed. Someone said they saw flames coming from the engine on their flight from Miami to South Carolina the previous day. Eckerman was due to get the plane serviced in Baton Rouge. In the event, it seemed that the plane had ran out of fuel – there being no fire when it crashed – but it was obviously burning up fuel faster than it should have done.
Nothing was ever the same again at Sir Productions. The whole company seemed to go into a kind of stupor. All the plans we’d had for Skynyrd and the other bands were dashed. In two weeks time they would have headlined Madison Square Garden for the first time. It really did look like the were about to be elevated to the top bracket of touring rock bands, though how they would have dealt with it God only knows as they were such a wild bunch, eternally drunk, drugged up and fighting amongst themselves. Skynyrd were bringing in plenty of money and without them the funds dried up, so it was obvious Sir wouldn’t last. Rudge told me I’d have to go just before Christmas, 1977, and gave me a cheque for $2,000 which he didn’t have to do.
Later, after the funeral, the grief turned to anger, and there were terrible recriminations: lawsuits, bad vibes, fights with Rudge, deep shit. At least one surviving roadie committed suicide and another went mad and was institutionalised. Guitarist Allen Collins never really recovered and died from pneumonia several years later. In the meantime he’d crashed a car in which his girlfriend was killed. Rudge himself went into a terrible tailspin, almost killing himself with booze and coke. It cost him his marriage. When I walked out of Sir Productions I didn’t see him again for 22 years, but now he’s remarried, dry and clean after a cancer scare (he’s even given up cigarettes and he was once a 60-a-day man) and evidently happy. His son Joe, whom I remember as a baby, now works for MTV. At one time Peter was on the brink of controlling the fortunes of two of the three biggest British rock acts in the world. Ironically, the remains of the third – Led Zeppelin – is now controlled by Bill Curbishley, who took over The Who from Peter.
Lynyrd Skynyrd ultimately reformed as a kind of tribute act to themselves with Ronnie’s youngest brother Johnnie on vocals. ‘Freebird’, forever associated with Van Zant, was played as a closing instrumental while a single spotlight picked out Ronnie’s old black cowboy hat sitting atop a central mike stand. ‘If I leave here tomorrow, will you still remember me?’ went the words. I do, anyway.