“‘Free Bird’ was actually one of the first songs we ever wrote,” says guitarist Gary Rossington. “Allen [Collins] had the chords for the pretty part in the beginning, two full years, but Ronnie [Van Zant] kept saying that because there were too many chords so he couldn’t find a melody for it. We were just beginning to write and he thought that he had to change with every chord change.
“Then one day we were at rehearsal and Allen started playing those chords, and Ronnie said, ‘Those are pretty. Play them again.’ Allen played it again, and Ronnie said, ‘Okay, I got it.’ And he wrote the lyrics in three or four minutes—the whole damned thing! He came up with a lot of stuff that way, and he never wrote anything down. His motto was, ‘If you can’t remember it, it’s not worth remembering.’
“So we started playing it in clubs, but it was just the slow part. [A demo of this version of the song appears on the Lynyrd Skynyrd box set (MCA, 1991)—GW Ed.] Then Ronnie said, ‘Why don’t you do something at the end of that so I can take a break for a few minutes?’ So I came up with those three chords at the end and Allen played over them, then I soloed and then he soloed…it all evolved out of a jam one night. So, we started playing it that way, but Ronnie kept saying, ‘It’s not long enough. Make it longer.’ Because we were playing three or four sets a night, and he was looking to fill it up. Then one of our roadies told us we should check out this piano part that another roadie, Billy Powell, had come up with as an intro for the song. We did—and he went from being a roadie to a member right then.”
On the studio version of the song, which appeared on Skynyrd’s debut album, Collins played the entire solo himself on his Gibson Explorer, with Rossington playing rhythm on his Les Paul, “Bernice,” and adding the slide fills on his SG. “The whole long jam was Allen Collins, himself,” Rossington says. “He was bad. He was super bad! He was bad-to-the-bone bad. When we put the solo together, we liked the sound of the two guitars, and I could’ve gone out and played it with him. But the way he was doin’ it, he was just so hot! ! He just did it once and did it again and it was done.”
The resulting track was nine minutes long, and no one’s idea of a classic radio song. “Everybody told us that we were crazy to put the song on our first album, because it was too long,” recalls Rossington. “Our record company begged us not to include it. And when it first came out, they did all kinds of awful radio edits until it got big enough where it didn’t matter any more.”
Shortly after the album was recorded, bassist Leon Wilkeson returned to the group after a brief hiatus and Ed King, his replacement, slid over to guitar, creating a three-guitar juggernaut that could reproduce the song’s majestic attack on stage. By the time Skynyrd cut the 1976 live album One More From the Road, Steve Gaines had replaced King and “Free Bird” had soared to over 13 minutes in length. This version, with its famous shouted intro, “What song is it that you want to hear?,” triggered air guitar frenzy from coast to coast and firmly sealed “Free Bird’s” status as a national treasure.