When he was a disc jockey on WKZQ radio station in Myrtle Beach, S.C., my buddy Dwayne Ballen knew that every Oct. 20, he would receive calls requesting it.
Theyd say, Cmon, man. You know what we want. Play it, Ballen told me a few days ago. Id get a few of those calls each year. I was new and didnt know what they were talking about at first. Id say Naw, man. I dont know what you mean.
Man, this is the day the biiiiiird went down, theyd say. Play it for me. Play Free Bird.
He learned quickly what any true lover of Southern rock and just plain good music should know: Oct. 20 is the anniversary of the 1977 day that the bird the plane carrying the band Lynyrd Skynyrd crashed in Mississippi. The band that made some epochal Southern rock songs was decimated.
If you grew up listening to radio in the South in the 1970s, you know that you could hear just about any type of music without changing the dial. In little bitty Rockingham, we had WAYN and WLWL, on both of which you might hear The Carpenters, Al Green, Marshall Tucker Band, Elvis and The Spinners all in a row with an occasional Conway Twitty sprinkled in. Sweet.
Had to play the hits
You could also hear Skynyrd, whose Sweet Home Alabama remains my guiltiest music pleasure.
You had to play the hits, Ballen recalled. You had a playlist, but you had freedom within it.
Right on freedom to play Free Bird.
Anybody who knows his ear from a foot will attest that Free Bird and Sweet Home Alabama feature two of the best opening guitar licks in music history. Rolling Stone magazine ranked the songs numbers 193 and 398, respectively, on its list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.
Whoever came up with that list obviously has never worn a mullet, been on a first-name basis with Jack Daniels or driven a Firebird. If they had, those songs wouldve been ranked Number 1 and Number 1A.
So why feel guilty about loving Sweet Home Alabama?
The song, you see, pays homage to George Wallace In Birmingham they love the gubna the one-time stridently segregationist Alabama gubna who I most definitely did not love. Politically correct or not, though, that guitar is too good to ignore.
The band was named after its longhaired members officious, crew cut-wearing high school gym teacher, Leonard Skinner. It was formed at Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, Fla., and its backup singers were called honest to Elvis The Honkettes.
Is it any wonder they might share a different political philosophy from mine?
Ready with a lighter
Tommy Tomlinson, a former colleague at the Charlotte Observer, wrote a column several years ago in which he said he knew the South was being overrun with Yankees when a poll showed that 92 percent had never carried a lighter in their pockets in case Free Bird came on the radio.
Hes right. As soon as you hear If I leave here tomorrow ... out comes the Bic.
Heres another thing about Skynyrd. Even if they couldnt play a lick, youd have to appreciate any band for sticking it to a high school gym teacher, the bane of many teenage existences. I still get the shakes when thinking of a certain Coach Krall for once asking, in front of the class, if my arms were made of spaghetti when I couldnt complete a pushup.
No, I had been listening to Skynyrd and flicking my Bic.
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