by John Finotti
Updated 8 yearss ago
Apparently so. Twenty-two years after the death of Ronnie Van Zant and three others in an airplane crash, Lynyrd Skynyrd has joined the ranks of rock 'n' roll legends for whom death wasn't the finale -- at least business-wise. At venues from Buffalo Chip Campground in Sturgis, S.D., to the Country Stampede in Manhattan, Kan., thousands of fans 20 years younger than any of the band members are trooping in to hoot and wave Confederate flags as Ronnie's younger brother, Johnny, sings Ronnie's lyrics. This year, the Skynyrd industry will take in about $40 million from sales of recorded music and merchandise, publishing residuals and live performances.
But the Skynyrd musicians aren't the only ones profiting from the band's resurgence. Back in Jacksonville, where the band's original members grew up on the city's blue-collar westside, Judy Van Zant Jenness, Ronnie's widow, has emerged as a behind-the-scenes force in shaping Skynyrd's business success -- even as her activities have strained her relationship with her late husband's old bandmates.
Jenness, 51, has a vested interest in boosting the value of the band and its music: As the executor of her husband's estate she gets more than 3% of Skynyrd's gross ticket sales in addition to a portion of publishing royalties on the group's record sales -- which combined bring in about $1 million a year.
She feels she's earned it: For the past decade she has worked, often doggedly, to promote Skynyrd, producing a concert film on the band, hawking memorabilia and coordinating fan club activities.
That self-interest, however, has made her advocacy a source of animosity among some of the band's members. Guitarist Gary Rossington, a co-founder of the group, has feuded with her openly over her financial stake in the band. Rossington also reportedly believes Jenness' influence helps keep the group locked into an identity as an oldies act. Jenness makes no bones about it: "I feel an obligation to protect Ronnie's name because of what the new band is doing," she says. "The new management doesn't promote the old band."
Lynyrd Skynyrd -- the band was named after Leonard Skinner, a gym teacher at Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville who suspended the long-haired rockers -- was riding high in the fall of 1977. The band had just released the critically and commercially successful "Street Survivors" album and was en route to a gig in Baton Rouge, La., when its chartered plane ran out of fuel and slammed into a Mississippi swamp on Oct. 20. The crash killed Ronnie -- the group's unquestioned leader -- along with guitarist Steve Gaines, Gaines' sister and backup singer Cassie Gaines, and road manager Dean Kilpatrick. Other band members were seriously injured.
In the wake of the accident, guitarists Allen Collins and Rossington -- who as co-founders with Ronnie also had rights to the band's name -- amicably signed an agreement with Jenness that effectively dissolved Skynyrd. Four of the five surviving members -- Collins, Rossington, pianist Leon Wilkeson and bassist Billy Powell -- went on to form the Rossington-Collins Band and cut their own gold record.
Jenness, meanwhile, raised her and Ronnie's only child, a daughter named Melody, now 23. Jenness married Jack Grondin, a drummer for the Jacksonville band .38 Special, whose lead singer is Donnie Van Zant, Ronnie's other younger brother. Grondin and Jenness had a son, Matt, and for years, she gave little thought to the music business: "For 10 years I didn't even want to deal with the tragedy," says Jenness, a Georgia native who met Ronnie while she tended bar in Jacksonville.
Then, as the 10th anniversary of the plane crash approached, the band and its record label, MCA, considered staging a tribute concert to spur record sales. Most band members readily agreed to a reunion; Rossington, the lone holdout, eventually agreed to a 10-concert tour. The tour turned out to be a hit and grew to 100 shows. (Collins, who had been paralyzed in an automobile accident, appeared on stage in a wheelchair. He died of pneumonia in 1990.)
The reunion, however, hit a sour note with Jenness, who complained that it violated her agreement with Rossington and Collins. When the band responded by voting to oust her as a shareholder, she fired back with a lawsuit in federal court in New York. In an out-of-court settlement, Jenness and Teresa Gaines (Steve's widow) each received several hundred thousand dollars (terms of the agreement prohibit disclosing the exact amount). The settlement also established that any band calling itself Lynyrd Skynyrd had to consist of Rossington and at least two of the other four early members. And it gave Jenness a share of the ticket revenues, ensuring a steady income for her and Melody.
The Ronnie Van Zant story
The experience she gained in the lawsuit, Jenness says, launched her full tilt into the band's business affairs. "It was good for me," Jenness says now. "It made me deal with everything; it gave me a goal, a passion to protect and promote what Ronnie lived and died for."
Through most of the 1990s, as the band crisscrossed the country playing "Free Bird" at racetracks and county fairs, Jenness fanned the Skynyrd flame. In 1993 she founded the Freebird Foundation, a mix of charitable organization and fan club clearinghouse. The foundation hands out college scholarships to graduates of the Skynyrd crew's old high school and created the Ronnie Van Zant Memorial Park, a 90-acre parcel in rural Clay County south of Jacksonville. There, each October, the anniversary of the plane crash, the foundation sponsors a picnic featuring Skynyrd tribute bands, including a group from Italy that calls itself Southern Steel.
Jenness also spent nine years overseeing the production of a documentary, "Freebird: The Movie." The movie and a 1997 segment on Skynyrd in "Behind the Music," music cable channel VH1's popular rock-bio series, are considered the biggest factors in vaulting the band back into popularity. Last year, fans bought more than a million copies of Skynyrd's recordings from the 1970s. This year, the group has been selling out dates on its nearly 100-city tour of 10,000-plus-seat amphitheaters and state fairs. Box office receipts typically range from $70,000 to $150,000 per show. "Concert ticket sales are at least 25% stronger than last year, and are as strong as we have ever seen," Charlie Brusco, Skynyrd's current manager, told Billboard magazine.
Jenness' efforts haven't all been warmly applauded, however -- and her relationship with the rest of the Skynyrd family has deteriorated into a chorus of backbiting. Some, for example, believe "Freebird: The Movie" slighted the contributions of most of the band members. "That was the Ronnie Van Zant story," huffs Larkin Collins, a retired food broker and executor of his son Allen's estate.
Rossington, meanwhile, is said to be irked at Jenness' share of the band's box office receipts. He thinks she should shoulder some of the expense of putting on the 100 shows a year, each costing, on average, about $70,000. (The band's managers did not respond to repeated requests for an interview with Rossington for this story.)
Interviewed in her office at the Freebird Foundation in Jacksonville Beach, Jenness acknowledges that she and Rossington had a heated exchange over the issue at a bi-annual meeting of Lynyrd Skynyrd shareholders last September. As for the costs of touring and putting on concerts, she replies with a wry smile that she'll stick with the consent agreement reached a decade ago. She's all too aware, she says, of how bands can pad the expenses while on the road. In the meantime, she has ordered an audit of tour finances.
Sharing ticket proceeds with the estates of Van Zant, Collins and Gaines isn't Rossington's only frustration. Since Skynyrd reemerged, the band has released two albums of new music that have drawn mediocre reviews and sales. Fans at the concerts, meanwhile, continue to clamor for the early Skynyrd songs. Jenness dismisses what she says are threats by Rossington to stop using the Lynyrd Skynyrd name and to play only his new material. "They wouldn't survive," she says.
Rossington plays a few nasty licks of his own. He's refused to allow Jenness and Larkin Collins to release some old Skynyrd recordings, including a session recorded at a Memphis radio station and a live concert recorded right before the plane crash. Jenness says she'd also like to market some of the band's old logos.
Jenness says she may initiate another lawsuit to get things moving. Meanwhile, she, daughter Melody and her third husband, an aspiring singer named Big Jim Jenness, recently opened a recording studio in Jacksonville Beach called Made in the Shade Studios (a reference to a Ronnie Van Zant song), where the Freebird Foundation will subsidize studio time for financially strapped up-and-coming bands. Mother and daughter also recently paid $1 million for a Jacksonville Beach restaurant and bar that they plan to convert into the Freebird Cafe, a Hard Rock Cafe-type eatery featuring Skynyrd memorabilia. Jenness also is trying to negotiate a book deal and sell Hollywood on a Lynyrd Skynyrd movie. Brad Pitt, she thinks, would be ideal for the role of her late first husband.
Even those ventures produce some harsh feedback. Before he'll sign on to a new movie project, Larkin Collins, who once managed the Rossington-Collins Band, says it must capture everyone's contribution. "I'm all for a new movie, if it's done right. If it's not, they'll have a fight on their hands."
The squabbles are likely to continue as long as the Lynyrd Skynyrd name has commercial possibilities. "I think we have another 10 to 15 years," says Jenness. "It will outlive me," Rossington told Billboard magazine: "In another 20 or 30 years, Billboard's going to be doing another tribute, about the band that played the most shows and outlived everybody."