Free Bird

Author: Janet


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“Free Bird” is a rock anthem by the American rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. Starting out as a slow power ballad, it features gospel-flavored organ, chirping slide guitar, and an approximately four and a quarter minute long guitar solo in form of an up-tempo guitar duel. The song has been released by Skynyrd and charted on numerous occasions in both the U.S. and UK but reaching only #19 in the U.S. Billboard charts. The song topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1988 when it was combined with Peter Frampton‘s “Baby, I Love Your Way” by the band Will to Power. The original version of the song was recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Muscle Shoals, AL. It’s also Skynyrd’s longest song.

BBC Radio 2 considers “Free Bird” a “rock radio staple matched only by ‘Stairway to Heaven’.” Rolling Stone magazine ranked it the 191st greatest song in 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

The song was written early in the band’s history. Roadie (at that time) and unknown (to the band) as a piano player, Billy Powell was discovered when he played a piano intro to the song at a high school musical. Van Zant noticed his talent, and he became the newest member.

The lyrics came about when Allen Collins‘ steady girlfriend, who realized that the music always came first with Allen, asked him the question: “If I leave here tomorrow would you still remember me?” Allen jotted the line down for future use. This question became the opening line of Free Bird.

When Allen first showed the song to Ronnie Van Zant, he scoffed at it, saying it “had too many words.” Later Van Zant had an idea for a melody, asked Allen to play him the song again, and Free Bird was born.

Since the song was written in early 1970, Free Bird has undergone many changes in its structure/pacing. As it was originally written and also recorded for the Shade Tree Record demos, Billy Powell had not yet joined the band, so the song opened with the double-tracked arpeggiated rhythm playing the verse chord progression once before the slide guitar entered. The song still follows the same format as the 1973 studio version on the “Pronounced” record. The solo section at this point was just in its infancy, so it did not have the defined 4x4x4 structure to the solo and rhythm guitars. The outro section is almost the same as the version played three years later.

Another recording from the same year, albeit on Quinvy records, follows the same pacing, however, the song fades out as Van Zant comes to the final “Lord help me, I can’t change” line. This format would become familiar to some later when MCA put out Free Bird as a single and also fading out as the verses came to a close.

The version recorded at Muscle Shoals studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama also has the same structure as the Shade Tree version. However, Billy Powell had informally joined the band at this time, so the signature piano opening to the song is present, closely resembling the final “Pronounced” version.

The next version that has been released commercially is the version most familiar to listeners. This version – off the “Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd” album, is very close to how the band would perform it live. The opening is slightly different from any other version of the song in that an organ was added — the only time it appears on the song. Powell’s piano intro is faded in gradually as the song opens. By this time, Collins had refined the solo section, and this can be heard on the “outtake” version present on the “Skynyrd’s Innyrds” compilation. The solo follows a very simple rhythm pattern of 4x4x4, meaning that one different way of playing the 3 chord jam is played 4 times before moving on to the next rhythm technique. As Ronnie Van Zant said several times “If you can count to 4, you can play Free Bird,” noting the pattern. The traditional ending to the song is also in place as well, although the final bars of the end are slightly different, with the rhythm guitarists gradually sliding up to the higher G chord, rather than the sudden shift that would be later done live. The final G chord that ends the song is let ring as it fades out – something not present on any other version of the song.

During the period between 1973 and 1976, Free Bird would gradually add more parts. For instance, while Ed King was still with the band, he would perform a short solo following the second slide guitar solo. After he left, Billy Powell was given the opportunity to fill in that space with a solo. The piano solo suddenly doubled in length after their appearance at the Winterland Ballroom in March of 1976. From that point on, no changes would be made to the “front end” of the song at all until March of 2006.

Also, guitarist Collins would add more and more to the final solo section of the song, eventually adding a second “build-up” to it before bringing the song to the outro. Many recordings of the band from 1974 show this facet of the song beginning to emerge. Van Zant also added the “How bout you?” ad-lib following the final “And I’m as free as a bird now” line. This is still done today by his brother Johnny.

Another addition that Ed King brought to the song was that he would perform some lead guitar licks over the outro section, except for Collins’ final bit. This would only be performed while Ed was in the band, following his departure, Billy Powell picked up the slack on the piano and did some fast-paced fills.

By July of 1976, all of the changes had been made to the song, and they would remain permanent all the way through the performances of The Rossington-Collins Band and the Allen Collins Band shortly thereafter.

Following the plane crash in 1977, all performances of the song were instrumental starting with Charlie Daniels Volunteer Jam V in 1979. This lasted up until 1989, when an almost-rioting audience coerced Rossington to urge Johnny Van Zant to sing the song for the first time – something he had vowed never to do onstage during the Tribute Tour.

More recently, the newer version of Lynyrd Skynyrd has shortened the solo section back to the length that was showcased on the original studio version, and is still done that way today.

One temporary change to the song was done at the 2006 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony when guitarist Ed King did a harmony slide guitar part behind Rossington’s second slide solo. He also did his part in the solo section with a slide for most of it.

“Free Bird” is included in such lists as The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll, and Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (holding spot #191). The song — half ballad, half up-tempo guitar boogie — quickly became a staple for Lynyrd Skynyrd at their live performances. Many recognize its nearly five-minute triple guitar solo section that closes it out. It often turned into an extended jam session at concerts. The band would consistently play it as the last song of every show, as it was their biggest crowd pleaser. While the live version played by the original band would include soloing by Allen Collins and a secondary solo by Ed King (later Steve Gaines), the recorded version is double-tracked by Collins alone. Gary Rossington plays the slide-guitar part in the song’s first half, and plays the rhythm guitar for the second half.

It has become a popular culture cliché for the audience of almost any concert to shout “Free Bird” as a request to hear the song, regardless of the performer or style of music. There are equivalents for “Free Bird” in some countries; in Brazil, it could be translated to “Toca Raul!” (“Play Raul!”), in a reference to Raul Seixas. In Australia, the audience may shout “Play Khe Sanh!” referring to the Cold Chisel classic. In Finland, the audience is often heard shouting “Soittakaa Paranoid!” (“Play Paranoid!”) referring to the song “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath. In Argentina, heavy metal fans used to request for “Destrucción” originally composed by V8 in a similar way. In the 2006 movie Cars, an unseen audience member yells out “Free Bird!” during an awkward silence while Lightning McQueen prepares to make a speech. In Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown, Ruckus, a fictional band, performs Free Bird at a memorial service. The phenomenon is also recorded on British progressive rock band Porcupine Tree’s concert DVD Arriving Somewhere…, where just before the final song of the encore, Steve Wilson states that they will play one more song, to which an audience member shouts “Free Bird!”. Steven Wilson responds with “Not “Free Bird”. That’s tomorrow, okay? Full 17 minute blow-out version.” and the band instead play “Trains”, the intended finale. Comedian Bill Hicks’ infamous “I’m Sorry, Folks” performance also includes heckling of “Free Bird”, which greatly angers Hicks.

This phenomenon began earlier in the 1970s with The Allman Brothers Band‘s epic “Whipping Post”, but then took off to a much greater extent with “Free Bird”, very popular by 1979. This can be traced back to Skynyrd’s first live album, 1976′s One More From The Road. Skynyrd did not play the song during the main portion of the concert, or even in the encore performance. Instead they saved it for their second encore. After leaving the stage following the first encore of the concert, the crowd was riled by the apparent omission of Skynyrd’s signature song. The crowd then began chanting “Free Bird, Free Bird …”. No one left the auditorium. The band then returned to the stage for a second encore and upon taking the microphone Van Zant asked the crowd, “What song is it that you wanna hear?”, which was immediately followed by several more shouts of “Free Bird”. This interaction is recorded as an intro to the song on the album, and the band responded with a 14-minute version of the song. More recently, they play the song on the first encore.

In the 1980s, Chicago Radio DJ Kevin Matthews urged his listeners to shout “Free Bird!” at a Florence Henderson concert as a sort of joke towards the musician and actress. Credited with starting the tradition of yelling “Free Bird!”, but not actually doing so, he stated that “It was never meant to be yelled at a cool concert — it was meant to be yelled at someone really lame. If you’re going to yell ‘Free Bird,’ yell ‘Free Bird’ at a Jim Nabors concert.”

In Blue Man Group “How To Be A Megastar 2.0″ concerts, during one quiet pause in between routines, a crew member at the back of the auditorium yells “Free Bird!” The band responds by playing the song intro, which causes the Blue Men to stop and do a double-take at the band.

In 2004, “Free Bird” was featured on the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas K-DST classic rock radio station. The solo was completely removed from the game version of the song.

“Free Bird” is referenced in the popular music video game Guitar Hero, where an in-game loading screen at some occasions will display the text message “They don’t really want you to play ‘Freebird’. They’re just heckling you.”. In the game’s 2006 sequel, Guitar Hero II, the song itself is available for gameplay as the final encore of the setlist. When the player is given the choice to play the encore after beating all above-placed songs, which, if beaten, will result in beating the game, and thus answers “Yes”, the game will start sending several questions if the player “really wants to play Free Bird”, before stopping and loading the song if the player answers “Yes” to these. If he or she later decides to choose the song from the setlist again, the game will note that “You must really like Free Bird” and that “they aren’t heckling you this time.”

In the US comedy Reaper (TV series) in the episode Love, Bullets and Blacktop when one of the characters is playing Radar Love in public a man comes up to him and asks if he has ‘Free Bird’.

On the live Modest Mouse album Baron Von Bullshit Rides Again, at the end of Paper Thin walls; the band is heckled to play Free Bird. Isaac Brock goes in to a lengthy explanation as to why they won’t play Free Bird. Ending with “Life is too short to play or hear Free Bird.”

The Free Bird solo can be heard in Speed Racer.

In a radio commercial for Geico, a man claims that he saved so much money on RV insurance via Geico that he could buy a band to play his own theme music, after which another man asks if they knew “Free Bird.”

In the infamous Nirvana Unplugged concert, when the Meat Puppets come on stage to play, someone shouts “Free Bird!” while they are waiting for Curt Kirkwood’s guitar to be tuned. Cris Kirkwood responds by putting up his middle finger and saying “I’ve got a Free Bird for you right here”

“Free Bird” appeares in the Tom Hanks movie, “Forrest Gump,” when Jenny is contemplating suicide by jumping off of a hotel balcony.


(Studio Version) – 1973

* Ronnie Van Zant – Vocals
* Allen Collins – 1964 Gibson Firebird I (Rhythm Guitar/Double-Tracked solo), Acoustic Guitar
* Gary Rossington – 1969 Gibson SG (Slide Guitar/Rhythm Guitar)
* Ed King – 1964 Fender Jazz Bass
* Billy Powell – Wurlitzer Electric Piano
* Bob Burns – Drums
* Roosevelt Gook (Producer Al Kooper) – Organ, Mellotron

(Live Version) – July 7, 1976

* Ronnie Van Zant – Vocals
* Allen Collins – 1964 Gibson Firebird III (Rhythm guitar/solo)
* Gary Rossington – 1969 Gibson SG (slide guitar/rhythm guitar over solo)
* Stevie Gaines – 1958 Gibson Les Paul Custom (rhythm guitar/secondary solo guitar)
* Leon Wilkeson – 1962 Fender Jazz bass
* Billy Powell – Steinway and Sons Concert Grand Piano
* Artimus Pyle – Slingerland Drum kit

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