Published Sep 21, 2010Leonard Skinner, the high school gym teacher whose hippie-hating attitude inspired the name of one of America's most successful bands, died Monday, Sept. 20 in Jacksonville, Florida. He was 77 and suffered from Alzheimer's disease.
Among Skinner's students at Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville in the late 1960s were aspiring rockers Ronnie Van Zandt, Gary Rossington, Allen Collins, and Leon Wilkeson. Van Zandt, in particular, famously got on Skinner's bad side for having long hair, which led to frequent disciplinary actions.
The four students already had a band called One Percent, but in a fit of pique, Van Zandt decided to change the name to Lynyrd Skynyrd in order to get back at his teacher. The spelling was said to reflect how the name sounded when spoken by the local accent. Ironically, it was front man Van Zandt's staunch work ethic that launched the band onto the international scene in 1973 with their debut album and the hit song "Free Bird."
By then Skinner had become a real estate agent, and was initially angered when hearing that the band had appropriated his name. Relations improved in 1975 when he allowed the band to use a photo of his real estate sign on their third album, Nuthin' Fancy. The photo included Skinner's phone number, and for some time after that he was inundated with calls from fans looking to speak to the real Leonard Skinner.
Although Skinner eventually was persuaded to introduce the band at a Jacksonville concert, he never warmed up to their sound, saying that he was never a fan of rock and roll. Yet, he grieved along with fans after the 1977 plane crash that killed Van Zandt, guitarist Steve Gaines, backup singer Cassie Gaines, and severely injured several other band members. "They were good, talented, hardworking boys," he was quoted at the time.
In a posting on Lynyrd Skynyrd's official site, guitarist Rossington, the last surviving original member, stated, "Coach Skinner had such a profound impact on our youth that ultimately led us to naming the band, which you know as Lynyrd Skynyrd, after him. Looking back, I cannot imagine it any other way. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this time."