Skip to content

Whodunnit: How an Ingenious Yankee Unleashed the Hell House Gang

I taught them how to use the studio. I also taught them how to use the bass and the bass drum in a competitive way. 

But, of all the bands I’d come across in my life, they were the finest arrangers. “Sweet Home Alabama” sounds like seasoned studio musicians twice their age. What they did with guitar parts was truly amazing – they had the pulse of the street. They absolutely had it. Ronnie ran that band with an iron hand.
-Al Kooper

Then there’s the highly individual voice of Ronnie Van Zant, a songwriter who isn’t afraid to be nakedly sentimental, spin tales of the South, or to twist macho conventions with humor. And, lest we forget, while he does this, the band rocks like a motherf*cker. It’s the birth of a great band that birthed an entire genre with this album.
–Stephen Thomas Erlewine (Editor – AllMusic-reviewing the Band’s debut LP with Kooper Producing ) 


The day was November 20, 1973. The location was the legendary Cow Palace, just outside San Francisco. The arena was packed to the rafters for the highly anticipated British band, The Who‘s Quadrophenia Tour. Pete Townsend, the band’s mastermind, had personally chosen the opening band himself; Lynyrd Skynyrd, a relatively unknown bar band from Jacksonville, Florida. The band had just released their first LP under the guidance of Brooklyn-born producer, musician and arranger, Al Kooper. As the concert got underway, the crowd, in a semi-delirious state (more often than not the Who can have that effect on a crowd), began to pelt the boys from North Florida with quarters in order to speed their exit. The band was in a stage of shock, they had only played bars and small dance halls to this point in their career. Nevertheless, under the steely-eyed direction of their leader, Van Zant, they soldiered on. After 25 nerve-racking minutes they were miraculously honored with an encore. As the Who’s manager Peter Ridge (later to become manager of Lynyrd Skynyrd) reflected: “No band that has ever opened for The Who has ever gotten an encore.”
Forged in Hell House

It’s approximately 2,812 miles between The Cow Palace and Hell House in Green Cove Springs, Florida, just southwest of Jacksonville. But there, in an old wood cabin with a tin roof, located near a farm, is where the band was run through the gauntlet by its irrepressible taskmaster, Ronald Wayne Van Zant. It came by the name Hell House honestly. Ronnie would pick up the boys in his truck and proceed to drill them in the oftentimes torrid heat like it was musical bootcamp for hours on end. You’ve heard of the movie and play School of Rock, well, this was the school of hard knocks rock.

Ronnie, Allen Collins and Gary Rossington had formed bands under various names as early as 1964, but became Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1970. You all know the story about the strict gym teacher with the same phonetic spelling at Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville so I won’t rehash it here. He later became a friend of the band.

In fact, Van Zant wrote most of the music for the their first two albums at Hell House.

Yes, it was there, from sun up to sundown on most days, toiling in the nearly unbearable heat and sweltering humidity of the dilapidated cabin, that he forged the gem of a band that would become in the words of Rolling Stone Magazine; “One of the greatest rock ‘n’roll bands in history, transcending the Southern rock category.”  That hard work would eventually take them to venues like the Cow Palace and beyond.

America’s Rolling Stones 

That’s how their discoverer, Al Kooper, Dylan associate (Higway 61 Revisited) Blues Project founder and producer extraordinaire (Super Session/Mike Bloomfield) introduced them to MCA record executives and the music press. How they reached that pinnacle of comparison deserves some backstory.

It seems Kooper had persuaded MCA records to bankroll his Sounds Of The South label in an effort to compete with Phil Walden’s Capricorn Records (home of the Allman Brothers). ​

​So where did he find these rough-and-tumble diamonds in the rough?

“In 1972, the radio was logjammed with progressive rock like you wouldn’t believe – Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis – I was searching for a great three-chord band to produce. And so, that year, I heard Lynyrd Skynyrd making their Atlanta debut at a very dangerous club on Peachtree Street called Funocchio’s. They were playing a weeklong engagement, and each night I’d hear another great original song from them and knew I’d found the band I was searching for,” Kooper remembers.

As Skynyrd guitarist Ed King would always say; “Honestly, if it hadn’t been for Al Kooper, Lynyrd Skynyrd might’ve never seen the light of day.​”

Swamps vs. Beach

​It’s important to remember the influences, both geographical and cultural, that shaped Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Unlike the Chamber of Commerce-promoted image of Florida as a sandy beach paradise, the Northern region of the state is full of swamps, moss, snakes, alligators and a topography more like the neighboring southern states than, say, Miami’s South Beach. Same state, two entirely different worlds.

It was in that environment and the hardscrabble life of Jacksonville’s West Side, that Ronnie Van Zant and company’s musical vision was forged. He was influenced  by the black blues, (his autobiographical ballad, Curtis Loew) country, rock and folk music. He and the band loved the music of the Second Wave of the British Invasion (Yardbirds, Cream, the Who, the Stones, Free, to name a few) as well as artists like Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash.

As Kooper puts the band’s broad appeal in perspective: “His lyrics were a big part of it — like Woody Guthrie and Merle Haggard before him, Ronnie knew how to cut to the chase.”

Canadian Wisdom

In the early 1980s, as a young writer working in Toronto, Canada and as a native southerner, I was treated as a hothouse plant. I was an exotic creature who was an absolute curiosity, admired for my sense of humor and love of life, but also the object of pity, coming as I did from such a degenerate (in their minds) part of North America.

One day when an art director discovered I was from Jacksonville, he heartily exclaimed, “Oh my God, you’re from Skynyrdville!”

Truth was, I knew of Skynyrd and their music (by then they had suffered the terrible tragedy of losing Van Zant, Gaines, and others in a plane crash), but didn’t listen to them much. Well, after having copies of their CDs put on my desk one morning by said art director,  I quickly gave myself a crash course. Needless to say, I loved what I heard and the band became a staple of my music listening. So, here is a band that had ceased to exist for the better part of three years, yet, a young Canadian lionized them as musical royalty. He was sure they were from the same lineage of southern artists like William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Albert Murray. 

Blood Sweat & Tears

In his 2008 book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell wrote that “Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.”

Well, by the time 
Lynyrd Skynyrd went into the studio with Al Kooper in Doraville, Georgia to record their first album with the “Yankee Slicker” (as Ronnie described him in his song, “Workin’ for MCA”), they had logged at least that many hours in studios, bars, dance halls and, of course, in the sweaty, deliberately remote confines of Hell House. All under the master’s gaze, Ronald Van Zant, the Jacksonville Kid​ who wouldn’t be denied. 

I’ll close with an “A” review of Skynyrd’s Gold & Platinum LP by perhaps the Dean of American rock critics,  Robert Christgau. And lastly, another vestige of the band’s impact on our culture with an excerpt from the movie; Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.
n the light of day.
Because Ronnie Van Zant wasn’t quite an infallible songwriter, Lynyrd Skynyrd was a great band that never made a wholly undeniable album, but try saying no to this compilation and it’ll loosen your bicuspids. It’s not fair, really–everybody who was dumb enough to dismiss them as another pack of redneck boogie freaks now gets to catch up. Though I can hope that when they do they’ll be consumed with regret at what they missed. And I can’t deny that when I want to hear Skynyrd this is what I’ll put on. 
-Robert Christgau (Village Voice)

I’d like to think of Jesus like with giant eagles wings, and singing lead vocals with Lynryd Skynyrd with like an angel band and I’m in the front row, and I’m hammered drunk.
-John C. Reilly (as Cal Naughton)