Ed King was from California. Yet the first words we hear before the infectious riff on “Sweet Home Alabama” — “One, two three!” — belong to the Glendale-born King, who co-wrote the song with Gary Rossington and Ronnie Van Zant.
King died Wednesday at age 68 with a plethora of great songs under his belt. But one stands out among the rest, the one that’s in response to Neil Young’s “Southern Man” and “Alabama.”
So how did a Californian come to co-write the rock-and-roll anthem of the American South?
It started in the Golden State, where King co-founded the psychedelic rock band Strawberry Alarm Clock long before becoming a Southern rocker. The band scored a 1967 Billboard chart-topping hit with “Incense and Peppermints” — a song that he reportedly wrote in a mere 45 minutes.
Later, in a reversal of fates, King’s band opened for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s in Rossington and Van Zant’s hometown of Jacksonville, Fla., in 1968. (That’s right, no one involved with this song was actually from Alabama.) After hearing the band rehearsing “Need All My Friends,” he offered to join, according to Rolling Stone.
It would take another five years, but King finally became one of the Southern rockers he so admired, beginning as the band’s bassist and working his way up to third guitar.
That was around the time Young’s songs about the South’s many problems, most notably the racist ideology running through the region’s bloodstream, were popular. He released “Southern Man” in 1970 and the damning “Alabama” on his smash-hit record “Harvest” in 1972.
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s response was one of the earliest songs King wrote with his new band.
“I had this little riff. It’s the little picking part and I kept playing it over and over when we were waiting on everyone to arrive for rehearsal. Ronnie and I were sitting there, and he kept saying, play that again,” Rossington told Garden & Gun magazine of the songwriting process. “Then Ronnie wrote the lyrics and Ed [King] and I wrote the music.”
King has always been humble about his part in writing the song, being sure to credit Rossington for penning the main riff.
“Well, when I came to rehearsal that day, Gary was playing this riff that you can hear in the verses,” King told Gibson.com. “It’s not the main riff that I play; it’s a part that he plays. And as soon as I picked up the guitar I immediately bounced off his riff. . . . And so I mean if it hadn’t been for Gary writing his part, I never would have written my part,” referring to the second guitar line that skirts under the main riff, sometimes reaching up to curl around it, like a vine around a branch.
The tune isn’t exactly vague in its response to Young. It actually calls the Canadian out by name:
Well I heard Mister Young sing about her
Well I heard ole Neil put her down
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow
Still, as Rossington said in the interview with Garden & Gun: “Everyone thought it was about Neil Young, but it was more about Alabama. . . . When we were out in the country driving all the time, we would listen to the radio. Neil Young had ‘Southern Man,’ and it was kind of cutting the South down. . . . We loved Neil Young and all the music he’s given the world. We still love him today. It wasn’t cutting him down, it was cutting the song he wrote about the South down.”
The song has become a rallying cry for the South, one often used in Republican political rallies — Donald Trump’s included.
“Ronnie painted a picture everyone liked. Because no matter where you’re from, sweet home Alabama or sweet home Florida or sweet home Arkansas, you can relate,” Rossington added.
The song’s reception certainly doesn’t square with King’s California hippie ethos. And King eventually left the band precisely because he didn’t feel like he fit in.
The band often found itself in physical fights, reportedly fueled by Van Zant. Eventually, King found himself on the receiving end of the singer’s wrath, and he decided to walk away.
The breaking point, King said in the documentary “If I Leave Here Tomorrow,” came in 1975 when “Ronnie and my guitar roadie who changed my strings were thrown in jail in Ann Arbor. They didn’t arrive … until 10 minutes before we went on. I had to play on old strings and I broke two strings during ‘Free Bird.’ After, Ronnie was riding me, and a light bulb went off and I said, ‘That’s it.’ I went back to my room, packed up my stuff and left.”
“I’m the hippie from Southern California. I’m not digging the violence part,” King added.
Perhaps it’s because of his modesty, or perhaps it’s because he left the band for a stretch, but King’s name is often lost to the annals of Skynyrd history.
“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t ‘know’ the intro lick to ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ ” guitarist Andrew Michael Sovine told the Tennessean. “If that was all [King] was known for I think that would be worth remembering, but all of his work with Skynyrd was just amazing…. As a guitarist I don’t think he ever got the credit he was due. The music he wrote really was the soundtrack of a generation or two.”
Even publications that purport to focus on the South don’t always recognize him. Consider this supposed history of the song by Country Living magazine, in which King’s name is entirely omitted.
King, though, never seemed to mind. He once described his career with a brevity and sincerity rarely seen in show business.
“I am the luckiest guitar player on Earth,” he said.