“Bob Burns, the original drummer, lives in total obscurity,” Mark Ribowsky, author of “Whiskey Bottles and Brand-New Cars,” told the Birmingham News. “… He made that sound go and he was discarded like a bucket of garbage.”
Burns, 64, died Friday night when his car crashed into a mailbox and then a tree near his home in Cartersville, Ga., some 40 miles from Atlanta, police said. It was raining, and he was not wearing his seat belt, Georgia State Patrol spokesman Tracey Watson told the Associated Press. His death marks at least eight among Lynyrd Skynyrd members — a band bedeviled with bad luck.
The band was born in the mid-1960s in a high school in Jacksonville, Fla.,when lead singer Ronnie Van Zant grabbed some guys from school and soon started practicing under the name Noble Five. Gary Rossington and Allen Collins were on guitar, Larry Junstrom on the bass and Burns on drums. In 1969, the men named themselves Lynyrd Skynyrd after their high school gym teacher, Leonard Skinner — a disciplinarian with a revulsion for long hair and loud music, according to a 1977 article in The Washington Post. They used different vowels to avoid legal trouble.
But Burns, just a teenager, had a rough go from the start. He had to leave for several months in 1969 when his parents moved away.
“I had no place to stay,” he told the Examiner in 2011. “I was 15 and 16 years old. I was crashing in people’s bushes. I was crashing wherever I could. . . . I was borrowing clothes from the roadies to play shows with. I didn’t even have any shoes and it just got to me.”
He took another leave a couple of years later when he was hospitalized for mood swings.
“They found that I was bipolar,” he added. “They gave me medication, and I’ve been a free man ever since.”
The band made it big in 1974 when “Sweet Home Alabama” shot to the top of the charts.
But the musicians were hell-raisers — addicted to drugs and alcohol, and pursued by police. “We’re kind of like an old dog that ain’t housebroken,” Van Zant told The Post in 1976. Over the years, the band became marred by violence, tragedy and death.
In Marley Brant’s 2002 book “Freebirds: The Lynyrd Skynyrd Story,” she described a moment Burns refused to play a particular song: “Ronnie … stuck [his gun] up to Bob’s head. He says, ‘You play the motherf—ing song or I’m gonna blow your brains all over this room.’ This was just a rehearsal.”
In 1975, Burns stepped away from the band — for good — when he had a “disabling” reaction to a drug he did in Europe, his father, Robert Burns Sr., told the Los Angeles Times. He was quickly replaced by drummer Artimus Pyle.
Burns’s father said he was hospitalized, got clean and never rejoined.
Burns’s death brings to mind similar tragedies that have taken other former Lynyrd Skynyrd bandmates — most notably the 1977 chartered plane crash in a Mississippi swamp that killed three: lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, vocalist Cassie Gains. Others were injured in the accident but survived, including Pyle, who crawled from the wreckage to get help.
After the accident in 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd fell apart, though the early members — including Burns — were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. In the 1980s, some members got back together for a reunion tour with Van Zant’s younger brother, Johnny, as lead vocalist.
Collins survived the plane crash only to be partially paralyzed in a 1980s car accident that killed his girlfriend. In 1990, he died from chronic pneumonia.
Leon Wilkeson, a bassist who joined in the early 1970s, also survived the plane crash. In 2001, he died from emphysema and liver disease. His replacement, Ean Evans, died from lung cancer in 2009.
Larry Junstrom and Gary Rossington are the only two original band members left alive. After Burns’s death over the weekend, Rossington said he was “at a loss for words.”
“I just remember Bob being a funny guy,” he wrote on Facebook. “He was just so funny, he used to do skits for us and make us laugh all the time, he was hilarious!
“Ironically, since we played Jacksonville yesterday. Dale, my daughter and I, went by the cemetery to see some of the guys in the band and my parents grave sites. On the way back, we went by Bob Burns old house, it was there in the carport where we used to first start to practice with Skynyrd.
“My heart goes out to his family and God bless him and them in this sad time. He was a great great drummer.”