There are probably few bands as associated with wailing guitars as Lynyrd Skynyrd, and fewer still as identified with a single song featuring a seemingly endless wall of such wailing guitars (ah, that would be ‘Freebird’ if you’re wondering). Yet, I think my favorite section of a Lynyrd Skynyrd song ever – and I love Skynyrd! – takes only 12 seconds, and is not even played on guitar.
It was on 1977’s Street Survivors album (the one released just three days before the band’s chartered plane crashed en route to Baton Rouge, LA., killing 6 people including band leader Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and backing vocalist Cassie Gaines). The first two songs, ‘What’s Your Name’ and ‘That Smell’, were the big hits, but track 4 closing out side-A was ‘I Know A Little’, which was actually written by Steve Gaines prior to joining Skynyrd only a year earlier. It’s a typical guitar boogie like so many other Skynyrd tunes, then two-thirds of the way through, the band’s too often forgotten secret weapon, pianist Billy Powell, is unleashed on the ivories. Starting at 2:39 on this video clip, Powell pounces in and just eviscerates the keys for 9 seconds, leading into the climactic rising glissando (yup, that’s what it’s called) at 2:48. The last 3 seconds are really just a cool down.
I could listen to it a thousand times (and I believe I have), and I can’t think of another time where a Lynyrd Skynyrd song has changed direction so quickly, transformed its mood so radically, and altered the entire memory of a tune so completely. Well, except maybe the fairly notable moment at the end of the last verse of ‘Freebird’ before it transitions into 4-plus minutes of more characteristic, and historically significant, unrelenting guitar jamming, which wasn’t too bad either. To match those 4 minutes though, Powell needed only 12 seconds.