“Free Bird“, or “Freebird“, is a power ballad performed by American rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. The song was first featured on the band’s debut album in 1973 and has been included on subsequent albums released by the band, including the previously unreleased, unfaded-ending version of the original recording (featured on Skynyrd’s Innyrds).
Released as a single in November 1974, “Free Bird” bowed at No. 87 on the Billboard Hot 100 on November 23 and became the band’s second Top 40 hit in early 1975, where it peaked at No. 19. A live version of the song also reached the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1977, peaking at No. 38. “Free Bird” also achieved the No. 3 spot on Guitar World‘s 100 Greatest Guitar Solos.
It is considered to be Lynyrd Skynyrd’s signature song, is used as a finale by during their live performances, and is their longest song, often going well over 14 minutes when played live.
According to guitarist Gary Rossington, for two years after Allen Collins wrote the initial chords, vocalist Ronnie Van Zant insisted that there were too many for him to create a melody in the belief that the melody needed to change alongside the chords. After Collins played the unused sequence at rehearsal one day, Van Zant asked him to repeat it, then wrote out the melody and lyrics in three or four minutes. The guitar solos that finish the song were added originally to give Van Zant a chance to rest, as the band was playing several sets per night at clubs at the time. Soon afterward, the band learned piano-playing roadie Billy Powell had written an introduction to the song; upon hearing it, they included it as the finishing touch and had him formally join as their keyboardist.
Allen Collins’s girlfriend, Kathy, whom he later married, asked him, “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?” Collins noted the question and it eventually became the opening line of “Free Bird”.
The song is dedicated to the memory of Duane Allman by the band in their live shows. During their 1975 performance on The Old Grey Whistle Test, Ronnie dedicated the song to both Allman and Berry Oakley, commenting, “they’re both free birds”.
It has become something of a humorous tradition for audience members at concerts to shout “Free Bird” as a request to hear the song, regardless of the performer or style of music. For example, during the Nirvana 1993 MTV Unplugged in New York show, a shout-out for “Freebird!” eventually resulted in a lyrically slurred, if short, rendition of “Sweet Home Alabama”. The phenomenon began earlier in the 1970s with The Allman Brothers Band’s “Whipping Post” and Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” but then took off with “Free Bird” by 1979. On Skynyrd’s first live album, 1976’s One More from the Road, Van Zant can be heard asking the crowd, “What song is it you wanna hear?” The deafening calls for “Free Bird” led into a 14-minute rendition of the song. Kevin Matthews claimed to have further popularized it in the 1980s from his Chicago-area radio show.
In recent tours, since the song returned to their set list, it has become common for the band to close concerts with it, with photos and film of the former band members being shown on a screen behind them, while lead singer Johnny Van Zant points his microphone to the sky as a tribute. This can be seen on the band’s 2003 Vicious Cycle Tour concert video.
“Free Bird” is included in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll and at number 193 in Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In 2009, it was named the 26th best hard rock song of all time by VH1.
The song—half ballad, half up-tempo guitar solo—quickly became a staple for Lynyrd Skynyrd at their live performances. Many recognize it’s 5:12 triple guitar solo section that closes it out. It often turned into an extended jam session at concerts. The band would consistently play it as the last song of every show, as it was their biggest crowd pleaser. Overall the song proved to be a huge hit for Lynyrd Skynyrd and it remains a fan favorite to this day. It is also a classic rock radio staple.
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