Imagine yourself in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis in 1974. The place drips with history and, rumor has it, there’s more being made upstairs at an unprecedented meeting between southern musical titans Elvis Presley, James Brown, and Lynyrd Skynyrd leader Ronnie Van Zant.
Elvis and James tell Ronnie the true story of how they used to secretly get together in hotel rooms in Los Angeles and Las Vegas to sing traditional gospel songs. Ronnie’s response is to launch into “Old Blind Barnabas,” a favorite tune of James and Elvis.
Elvis is only mildly surprised to learn that Ronnie grew up on the edge of a black neighborhood in Jacksonville and sang in a black church. After all, Elvis lived for a time in the middle of a black neighborhood in Tupelo, Mississippi and often attended a black church in Memphis with his white friends. James jumps in to explain how he started out singing in Byrd’s Gospel Starlighters.
Ronnie and James try to top each other with stories of how hard their bands rehearse and, when Ronnie says he punches his guys out if they make a mistake, James laughs and says, “Man, my band complains about me and all I do is fine ‘em.”
Ronnie takes a swig out of a bottle of Jack Daniels and shakes his head. “The three of us, we had to work hard. We had to make it. Otherwise, it would be back to picking cotton.”
After sending out for some ribs, the guys get to talking about prison. James describes the three years he spent in the joint as a Georgia teenager. Ronnie talks about his friends who were sentenced to Florida’s infamous Raiford penitentiary and how that inspired him to write “Four Walls of Raiford.” Elvis stares at the floor as he softly tells about how his dad was sent to Parchman Farm in Mississippi--a prison that inspired countless blues songs--for forging a check to buy food for the family.
James nods his head and describes what made him check out of Augusta’s second-rate black schools for good in the seventh grade. Ronnie responds that everyone in Lynyrd Skynyrd bailed out by their sixteenth birthday (Jacksonville schools were so bad they were disaccredited by the state of Florida).
After they finish eating, Elvis, James, and Ronnie head down to the hotel bar in search of a piano.
From the introduction to Lynyrd Skynyrd: An Oral History / First published by Avon Books in 1999