THE KING OF SOUTHERN ROCK
THE ED KING INTERVIEW
by Michael Buffalo Smith
Ed King was one of the original members of Lynyrd Skynyrd and when the group reunited at the 1987 Volunteer Jam, Ed once again joined forces with the surviving members of one of the South’s best-loved rock and roll bands.
King kindly agreed to an interview with GRITZ in which he expounds upon the legendary band, lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, the band reunion and the article in SPIN magazine that has many Skynyrd fans ready to spit nails.
Ed, tell us a little about your pre-Lynyrd Skynyrd career, “Incense & Peppermints” and your other accomplishments.
I grew up in Southern California and the Strawberry Alarm Clock was my first real major band...I was 17. By November, 1967, we had a #1 song with “Incense and Peppermints” and our picture on the cover of Cash Box magazine. We never had another hit and the band went bankrupt in late 1968. But it was on one of our last tours that I met Ronnie Van Zant and the Lynyrd Skynyrd Band. They were our opening act for about three months of college dates we did in the South in 1970. Ronnie and I got along real well and I told him if he ever needed another guitar player or bass player he should call me. And he did in 1972 when Leon Wilkeson quit the band.
By the way, even though the music to “Incense” was written by myself and Mark Weitz, the keyboard player, we were not given credit and never paid a dime for it. We were ripped off by managers and publishers and the like. Oh well, we had a good time.
Sum up your days with the original Lynyrd Skynyrd band.
I played on the first three albums along with the First and Last album...which was actually the first album (that had been rejected by various record companies). I was recruited to play bass on the first album, Pronounced, but, during rehearsals Leon came out to the rehearsal cabin. While there, the band played “Simple Man” with Leon on bass. I had never heard the song before. After hearing Leon play bass, I decided he should be the bass player. He’s the best I’ve ever heard. To this day, I never write a bass part without asking myself “What would Leon play?”
As a matter of fact, the last two songs we recorded, “Free Bird” & “Simple Man” contain my bass parts that are very far removed from all of the other bass parts on that album. Mainly because I had caught the vision from Leon of how the bass should be played for this band.
One night, after the first album was done but not released, Ronnie came to me. I was sitting on my bed playing my Stratocaster. He put his arm around me and said “Ed...you’re really the worst bass player I’ve ever played with.” So the next day Ronnie and Gary went out to this ice cream factory where Leon was working. They asked him to return to the band. Two days later, with Leon on bass, we wrote our first two songs with the new lineup. “Sweet Home Alabama” and “I Need You”. Not bad for the first day.
I really enjoyed working with Al Kooper. I believe had it not been for Al, no one would’ve heard of Skynyrd. He was the visionary behind the band and how it should be presented to the world. We didn’t always agree with Al but I certainly enjoyed his presence.
When we drove up to Atlanta to record “Simple Man” we played the song for Al in the studio. He hadn’t heard it. He didn’t care for it and said “You’re not putting that song on the album.” Ronnie asked Al to step outside. He escorted Al to his Bentley and opened the car door. Al stepped in. Ronnie shut the door and stuck his head in thru the open window. “When we’re done recording it, we’ll call you.”
Al came back a few hours later, added the organ part and it was a keeper. I don’t think any band before or since, making its debut album, could get away with doing that to the record producer. There was a healthy respect happening there...and that is a really funny story that reflects that.
There’s a somewhat controversial article -- at least among Skynyrd fans on the web -- in the April issue of SPIN. In it, the author mentions a time during the early '90s when Leon got his throat cut in his sleep and some people blamed it on you. What’s the story?
We had just finished playing a gig in Nashville. That night Leon walked on stage totally drunk and really screwed the gig up.We were all pretty annoyed. Seems that he had waited all day at the Nashville airport for his girlfriend Rhonda to fly in...she was five hours late...and he had spent the entire day at the airport bar.
That night some of the guys flew back to Jax except me, Randall Hall, Leon and Rhonda. Early in the morning I woke up (been sleeping in the lounge in the rear of the bus) and walked to the front to talk to the driver. On the way back to the rear I noticed Leon’s arm dangling out of his bunk and some blood dripping from it. On further examination Leon’s throat had been cut and he was laying there in a pool of blood with Rhonda. We went straight to a hospital and had him stitched up...what a mess. Never did get to the bottom of it. Leon said he’d stumbled and must have “cut” himself in the bus hallway. Hmmmmm.
His girlfriend had been a source of problems...bringing a handgun on the road and holding Leon hostage in his hotel room...not letting any band members talk to Leon on the phone. And, at one point, told us Leon couldn’t tour with us anymore unless he got more money. That was in ‘93 when we had to hire a sub bass player for two legs of a tour because Leon had “quit”. Later that year he beat Rhonda up and got sentenced to three months in prison. They SHAVED his head! Man, it was ugly. So, as soon as we reached Jax that day, the word started circulating that I had cut Leon’s throat.
By the way, Rhonda (Leon’s ex) somehow slashed Leon’s wrist a year after this incident...and that left Leon with no feeling in his little finger and some damage to his ring finger (right hand...the one he uses to fret with). It’s a reporter’s job to write about what he experiences. I spoke several times with the guy who wrote that article...it seems he wanted to get the facts straight.
I know you probably get this a lot, but would you mind sharing your thoughts on Ronnie Van Zant?
Ronnie was two people. When he was straight, he was one of the finest people I’d ever met...when drunk, he was a madman. Unfortunately, towards the end of my tenure with the band, he was drunk the whole time. That’s mainly why I left...working with him just wasn’t fun anymore...and he was the only reason I wanted to join the band anyway.
One of my fondest memories of Ronnie, one that displays his genius, was in January, 1975. I had written this entire musical piece in my hotel room. We were working on “Nuthin Fancy.” He came by the hotel room to hear it and all. I told him was “It sounds to me like the song should be about a train.” It took him only 15 minutes to write “Railroad Song” that night. Ronnie never wrote anything down -- ever. But as long as the band could remember the “groove” of the music, the lyrics would always come back to him.
One other thing comes to mind -- and this is so cool. Many times in rehearsal while writing the band would be playing...it’d get loud...and Ronnie, after completing a verse or two of lyrics in his head, would walk over to me. He’d cup his mouth to my ear and sing me the song! On at least three occasions I was the first person to hear what he’d come up with. I remember hearing “Saturday Night Special” this way and my jaw dropping. He was an inspiration. I wish we could’ve parted on easier terms.
Tell us about the original reunion of the band, why you left and what you know about Artimus leaving.
I guess I stuck with the reunion band because I was chasing some kind of dream. I was under the impression that just maybe we could write some music that mattered and that maybe Johnny Van Zant would do a good vocal. I was misguided, I guess. I did it to myself.
The ‘91-’93 version of the band was fun. Custer was a great drummer and we had some great live shows. Artimus left the band because...you’ll have to ask him. It’s way too complicated and I’m not sure I understand why. But that version of the band Ronnie would’ve been proud of. We were tight, energetic and inspired. Every night was a musical surprise...I had a blast.
In September of ‘95 I went into congestive heart failure while on the road. I had been diagnosed with an enlarged heart back in late ‘92. I caught a really bad cold and the infection landed in my heart. The only remedy is a heart transplant. I held my own from ‘93 thru ‘95. Though touring did get a bit rough at the end.
I had hoped to get a new heart and re-join the band eventually. But the band kind of deserted me and maybe it’s just as well. The doctors say my health is doing a lot better than they expected, and that I may not need a new heart for five years. By that time, they say new technologies might be available so that I won’t need the new heart at all. Who knows.
I had thought the guys in the band were closer friends. I was mistaken. Took me a while for that to sink in. I didn’t expect them to support me financially, but I didn’t expect them to forsake me either. The way they handled my “leave of absence” was a disgrace. I should be grateful to be away from their influence and I am.
I wish I was 20 again but there’s no going back. I am enjoying this time off. I do some writing, play with my dog and my toys, enjoy an “island” smoke once in a while, take a ride in my Jag convertible, it’s pretty damn good. I’m doing just fine, thank you.
Would you contrast for us the equipment you used in the early '70s and what you prefer to play these days?
In the '70s I used several old Strats (rosewood neck models) and a great amp given to me by Hartley Peavey -- a prototype Road Master. During the reunion tour I used two custom made Strats by John Suhr and a Peavey Mace, and later used PRS guitars. Now, I’m back to old Strats, maple neck models this time. Almost any amp that can pump 70 watts is good enough for me, tubes only.
Did you hear the story about me getting my stolen 1959 Gibson Les Paul returned to me in August ‘97? The whole story is still posted on the Nashville Scene Website. (Go to nashvillescene.com and do a search under “Ed King” to see the story. -Ed.) It tells how my stolen guitar was returned to me. I think my health did a major turnaround when that happened. I was in the midst of this lawsuit against my “friends” and was really down in the dumps bigtime. Getting “Lester” back was a real lift, as you can imagine. I never, EVER thought I’d see that guitar again.
What were your favorite Skynyrd songs to play?
“Sweet Home Alabama,” “Simple Man,” “Saturday Night Special,””Needle and the Spoon” ... I had a lot of favorites. “Curtis Lowe” was a good one to play. The original version of the band only played “Curtis Lowe” one time on stage. We were playing in a basement in some hotel and thought we’d try it. We never played it again until the Tribute Tour with Johnny. But the songs, they were pretty much all good ones.
What would be your advice to a young hotshot guitar player or other musician who thinks they have what it takes to make it in the music industry?
Of course, we live in a different world than we did when I was 15 years old. Back then, rock guitar was still in the pioneer stages...of which I’m proud to say I was a part.
But one thing is probably still important. I always felt that, even though I wasn’t the best player around, I had style. Most people could pick my parts out on a record and identify them. The intro to “Sweet Home Alabama” will always be a radio staple. And how many songs can you think of can be identified within the first two seconds? (I’m really proud of that one).
So, if you’re really convinced you have style and that you have something to say musically, then you don’t let anything hold you back. I didn’t, although I could’ve quit many times. I had confidence in the little things that I know I can do well.
It also helps to learn and hang out with as many musicians as possible.
If you could have one wish granted, what would it be?
I think my one wish would be to write the title track for a “Grade-A” movie...I’m working on it.