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Ronnie Van Zant's Hot 100

Getty Images / Michael Ochs Archives / Richard McCaffrey

Ronnie Van Zant's Hot 100

Ronnie Van Zant, who would have celebrated his 67th birthday this week, wasn't a member of the so-called 27 club – the startlingly large group of musicians who have died at age 27 – but he was close. He was just 29 years old when he died in a legendary plane crash Oct. 20, 1977. While he lived, his band Lynyrd Skynyrd enjoyed four years of success, with Van Zant on lead vocals for a string of southern rock hits that endure today.

 Lynyrd Skynyrd Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant (right) urges on guitarist Steve Gaines during a performance at Convention Hall in Asbury Park, New Jersey July 20, 1977. AP Photo/str)

Lynyrd Skynyrd lead singer Ronnie Van Zant (right) urges on guitarist Steve Gaines during a performance at Convention Hall in Asbury Park, N.J., July 20, 1977. (AP Photo)

Almost anyone who's ever been to a rock concert has heard some joker in the back yell "Free Bird!" It's both a comment on a band's skill (or more often, lack thereof) and a nod to a seriously long rock song – with a seriously great guitar solo (one that not a lot of guitarists could handle).

Ironically, though "Free Bird" is one of the best-known rock songs of all time, it didn't tear up the charts. None of Lynyrd Skynyrd's songs did – "Free Bird" peaked at No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100, one of only a handful of Skynyrd songs that cracked the charts at all. It was an era when pop music was more likely to make the cut than rock (Barbra Streisand dominated the Hot 100 in the year "Free Bird" charted), and Lynyrd Skynyrd and their peers played music most often heard on basement record players and muscle-car 8-tracks.

Yet they did make it to the top 10 – once. "Sweet Home Alabama" topped out at No. 8 with a winning combination of great sound and controversial lyrics (lyrics often misinterpreted to be in favor of segregation and racism – when in fact they were intended to speak against those things).

Other Skynyrd classics – songs that any rock radio listener knows by heart – never charted at all. "Gimme Three Steps" was one of them.

Lynyrd Skynyrd's fifth and final album with Ronnie Van Zant as front man, lead singer, and frequent songwriter was Street Survivors. It was released Oct.17, 1977 – three days before the plane crash that killed Van Zant, along with band mates Steve Gaines and Cassie Gaines. The album itself rose to No. 5, the highest chart number the band ever saw. The top single, "What's Your Name," peaked at No. 13.

It's just more proof that the charts don't always know what's good for them … or what songs are going to long outlive the record players and muscle cars to become unchallenged classics. Thirty-five years after his death, Van Zant's music lives on.

Written by Linnea Crowther