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Leon Wilkeson

Leon Wilkeson

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Leon Russell Wilkeson was the bassist of Southern rock
Southern rock
Southern rock is a subgenre of rock music, and genre of Americana. It developed in the Southern United States from rock and roll, country music, and blues, and is focused generally on electric guitar and vocals...

 band Lynyrd Skynyrd
Lynyrd Skynyrd
Lynyrd Skynyrd is an American rock band prominent in spreading Southern Rock during the 1970s.Originally formed as the "Noble Five" in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1964, the band rose to worldwide recognition on the basis of its driving live performances and signature tune, Freebird...

 from 1972 until his death in 2001.

Early life

Born on April 2, 1952 in Newport, Rhode Island
Newport, Rhode Island
Newport is a city on Aquidneck Island in Newport County, Rhode Island, United States, about south of Providence. Known as a New England summer resort and for the famous Newport Mansions, it is the home of Salve Regina University and Naval Station Newport which houses the United States Naval War...

 but raised in Jacksonville, Florida
Jacksonville, Florida
Jacksonville is the largest city in the U.S. state of Florida in terms of both population and land area, and the largest city by area in the contiguous United States. It is the county seat of Duval County, with which the city government consolidated in 1968...

, Wilkeson became a major Beatles fan just as he was becoming a teenager and began learning to play bass guitar in order to emulate his favorite member of the Fab Four, Paul McCartney
Paul McCartney
Sir James Paul McCartney, MBE, Hon RAM, FRCM is an English musician, singer-songwriter and composer. Formerly of The Beatles and Wings , McCartney is listed in Guinness World Records as the "most successful musician and composer in popular music history", with 60 gold discs and sales of 100...

. Wilkeson dropped out of his school band in order to focus on learning the bass at the age of 14 and, shortly afterwards, was approached by a fellow student, who told him that her brother was searching for a bassist for his band. Her brother turned out to be Ronnie Van Zant
Ronnie Van Zant
Ronald Wayne "Ronnie" Van Zant was an American lead vocalist, primary lyricist, and a founding member of the Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd...

, and soon after, Wilkeson signed on with Van Zant's local group, the Collegiates. However, due to plummeting school grades, Wilkeson had to drop out of the group at the behest of his parents. Soon Wilkeson found himself in another local group, the King James Version. He began to study the 'lead bass style' of such accomplished players as Cream
Cream (band)
Cream were a 1960s British rock supergroup consisting of bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce, guitarist/vocalist Eric Clapton, and drummer Ginger Baker...

's Jack Bruce
Jack Bruce
John Symon Asher "Jack" Bruce is a Scottish musician and songwriter, respected as a founding member of the British psychedelic rock power trio, Cream, for a solo career that spans several decades, and for his participation in several well-known musical ensembles...

, Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin were an English rock band, active in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. Formed in 1968, they consisted of guitarist Jimmy Page, singer Robert Plant, bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones, and drummer John Bonham...

's John Paul Jones
John Paul Jones (musician)
John Paul Jones is an English multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, composer, arranger and record producer. Best known as the bassist, mandolinist, and keyboardist for English rock band Led Zeppelin, Jones has since developed a solo career and has gained even more respect as both a musician and a...

, Jefferson Airplane
Jefferson Airplane
Jefferson Airplane was an American rock band formed in San Francisco in 1965. A pioneer of the psychedelic rock movement, Jefferson Airplane was the first band from the San Francisco scene to achieve mainstream commercial and critical success....

's Jack Casady
Jack Casady
Jack Casady , is an American musician considered one of the foremost bass guitarists of the rock music era and best known as a member of Jefferson Airplane. First playing as a lead guitarist with the Washington D.C...

, The Grateful Dead's Phil Lesh
Phil Lesh
Phillip Chapman Lesh is a musician and a founding member of the Grateful Dead, with whom he played bass guitar throughout their 30-year career....

, and the Allman Brothers' Berry Oakley
Berry Oakley
Raymond Berry Oakley III , was an American bassist and one of the founding members of The Allman Brothers Band.-Biography:...

. By the early '70s, Wilkeson was becoming one of Jacksonville's top bassists, and when Van Zant's new band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, found themselves without a bassist, Wilkeson was hired.

Lynyrd Skynyrd

Skynyrd had just landed a recording deal with MCA, which should have signaled smooth sailing for the group. But this didn't prove to be the case, as Wilkeson began to get cold feet just prior to recording sessions getting underway for their debut album, as he felt that he was still too young and not ready for a 'life on the road.' The bassist surprised his bandmates by bowing out, and taking a job stocking ice cream at 'Farm Best Dairy Products.' Former Strawberry Alarm Clock
Strawberry Alarm Clock
Strawberry Alarm Clock is a psychedelic rock band from Los Angeles best known for their 1967 hit "Incense and Peppermints". The group took its name as an homage to the Beatles' psychedelic hit "Strawberry Fields Forever", reportedly, at the suggestion of their record company Uni Records.They are...

 member Ed King
Ed King
Edward C. King is an American musician. He is best known as the guitarist for psychedelic rock band Strawberry Alarm Clock and Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd....

 subbed for Wilkeson during the recording of Skynyrd's 1973 debut, Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd
Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd
is the debut album from Lynyrd Skynyrd, released in 1973. Featured songs include "I Ain't the One", "Gimme Three Steps", "Simple Man", "Tuesday's Gone" and "Free Bird", the rock anthem that first brought the band national attention.Bassist Leon Wilkeson left the band during the album's early...

, but just as sessions wrapped up, Wilkeson began having second thoughts about leaving the group. After discussing the matter with Van Zant, Wilkeson was welcomed back into Lynyrd Skynyrd.

With its outlaw/party-hearty image, tough southern rock, and solid touring, Skynyrd quickly became one of the top bands of the Seventies, scoring such hit albums as 1974's Second Helping
Second Helping
Second Helping is a 1974 album by Lynyrd Skynyrd. It was the band's second album, and featured its biggest hit single, "Sweet Home Alabama", an answer song to Neil Young's "Alabama" and "Southern Man". The song reached #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in August 1974...

, 1975's Nuthin' Fancy
Nuthin' Fancy
Nuthin' Fancy is a 1975 album by Lynyrd Skynyrd, their third studio album, and their first to reach the Top 10, peaking at #9 on the US albums chart. It was certified Gold on 6/27/1975and Platinum on 7/21/1987 by the R.I.A.A.-Side one:...

, 1976's Gimme Back My Bullets
Gimme Back My Bullets
Gimme Back My Bullets is Lynyrd Skynyrd's fourth studio album. It was released on February 2, 1976. It reached # 20 on the U.S. albums chart. The album was certified Gold on 1/20/1981 by the R.I.A.A....

 and One More from the Road
One More from the Road
One More From the Road is a live album by Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. It marked the band's first live album, and the only live album from the so-called "classic" era of the band prior to the plane crash that killed lead singer/songwriter Ronnie Van Zant, as well as band members Steve...

, plus 1977's Street Survivors
Street Survivors
Street Survivors is the fifth studio album by Southern rock band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, released on October 17, 1977. The LP is the last Skynyrd album ever recorded by original members Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins, and is the sole Skynyrd studio recording by guitarist Steve Gaines...

 -- and such hit singles as "Free Bird
Free Bird
"Free Bird" is a song by the American southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd...

" and "Sweet Home Alabama
Sweet Home Alabama (song)
"Sweet Home Alabama" is a song by Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd that first appeared in 1974 on their second album, Second Helping.It reached #8 on the US charts in 1974, and was the band's second hit single.-Creation and recording:...

". It was also during this 'classic' era of the group that Wilkeson picked up a gimmick of wearing colorful hats while onstage, garnering him the nickname Mad Hatter.

Somewhere along the line, Wilkeson acquired a "Fenderbird" bass from John Entwistle
John Entwistle
John Alec Entwistle was an English bass guitarist, songwriter, singer, horn player, and film and record producer who was best known as the bass player for the rock band The Who. His aggressive lead sound influenced many rock bass players...

. Wilkeson can be seen playing this bass in a 1975 Lynyrd Skynyrd
Lynyrd Skynyrd
Lynyrd Skynyrd is an American rock band prominent in spreading Southern Rock during the 1970s.Originally formed as the "Noble Five" in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1964, the band rose to worldwide recognition on the basis of its driving live performances and signature tune, Freebird...

 performance at the Old Grey Whistle Test venue. The Fenderbird bass mated a custom made Gibson Thunderbird
Gibson Thunderbird
The Gibson Thunderbird is an electric bass guitar made by Gibson.-Background and introduction:The Gibson Thunderbird was introduced in 1963. At the time, Fender had been the leader in the electric bass market since their introduction of the Precision Bass twelve years earlier.The Thunderbird was...

 body to a Fender Precision Bass
Fender Precision Bass
The Fender Precision Bass is an electric bass.Designed by Leo Fender as a prototype in 1950 and brought to market in 1951, the Precision was the first electric bass to earn widespread attention and use. A revolutionary instrument for the time, the Precision Bass has made an immeasurable impact on...


With Skynyrd coasting along with hit albums and sold-out tours (as well as leading a southern rock 'movement,' with the emergence of such similarly styled acts as .38 Special, Blackfoot, Molly Hatchet, the Outlaws, etc.), it appeared as though things would only get better for the band. But tragedy was lurking just around the corner for Wilkeson and his bandmates. The group and its entourage were involved in a plane crash on October 20, 1977 outside of Gillsburg, MS, which left several bandmembers dead (including Van Zant) and the rest badly injured. Understandably grief-stricken, Wilkeson and the other survivors bowed out of the spotlight for the remainder of the '70s, as they attempted to put their lives back together (although Wilkeson did manage to lay down bass parts for a release by the project Alias - 1979's Contraband). The dawn of the '80s appeared to bring great promise for most of the surviving bandmembers, as a new group formed, the Rossington-Collins Band, consisting of Wilkeson, in addition to such ex-Skynyrd members as guitarists Gary Rossington
Gary Rossington
Gary Robert Rossington is a founding member of Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. He plays lead and rhythm guitar. He is also a founding member of The Rossington-Collins Band along with former Lynyrd Skynyrd bandmate, the late Allen Collins...

 and Allen Collins
Allen Collins
Larkin Allen Collins Jr. was one of the founding members and guitarists of Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, and co-wrote many of the band's songs with late frontman Ronnie Van Zant...

, plus keyboardist Billy Powell
Billy Powell
William Norris "Billy" Powell was an American musician. He was the longtime keyboardist of Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, from 1970 until his death in 2009.-Biography:...

. Wilkeson, whose left arm was so badly broken in the plane crash that doctors were considering amputating it, never completely recovered from that injury - he had to play bass in a more "upright" position (not unlike the Rolling Stones' Bill Wyman
Bill Wyman
Bill Wyman is an English musician best known as the bass guitarist for the English rock and roll band the Rolling Stones from 1962 until 1992. Since 1997, he has recorded and toured with his own band, Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings...

) because he couldn't fully extend his arm.

After Lynyrd Skynyrd

The Rossington-Collins Band got off to a good start, as their 1980 debut, Anytime Anyplace Anywhere, became a modest sized hit. But shortly after the release of their second album, 1982's This is the Way, the band split up. Wilkeson opted to remain with Allen Collins in a new venture, the Allen Collins Band, issuing a lone album in 1983, Here, There & Back. Subsequently, little was heard from Wilkeson during the mid '80s, with exception to some visits to the local Care Unit and short-lived membership with fellow Lynyrd Skynyrd member Billy Powell
Billy Powell
William Norris "Billy" Powell was an American musician. He was the longtime keyboardist of Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, from 1970 until his death in 2009.-Biography:...

's Christian rock band "Vision." But by 1987, Wilkeson signed on with a reunited version of Skynyrd (with Ronnie Van Zant's younger brother, Johnny
Johnny Van Zant
John Roy "Johnny" Van Zant is an American musician and the current lead vocalist of Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. He is the younger brother of Lynyrd Skynyrd co-founder and former lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant and .38 Special founder Donnie Van Zant.Van Zant performed during the 1970s with...

, supplying lead vocals) - as the group embarked on a successful, sold out tour. The new version of Skynyrd continued to tour and release albums on a regular basis, when another mishap almost cost Wilkeson his life during the early '90s. Guitarist Ed King found Wilkeson (still sleeping) with his throat cut and bleeding profusely on the group's tour bus, and was rushed to the hospital. The bassist was patched up and able to continue on with Skynyrd, but exactly who was to blame for the incident remains unsolved to this day (King blamed Wilkeson's then-girlfriend, while she blamed King).

Skynyrd received another burst of renewed interest during the late '90s, due to an episode of VH1's 'Behind the Music' that explored the group's turbulent career. But yet again, just as it appeared it would be smooth sailing here on out for Wilkeson and his bandmates, tragedy struck. The bassist was found dead on July 27, 2001 in a Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
Ponte Vedra Beach is an unincorporated seaside community in St. Johns County, Florida, United States. Located eighteen miles southeast of downtown Jacksonville and north of St. Augustine, it is part of the Jacksonville Beaches area. It is an upmarket tourist resort area best known for its...

 hotel room; he was 49 years old. Wilkeson had apparently been suffering from chronic liver and lung disease, the cause of death was deemed 'from natural causes.' Wilkeson's death also put the group in a strange position, since an agreement with Ronnie Van Zant's widow stated that at least three of Skynyrd's longtime members would have to be in attendance for it to be able to tour and issue albums under the name 'Lynyrd Skynyrd.' The group continued on anyway, with replacement bassist Ean Evans
Ean Evans
Donald "Ean" Wayne Evans was the bassist for Lynyrd Skynyrd from 2001 until his death. He joined the band following the death of Leon Wilkeson.-Biography:...

 taking Wilkeson's longtime spot. However the reactions to Evans different style of playing was mixed, although he took informal lessons from Wilkeson.

The band dedicated the song Mad Hatter in memory to Wilkeson Skynyrd's 2003 album Vicious Cycle
Vicious Cycle (album)
Vicious Cycle is the eleventh studio album by Lynyrd Skynyrd, released in 2003. It was the first album by the band following the death of original bassist Leon Wilkeson, the song Mad Hatter being a tribute in memory to him. He died during recording, but does appear on two songs, "The Way" and...


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