Lynyrd Skynyrd Bassist Wilkeson Found Dead

ByABC News
July 30, 2001, 5:50 AM

July 30 -- Leon Wilkeson, bass player and founding member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, is dead at age 49.

A spokesperson for the band's record label said Wilkeson died in his sleep Friday at a hotel near Jacksonville, Florida.

A medical examiner said on Sunday that Wilkeson suffered from chronic liver and lung disease, and most likely died of natural causes. The official cause of death will be announced after toxicology test results come back in two to three weeks.

Wilkeson cheated death in 1977, surviving a crash of the band's chartered plane. Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and singer Cassie Gaines were all killed in the crash, and the band stopped performing and recording.

Lynyrd Skynyrd reformed in 1987, and has been touring and recording steadily ever since with Johnny Van Zant, brother of the late Ronnie, as lead singer.

The band has sold an estimated 35 million records.

Tour to Resume Aug. 7

The band has been on tour, and dates through the weekend have been cancelled. But a message on the group's official Web site said the summer tour will resume on Aug. 7, in Spokane, Wash.

The tour is scheduled to run through mid-September.

The band has asked that fans wishing to remember Wilkeson do so through the Musician's Assistance Program, which assists musicians and industry professionals seeking treatment for addiction.

Fly On, Free Bird

Over the weekend, the message boards on the official Web site were flooded with messages of lament for the "living legend," "free bird," and simple man."

"May the free bird fly on," read one message.

"Live on my brother. We love you!!!" read another typical message of mourning.

Lynyrd Skynyrd is a staple on rock, classic rock, and southern radio stations. Its many hit songs include "Freebird," "Sweet Home Alabama," "Gimme Three Steps" and "Simple Man."

The band got its name as a way of mocking Leonard Skinner, a gym coach at Robert E. Lee High School known for punishing his long-haired students specifically band co-founders Gary Rossington and Bob Burns.