Long considered one of rock's premier guitarists, Allen Collins served as heart to Ronnie VanZant's soul in Lynyrd Skynyrd. Allen's unique, firey guitar playing and powerful songwriting helped insure Lynyrd Skynyrd's place in rock and roll history.
Born at St. Lukes Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida on July 19, 1952, Allen (delivered by Doctor Owens) weighed in at 7 pounds, 14 ounces. Allen's mother, Eva remembers her son as full of energy and enthusiasm -- even before Allen could walk he moved constantly. From his earliest days Allen loved cars -- especially race cars -- and his favorite summer activity was going to Jacksonville Raceway every Saturday night to watch Leroy Yarborough race. The Collins family first started attending the races when Allen was eight years old and Allen, sitting as high in the stands as possible, would laugh and holler as he pretended to be racing his own car. This early fascination lasted throughout Allen's life -- he later collected an entire fleet of collectible and performance cars that was one of his proudest possessions.
In 1963, Allen lived in Jacksonville's Cedar Hills area when an older friend received a guitar for his birthday. Allen was hooked. Allen's parents had recently divorced and times were tough for Allen, his sister and mother. His mother, already working all day at the cigar factory, took a second job at Woolworths in the evenings. As soon as she had saved enough money, she surprised Allen by taking him down to Sears and ordered his first Silvertone guitar and amplifier. Despite no training aside from a few tips from his step-mother and friend, Allen picked up the guitar easily and quickly formed his first band -- The Mods.
Together with singer Ronnie VanZant and guitarist Gary Rossington, Allen Collins formed the nucleus of Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1964 by learning what they could from each other and listening to the radio. This early band, first called My Backyard, then the Noble Five also included drummer Bob Burns and bassist Larry Junstrum. Finding a place to practice proved difficult and the choices were limited to the carport at Bob's house, Ronnie's backyard, where they were sure to get a full meal or Allen's living room which usually included Eva's famous cakes and candies. After several years of practicing, performing and personnel changes, Skynyrd, like any decent group of fledgling rock stars, started gigging the notorious one-nighters.
In 1970, Allen married Kathy Johns. Allen included his band mates in his wedding party, but Kathy worried that their long haired appearance would disturb her parents. Solving the problem required everyone tucking their rock and roll image under wigs for the wedding ceremony. The wedding reception played host to a piece of rock and roll history -- one of the first public performances of "Freebird" complete with the trademark extended guitar jam at the end. Allen's family grew with the birth of his daughter Amie followed quickly by Allison. Times were very difficult since Allen's musical career barely brought in enough to support the young family. Despite coming close several times, Lynyrd Skynyrd just kept missing that elusive big break.
In 1973, however, things finally started coming together for Lynyrd Skynyrd. During a week-long stint at Funochio's in Atlanta, the band was discovered by the renown Al Kooper. After signing a record deal with MCA subsidiary Sounds of the South, Skynyrd entered the studio with Kooper producing. The result -- Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd -- started the band on its rise to fame with standards like 'Gimme Three Steps', 'Simple Man', and the incendiary, guitar-driven classic, 'Freebird'.
Gold and platinum albums followed a string of hit songs like 'Sweet Home Alabama', 'Saturday Night Special', 'Gimme Back My Bullets', 'What's Your Name?', and 'That Smell'. Over the four years Skynyrd recorded, the memories gradually turned into legends. Opening the Who tour. "Skynning" Europe alive. 1975's Torture Tour. Steve Gaines. One More From The Road. The Knebworth Fair '76.
By October 20, 1977, Skynyrd's songs had become radio staples. Their latest album, Street Survivors, had just been released to critical and popular acclaim. Their ambitious new tour, just days underway, saw sellout crowds. Then it all fell away at 6000 feet above a Mississippi swamp.
At 6:42 PM, the pilot of Lynyrd Skynyrd's chartered Convair 240 airplane radioed that the craft was dangerously low on fuel. Less than ten minutes later, the plane crashed into a densely wooded thicket in the middle of a swamp. The crash, which killed Ronnie VanZant, guitarist Steve Gaines, vocalist Cassie Gaines, road manager Dean Kilpatrick and seriously injured the rest of the band and crew, shattered Skynyrd's fast rising star as it cut a 500 foot path through the swamp. Lynyrd Skynyrd had met a sudden, tragic end.
After several years of recovery, the crash survivors felt the time was right for another try. Gary Rossington and Allen Collins had performed at a few special jams, and slowly began planning a new band. Over the next few weeks they signed on Skynyrd survivors Billy Powell and Leon Wilkeson and other local musicians, although the choice of a lead vocalist for the new band remained a perplexing one. Realizing any singer would be faced with inevitable comparisons with Ronnie VanZant, Allen and Gary chose Dale Krantz, a gutsy, whiskey-voiced female backup singer from .38 Special. This change set the Rossington Collins band apart as they entered the 1980s.
The Rossington-Collins Band debuted in June 1980 with the Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere album. Kicked by such songs as 'Getaway" and 'Don't Misunderstand Me' the album sold more than a million copies and the band toured to enthusiastic, sellout crowds. However the band's 1981 follow-up effort stumbled in the marketplace despite being well-received critically.
Tragedy struck Allen's life again just as the Rossington Collins Band started. During the first days of the stressful debut concert tour, Allen's wife Kathy passed away forcing the tour's cancellation. Coupled with the lingering effects of losing his friends in the plane crash, Kathy's death devastated Allen. However, the pull of creating music was too strong for Allen to walk away from. Even when Gary Rossington and Dale Krantz quit the Rossington Collins Band, Allen continued on forming the Allen Collins Band in 1983. Allen originally wanted the name Horsepower for his band, but shortly after completing the new album's artwork they learned that name was already used. Their one release, Here, There and Back, met with considerable fan approval, but little support from MCA Records which dropped the band shortly after the album's release.
Once again tragedy struck Allen in 1986. Driving near his home in Jacksonville, Allen crashed his car in an accident which killed his girlfriend and left him permanently paralyzed from the waist down. The injuries also limited the use of his upper body and arms. He later plead no contest to DUI manslaughter.
During the 1987 Lynyrd Skynyrd Tribute tour Allen served as musical director -- selecting the set lists, arranging the songs and setting the stage. However, remaining on the sidelines while his band took center stage proved painful for the guitarist. Part of Allen's sentence from his car wreck, called for him to use his fame and influence to warn kids of the dangers of drunk driving. Allen used the Tribute tour to go on stage and let his fans know the reason why he couldn't play with Skynyrd -- a powerful, sobering message few fans will forget.
In 1989, Allen developed pneumonia as a result of decreased lung capacity from the paralyzation. He entered the hospital in September where he passed away on January 23, 1990.