Gary James' Interview With
Lynyrd Skynyrd Soundman
As the co-owner of a sound company called Rock And Roll Audio, Jon Hornyak took us down memory lane as he recalls his days with Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Q - Jon, before I talk about Skynyrd, what were you doing prior to starting your sound company? Were you a musician?
A - Yeah, I was a musician. I started a band when I was in high school. I'm from Caruthersville, Missouri, which is close to where Sheryl Crow is from. It's 100 miles from Memphis. So, I came to Memphis in the late '60s to go to Memphis State, because there's a really thriving music scene here. The other guys in my band joined me. So, I played gigs. My band was called Interstate 55. We were always on the road almost every weekend somewhere between Memphis and Jackson, Mississippi or Memphis and St. Louis, but my senior year in college I got offered a part-time job with this booking agent named Frank Turner who had been a tour manager for Paul Revere And The Raiders. So, he kind of taught me the ropes of being a booking agent. Then he got hired to be a promotion guy. The first thing he worked on was the first Jimmy Buffett record. So, I just decided I'm gonna go start my own booking agency after I get out of college. I partnered with a guy who was even younger than me, who was also a musician. So, we started booking bands, including our own band. I think it was around '72, there was a guy near us with a sound company that was going out of business. He had worked with Isaac Hayes and people like that. So, we decided just to buy his system, figuring we could book it much like we book bands. A guy name Joe Osborne, who worked for Showco, which was one of the big sound and lighting companies out here and just moved to Memphis. I think his wife was working for FedEx. So we hired him to be sort of our crew chief / main engineer on the road and we quickly got off and running. I guess early on, the first band we really worked with was White Witch. They were on Capricorn. That led us to Wet Willy. That was the next band we worked with. We worked pretty closely with them. Marshall Tucker Band ended up opening a few shows for Wet Willy. So that led to us doing Marshall Tucker Band's headline shows once they started with the first album, "Can't You See" and all of that. Lynyrd Skynyrd was also an opening act, I guess in '73, when their first album came out or maybe even before their first album came out. They were opening some shows for Wet Willy and that's how we discovered them and we really thought they could really be big. They were booked by the Paragon Agency. They weren't on Capricorn. They were on MCA, but they were signed by Al Kooper to his Sounds Of The South label on MCA, but they were booked by the Paragon Agency, which was the same agency that booked Marshall Tucker band, Wet Willy and The Allman Brothers. They were managed by Alan Walden at that time, who was Phil Walden's brother. Phil was the manager of Otis Redding first and then The Allman Brothers. He was the owner of Capricorn Records and the Paragon Agency. Otis Redding's wife was an agent at Paragon at the time, which was pretty interesting. I was just like a young entrepreneur. I had enormous passion for music of that era and being in a band. I was just trying to figure out a way I could make a living in music and it was like the wild, wild West back in those days because it wasn't really a business yet, not like it is now. I could not have hooked up the sound system if my life depended on it. So, I was just trying to book the gigs, work on the relationships with the bands, make trips to Macon and just kind of network. Terry Rose was Lynyrd Skynyrd's agent, so we would work him, "Hey, keep us in mind with anything that comes up." So, we kind of quickly locked in with Lynyrd Skynyrd. I ran into
Ed King a few years ago and he remembered us coming down to Jacksonville and actually auditioning, bringing the sound system down to Jacksonville and setting it up for the band. I think he's probably right about that. This was a long time ago and I don't remember everything exactly, but it seemed like we did do that. I know we had the conversations that this band could really be big and for a little bitty company like us, you're not going to get The Who tour. We felt like the only chance we had was to get in with someone early on and just hang on for dear life.
Q - So, you started in what year with Skynyrd?
A - '73.
Q - And you say you looked at these guys and you knew there was a chance they could become big. Why did you think that? Was it their front man Ronnie Van Zant? Was it the sound of the group? The image of the group? What made you think that way?
A - It was kind of all of that. Being a musician, I was really British Invasion influenced then. Being in Memphis you get a big dose of the Memphis soul music. They were obviously knowing that The Allman Brothers were huge at that point, and this whole Southern music thing was exploding, you can kind of see that there was no doubt this was going to continue to grow. I remember I got a call from their agent, Terry Rose, saying "Hey, we gotta cancel these shows that you are supposed to do sound for." They were going to go out and open 10 dates for The Who and all of that was just affirming what we thought, that this was a very special band. I learned the blues from Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.
Q - So, you're a guitar player?
A - Well, I started out playing guitar, but I became a keyboard player in my band. Our keyboard player quit and we needed a keyboard player, so I became a keyboard player. I just thought that the whole three guitar thing that they did... Ronnie had tons of charisma and they had great songs. I was still playing in a cover band at that period and we played their songs in my band. The first album had a lot of great songs on it, obviously "Freebird", but there's a lot of cool songs on that. With musicians, everybody thought it was a great album.
Q - Did it take a lot of money to buy the equipment for your sound company? What venues did you play?
A - As I look back on that, we did this on nearly no money. I don't know what kind of deal we worked out to buy the system from the guy. It may have been that we just were paying him over time and as we booked gigs we would pay it off. That's the thing we could do. Things like that. Another key thing is, I had a '58 Sunburst Les Paul that I know at that point was worth several thousand dollars. So, I went to a music store. I knew a guy who worked there, Robert Johnson. He played with John Entwistle and auditioned for The Rolling Stones. I knew he coveted that guitar, so he traded me a lot of equipment that we were able to set up a monitor system. So, we had a big enough outfit that we could play up to a coliseum. It was just one of those things of being in a place and time where you can kind of pull something like this off. Now, you couldn't do it. Today you would have to go find who knows, half a million or more. We did that at most with a few thousand dollars of money we were able to raise.
Q - Again, what type of venues were you setting your sound system in?
A - Well, it started out as auditoriums, outdoor shows. You had to have sound to have a concert. None of the bands had a PA big enough to do that kind of stuff. So, there was us and one other company in Memphis and we were probably one of the few in the South. We did various size gigs. I remember doing Mid-South Coliseum. Just whatever we could get. We were almost out of business before we got started because we did a big outdoor show, an RV show, in a Stadium in Little Rock and we were all set up and all of a sudden the skies opened up, a drenching downpour, and the stadium didn't have a good enough drain system, so some of our stuff was underwater, but we managed to dodge that bullet and keep going. Any money we would make, once we got the basic stuff paid off, we would put into upgrading. Also, this guy who was working for us, Joe Osborne, who worked for Showco, we kind of knew what we needed to get, what microphones and everything.
Q - Did you make good money back in those days?
A - You know, it was okay. But back then it didn't take much to live. In the beginning you are just trying to get whatever you can get. You are not concerned about what's a fair price. You're just trying to get in the game and the guys we had working for us wanted to get in the game also. So, we were just trying to make it all work and get enough money to pay people on the road and pay the truck rental and gas, hotels and keep the whole thing going.
Q - How big of a truck did you have?
A - We rented whatever Ryder had. Probably an 18 foot truck in the beginning, 18 to 20, somewhere in there. Ryder trucks were the best. U-Haul weren't quite good enough. If you went out and did a tour, you might be doing 500 miles a day. Ryder had the better quality trucks. They could really stand up to the rigors of doing a tour.
Q - How long of a tour would Skynyrd be doing?
A - In the beginning it would just be a few dates here and there. As I recall it was in '74 when things really started to take off. I think it was March 1974 they played a show in Ellis Auditorium in Memphis. They were supposed to open for Frank Zappa, but he canceled. They were getting so much airplay that the promoter, who was a friend of mine, decided let's just bump Skynyrd up to the headliner. This was maybe a 4500 seat hall and it sold out. There was a radio station in Memphis at the time called FM 100. They were the first FM station here and they were hugely important. So they were playing the heck out of "Pronounced 'leh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd" and "Freebird". It's like Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top were huge in Memphis when they were probably still playing clubs in other parts of the country. That's just because FM 100 was just playing the heck out of their first album. We did maybe a month or so worth of dates around that. When things really changed is when "Sweet Home Alabama" came out. I'm guessing that was in '74, but I remember getting an advance of the second album with "Sweet Home Alabama" on it. In working for bands like that, you became plugged into management. Kevin Elson, who was the sound engineer for the band, would come to Memphis and we'd kind of negotiate what we would be getting paid and what we needed to do to make the band happy. So, we were like part of the team. We got to know the album in advance. It was pretty exciting. "Sweet home Alabama" could really be a big hit and, it was! I didn't go out on the road a lot. I kind of handpicked dates to go out on 'cause I would just kind of make sure to maintain a relationship with the band. Once things started going then the big companies like Showco were out steal that client away. I would go out and hang out with Ronnie and Kevin Elson and say, "Hey! We want to keep working with you guys. We are working hard. We are doing our best." The sound system we put together, after we got going a bit, was really designed to make Lynyrd Skynyrd sound as good as possible. We'd get special horns and they'd really project the guitars really well. We did everything we could to make them happy.
Q - Did Skynyrd get a sound check and how long of a sound check did they get?
A - Oh, yeah, they generally did a sound check. I'm guessing an hour or so. The way it worked in those days is, the headline act, basically we were working for the headliner. The opening act could not even really set up until the headliner had sound checked and had everything they wanted and then the opening act would put up around that.
Q - What was the audience reaction to Skynyrd's music?
A - They were a great 'live' band. Most of the shows I went to were in the South, and they were huge. They are flying the Rebel flag behind the stage. We painted our sound system gray, battleship gray to look as Southern as possible. They would generally come out and start with "Working for MCA" as I recall. It was rockin' from the beginning. To me what was unique about them was they weren't really jamming. It was all very orchestrated. With The Allman brothers it was kind of a jam, Southern jam thing. With Skynyrd, they all had different parts to play, all three guitarists. Obviously there would be solos in "Freebird". In general it was all pretty structured in what they were doing. High energy. Ronnie, some nights would walk out with a bottle of whiskey and take a couple of swigs. They had these great songs. Nothing beats having hit songs. (Laughs)
Q - How many guys did it take to set up your sound system?
A - Three. We had a three-man road crew. You basically backed the truck up and the stagehands at each gig unload everything and basically set it up and then our guys would hook everything up and test it all out.
Q - When was the last time you went on the road with the band?
A - I'm not sure when we quit working with them, probably '76. But I know we absolutely did the Torture Tour. I went out on some of those dates. I was actually out on the road when Ed King quit. As things developed and there was a separate crew bus. I remember they played Memphis and I just went by the morning they were leaving, to the crew bus to say goodbye, and they just kidnapped me. (Laughs). They took me on the next show to Louisville. So, I went on the road for a couple of days and flew back. It was interesting times. In July '74, they opened for Eric Clapton at Memphis Memorial Stadium and I remember being on the road with them, leading up to that, and Ronnie Van Zant came into whatever hotel room we were in and threw all the money from the gig on the bed. I'd never seen that much cash before. (Laughs). He said, "Man, we just got booked to open for Eric Clapton at the stadium in Memphis." And they were huge fans of Cream, so that was a big deal for them. They actually stole the show from Clapton that night. He was really more of a mellower Clapton at that point, but they truly stole the show.
Q - The reason Skynyrd called it the Torture Tour is because they were so tired of the road at that point. They were just exhausted.
A - Yeah. I remember getting the itinerary for that. Like I said, I wasn't on the road that much, but you really wouldn't know where you were unless you looked at the itinerary. It was just kind of do the show, go back to the hotel, hop on the bus and go to the next town and do it all over again. In those days I think Holiday Inn was the hotel of choice. I know it definitely was for the crew. It's a very surreal world, it's just city to city to city. During that time we would get sloppy a little bit. They were pretty wild guys on the road. They drank and partied a lot some nights. They'd be tuning the guitars between songs. It wasn't at the level of professionalism that it usually was. Just little things like that. You could tell that they'd been partying a lot. Being on the road like that was just a different sort of lifestyle.
Q - I recall hearing about Skynyrd staying at the downtown Holiday Inn in Syracuse, on the 13th floor. There was a commotion of some kind, a disturbance and the police were called. Do you remember anything about that?
A - I kind of heard of things like that happening. In those days there were no cell phones. For me to be in touch with my guys, I would just call the hotel. I remember one day, and I don't remember what city it was or anything, I just hung up talking to Joe Osborne. And then about an hour later I thought I forgot to ask him about... So I called him back. The hotel said "I don't know what you're talking about. We've never heard of those people. They are not here." (Laughs). I go, "I just called here." What had happened is they'd created some kind of ruckus, set off a fire extinguisher in the hall and the hotel manager threw them out. It was later when they all got to another hotel that Joe called me back and said, "Okay, here's what's going on." I go, "I was freaking out because I called the hotel and it was like they never heard of you." I think part of it was The Who was famous for destroying hotel rooms. I think once they opened for The Who and once Peter Rudge became their manager (Note: Peter Rudge was The Who's manager), they were encouraged by the record label to do wild and crazy stuff.
Q - Would the guys from Lynyrd Skynyrd go to the Holiday Inn lounge after one of their gigs and watch other bands?
A - I think probably so, but I don't remember witnessing that myself.
Q - What kind of guy was Ronnie Van Zant?
A - I had a good report with Ronnie. At that period I was like painfully shy. Looking back I could have maximized the opportunity a lot better than I did. But we had conversations from time to time. I knew that at the end of the day he was the prime decision maker, so our future was in his hands so to speak. I was kind of respectful of not invading his space. If I got the opportunity, I was certainly going to hang out with him. One of the things I remember is they greatly admired The Allman Brothers for really opening the doors for bands like them and the whole Southern rock thing. And also Ronnie ruled the band with an iron fist. He was like a Golden Gloves boxer. Things usually went the way he wanted them to go. I wouldn't have wanted to get into a fight with him. (Laughs)
Q - What do you remember about October 20, 1977?
A - I vividly remember that day. At a certain point I split up from my partner in Rock And Roll Audio and merged... There were a couple other companies. I guess there was about four of us that went in together to create, in our mind, a big sound and lighting and touring production company. When it happened (the plane crash) the TV stations in Memphis called me because they knew I'd worked with the band and shared with me what was going on and where it all happened. Joe Osborne, who had been our sound engineer on the road, was working for the band. They told me where it happened, so I called the hospitals until I was able to get him on the phone. He was obviously in a drugged state, heavy painkillers. I remember him kind of describing the crash and what had happened. It was just horrible. What had happened was even more horrible to hear him describe what had happened. It had happened hours before and at that point he knew Ronnie had died. He was just sharing with me how horrible it was.
Q - From what you know, whose decision was it to fly in that plane? Ronnie Van Zant or Peter Rudge?
A - Peter Rudge I think. My understanding was they were going to get to Baton Rouge and they were going to replace it. The band had a meeting. Later I became a manager myself and I think that's a management decision as to how you get the band from point A to point B.
Q - I don't understand how a manager could put a band in a plane that had problems, and there were warning signs.
A - What makes it further unexplainable is it wasn't like he was a rookie. He'd managed The Who and The Stones in the US. You know that those bands demanded everything at the highest level. So it makes no sense to me. We all have flaws. Maybe he trusted one of his lieutenants to make that decision on what charter plane to go with. There's a Buddy Holly plane crash. There's an Otis Redding plane crash. I know the one guy who survived the Otis Redding plane crash. I know the other guy, who is really a good friend of mine, who was taking the rental car back and flying commercial that day. So, there's definitely plane crashes in the history of Rock 'n' Roll. Rick Nelson. A friend of mine was on that plane New Year's Eve however many years ago that was. (1985)
Q - Not to mention Jim Reeves, Jim Croce, Patsy Cline.
A - John Denver.
Q - If you're a touring act, fly commercial. It's safer.
A - Yeah. That's why a lot of people just do buses. They only fly when they have to.
Q - You continued to do sound for other groups after Skynyrd's plane crash then?
A - The company we merged with is called Alpha Sound And Lighting. We took their name and ended up doing tours with Billy Joel, Barry Manilow, Journey, England Dan And John Ford Coley. So, we did that until '78. It was just hard for a smaller company to really compete with like the bigger companies, Showco. We did Billy Joel at Carnegie Hall. We were involved with Journey before Steve Perry. This was when they were a four piece band with Aynsley Dunbar on drums. We worked with a lot of cool acts, KC And The Sunshine Band. We designed custom sets in addition to doing sound and lighting. But, I guess in '75, '76, it all got more complicated and you were starting to fly the sound and lighting, which means you gotta hire riggers and initially you had to find riggers from Barnum & Bailey Circus. You were trucking everything around in semi's. It was a very risky way to try and make money. So at a certain point we decided to call it a day and all went our separate ways.
Q - You are associated with the Grammys today, aren't you?
A - I'm the Executive Director of the Memphis chapter, which is one of the twelve chapters of the organization. We are a member organization much like the Motion Picture Academy or the Television Academy. I was hired in April, 1994. After the sound and lighting company period, I managed the sound and recording and keyboard department of the top music store here called Strings And Things. In '81 I started a studio in the spare bedroom of my house. I started getting record deals for bands. In '84, I actually built a studio. I was in the studio owner / artist development until '92. For three years I was the director of the music conference here called Crossroads, which is kind of like the Memphis version of South By Southwest. And after that I was hired for this job and I've been doing it ever since.