State of Rock
Since 1969, four iconic bands have ruled American classic rock, their songs on a perpetual loop via FM and satellite radio. Each band includes two guitarists with deep Florida roots, supplying the gold and platinum riffs. Those eight artists make a compelling case for Florida as an incubator of great American classic rock guitarists. That’s not to mention many others from the Sunshine State who have also left a mark in noteworthy groups as solo acts or session players.
By Bob Kealing
In order of their band’s appearance, here’s the honor roll of Florida’s Eight Great rock guitarists: Duane Allman and Dickie Betts of the Allman Brothers Band in 1969; Bernie Leadon and Don Felder of The Eagles in 1971; Gary Rossington and Allen Collins of Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1973; and Tom Petty and Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 1977. Each one is a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Often those four bands’ music may be broad-brushed as “Southern Rock.” In truth, they represent multiple, era-defining genres: country rock at its commercial peak; stretched-out, sophisticated jam-band blues rock; and straight-ahead, hit-making rock and roll, with relatable lyrics, savvy as Sunset Boulevard via earthy, backwoods Florida.
The first electric guitar was designed by George Beauchamp in 1931. Innovators including Adolf Rickenbacker, Leo Fender and Les Paul perfected the process by which the instrument was played and heard. The results were revolutionary. Previously, acoustic guitars were most often strummed as rhythm instruments, with their soft sounds relegated to the background. Electrified guitars, with their dynamic, pulsating sound pumped up by better and better amplifiers, could steal the show.
In the 1930s and ’40s, electric guitars started appearing in blues, jazz, and gospel records. An unlikely electric guitar influence on future rockers like Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley was Sister Rosetta Tharpe, nicknamed by NPR “The Godmother of Rock and Roll.” Mixing gospel and secular themes in songs that were daring for the time like “Rock Me,” the African-American Tharpe pioneered the use of distortion. By 1938 she had appeared in New York City’s Cotton Club. By the 1950s Tharpe toured America and Europe with a female partner, blazing another trail through her open sexuality.
In the 1950s Berry made the electric guitar a star, bringing it to the forefront of his catchy, danceable music. Berry’s opening riff to “Johnny B. Goode” is among the most famous and recognizable in rock-and-roll history. You might remember Michael J. Fox miming Berry’s playing in the film, “Back to the Future.” Berry’s stage antics, such as lifting the guitar over his head when he played, were copied by such 1960s luminaries as Jimmy Hendrix.
But it took something unlikely and non-musical to bring the electric guitar gods and classic rock to much larger audiences. An era of expansion in the National Basketball Association in 1966 and the National Hockey League in 1967 necessitated a building boom of sports arenas, including the Forum in Los Angeles and Madison Square Garden in New York City. On off nights, these massive venues could generate revenue hosting rock concerts. The so-called arena rock era began with major acts like the Doors and Cream, who could play to 18,000 fans in these cavernous, climate-controlled halls and make as much in one night as during a week of medium-sized theater shows.
Topping the roster of our Eight Great Florida guitarists is Duane Allman, raised in Daytona Beach Shores.
Voted by Rolling Stone magazine as the No. 2 Rock and Roll Guitarist of All Time, behind only Jimi Hendrix, Allman devoured the music of blues legends like Muddy Waters and B.B. King. Allman often jammed with Black artists around Daytona Beach at a time when segregation was the norm.
His formidable guitar counterpart in the Allman Brothers, singer-songwriter Dickie Betts from West Palm Beach, contributed his own countrified style in songs like, “Rambin’ Man.” Often overshadowed by Allman, Betts became an invaluable part of the Allman Brothers, writing some of their best-known hits. Their earliest acclaim came with the 1971 release of “Live at Fillmore East,” which featured Allman’s extended, ethereal slide-guitar jams. Spin magazine proclaimed it the greatest live recording of all time.
Allman’s playing drew interest from England’s own pioneering arena rocker, Eric Clapton, whose band Cream in 1968 was the first rock act to play Madison Square Garden. In 1970, after the two recorded Clapton’s “Derek and the Dominos” album at Criteria Studios in Miami (see “The Hitmaker,” page 30), Clapton was so impressed he tried to hire Allman. “We cut a really super album together,” Allman wrote in a letter home. “I’m really up in the air right now.” After agonizing over how the increase in pay Clapton promised could improve his family’s life, Allman ended up turning down Clapton’s offer.
Bernie Leadon, son of a University of Florida professor, came of age in the Sunshine State’s garage-band scene of the mid-1960s. After moving out West, he sought his fortune in the nascent country-rock scene, most notably with the Flying Burrito Brothers. Leadon joined a backup band for Tex-Mex-musician Linda Ronstadt. The back-up players—Leadon, Glenn Frey, Don Henley and Randy Meisner—soon realized they had the collective talent to strike out on their own. With Ronstadt’s blessing, they did, and in 1971, the Eagles was born. Leadon was just as comfortable with a banjo on stage as an electric guitar. The Eagles’ good-time, laid back sound embodied in songs like Jackson Browne’s “Take it Easy” brought them instant success in Vietnam War-weary America.
By 1974, as the popularity of country rock was waning, Leadon recruited his Gainesville garage-band buddy and co-worker at Lipham Music, Don Felder, to give the Eagles’ sound a harder, rock edge. The pinnacle of their success came in 1975 with the release of “Eagles Their Greatest Hits,” the greatest-selling album of all time, with 45 million units sold as of 2020, edging out Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
Leadon left the Eagles that same year, and Felder helped feed the band’s new era of arena-rock dominance, in 1977 co-writing the title track of its Grammy-winning album “Hotel California.” With singles like “Life in the Fast Lane,” the album personified the cocaine-fueled hedonism emblematic of Southern California in the late 1970s. When it came time to play live the daunting array of guitar sounds represented on the album, Felder chose to use a white double-necked Gibson electric guitar—one neck with six strings, the other with 12. It became his signature look on stage. The iconic instrument was featured in a 2019 Metropolitan Museum of Art guitar exhibit in New York called “Play it Loud.”
Childhood friends Gary Rossington and Allen Collins grew up on the tough streets of West Jacksonville. In Lynyrd Skynyrd, the two guitar players forged a distinctive Southern rock sound, relatable to people struggling with everyday life. Their songs, “Free Bird,” “Simple Man” and “Sweet Home Alabama” are among the most played and cherished of the genre. Collins’ precise, blistering guitar solo in “Free Bird” consistently ranks as among the best of the classic rock era. For the band’s leader, lyricist and hard-drinking brawler Ronnie Van Zant, who was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida, two lead guitarists weren’t enough. He recruited Calfornian Ed King from the hippie-trippy 1960s band, the Strawberry Alarm Clock, and Skynyrd’s triple-lead-guitar army was set.
In 1973 Skynyrd was known primarily on the circuit of Southern clubs within driving distance of Jacksonville. Producer Al Kooper plied his connections to give them their first big break. Pete Townsend, The Who’s visionary lead guitarist and songwriter, asked Kooper if he knew of any hot young bands that could open for them on an upcoming American tour.
Kooper suggested Skynyrd, and the band readily accepted. While initially intimidated by the huge venues and crowds, Van Zant asserted his cocksure nature.
Night after night, he told his band their goal was to kick The Who’s ass in performance, regardless of their headlining status. That tour fueled Skynyrd’s steady rise to national fame.
In 1976, with the top-10 hit “Sweet Home Alabama” now in their repertoire, Skynyrd’s guitar army electrified a festival crowd of 100,000 in Knebworth, England. Most in the audience, including Paul McCartney and David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, were there to see the Rolling Stones.
Van Zant had long idolized the Stones. On May 8, 1965, when he was 17, he saw an early Rolling Stones show at the Coliseum in Jacksonville. At the time, he and Rossington were talented American Legion baseball players still considering the possibility of pursuing the sport professionally. The concert had a profound influence. “Ronnie was blown away by the Rolling Stones,” said friend Rick Doeschler, who wasn’t old enough to drive but grabbed a ride with Van Zant in his red Mustang.
At the Stones concert in England, the stage had been outfitted with a long, wide tongue jutting out at the center, which Mick Jagger forbade any of the opening acts to use. During the rousing guitar jam at the end of “Free Bird,” as if flipping the bird to Jagger, Van Zant marched his guitarists mid-jam, right down the center of the tongue. Skynyrd had come full-circle on rock-star dreams ignited back home during the British Invasion.
The Stones and other British bands inspired many other young musicians across Florida and America. Two days before Van Zant saw the Stones in 1965, Keith Richards had written their defining megahit “Satisfaction” at the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater. The song’s opening riff, which Richards said came to him in a dream, is arguably the most recognizable of any 1960s rock song. During their early appearances in America, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles set off a mushroom cloud of collective realization among Florida youth that the electric guitar was their passport to coolness.
Tom Petty was a Florida kid whose life was never the same after seeing the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” For the Gainesville eighth grader, who was not into sports, hunting or fishing and not much of a joiner in school, buying his first guitar and forming a band gave him the social structure he’d never had. But it also sparked conflict. Petty had violent clashes with his crew-cut, insurance-salesman father, Earl, over the length of his hair and his passion for rock and roll.
For six years, Petty enjoyed regional success playing Beatles’ cover songs in garage bands like the Sundowners and the Epics alongside Bernie Leadon’s little brother, lead guitarist, Tom Leadon. In 1970, Petty met a shy University of Florida student, Mike Campbell. At a dilapidated farm house in Alachua County, he auditioned Campbell’s roommate on drums, then asked Campbell to play something on his cheap Japanese guitar. Petty liked to recount how Campbell had to be coaxed into the room.
From the look on Petty’s face, it was clear he didn’t expect much—until Campbell ripped into “Johnny B. Goode.” Soon after, Petty convinced Campbell to drop out of school to begin pursuing their dream full time. They embarked on writing their own songs. They named their new band Mudcrutch, after the hardscrabble rural property where they lived, and they earned $100 playing six nights a week at Dubs, a local steakhouse and strip joint. In 1974 Petty, Campbell and Mudcrutch headed west to pursue rock star dreams. Lean years followed, as they struggled to come up with the right look and sound. Bandmates came and went, but Campbell stayed.
In 1976, Petty’s producer Denny Cordell renamed the band Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, with Petty and Campbell principal songwriters. It was what Campbell called “a throwaway lick” that he added to their song “Breakdown” that helped make it their first Top 40 hit. By 1979 when they had their breakthrough album, “Damn the Torpedoes,” the duo had endured a decade of hardships to become bonafide rock stars. The reserved Campbell was comfortable in Petty’s shadow, providing riffs to the band’s most beloved songs like, “Refugee,” “The Waiting,” and the instantly-recognizable, “Runnin’ Down a Dream.”
Despite their different styles and stories, the Florida Eight all shared enormous talent and a determination to achieve success. In their formative years, the young musicians spent most of their time jamming and playing gigs at youth centers, fraternity houses, backyard utility sheds, and even a rented cabin in Clay County without air conditioning the Skynyrd boys nicknamed, “Hell House.” When record executives came calling, these wannabe rock stars were ready with original songs and a burning passion to play them live and loud. For most, there was no Plan B.
The leaders of these Florida-centric bands—Petty, Allman and Van Zant especially—had something else in common: an unshakable certainty of purpose and understanding of their own unique identity. Nonetheless, some misguided record company big shots tried to force-feed them lousy songs and dress them in ridiculous outfits. The most glaring example was packaging the Allmans in a contrived group known as The Hour Glass. It lasted two torturous years from 1967 to 1968, until Duane Allman smashed the Hour Glass by walking out.
Allman cleansed his rock-and-roll soul in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, gaining minimal employment from legendary producer Rick Hall as a hippie session player among clean-cut, 9-to-5 musicians nicknamed “The Swampers.” There he contributed to landmark recordings by Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett. In the spring of 1969, Allman travelled to Jacksonville and met up with musicians from a hot local band, The Second Coming. After a legendary jam in a Victorian hippie crash pad known simply as “The Gray House,” Allman knew this was it. On the spot, he issued an ultimatum: “Anyone who doesn’t want to be in my band is gonna have to fight his way out of here.”
He called his brother Gregg to come back from Los Angeles to be the singer-songwriter for this formidable lineup that included two drummers, one Black and one white. In spring 1969, the original Allman Brothers Band was born. Gregg Allman started writing some of the band’s iconic songs like “Dreams” and “Whipping Post” in the Gray House. In honor of the legendary jam and songs written there, the Gray House is now a Florida Heritage Site.
Certainly Lynyrd Skynyrd personified the Southern Rock mold, but like the Allmans, they showed a more progressive side. In the song “Saturday Night Special,” Van Zant decried the danger of cheap handguns: “Ain’t good for nothin,’ but put a man six feet in a hole.” Lyrics aside, he did enjoy hunting small game with his own .22 pistol.
Their biggest hit, “Sweet Home Alabama,” actually written on the shores of Peters Creek in Clay County, Florida, is not necessarily the homage some believe it to be. In a reference to Alabama’s one-time segregationist Governor, George Wallace, Van Zant wrote, “In Birmingham they love the Gov’na.” Immediately after, as a show of what some commentators have called derision, backup singers add, “Boo, boo, boo.” Still, it’s hard to overlook Skynyrd’s years-long use of the Confederate Flag in live shows and merchandising.
According to band members, it was their record company MCA’s idea to use the Confederate battle flag, not theirs. In a 2018 retrospective article, Rolling Stone magazine took issue with that justification, pointing out that Skynyrd allowed its use as, “an integral part of their visual iconography, letting it appear on T-shirts, caps, belt buckles and ceramic mugs until 2012.”
Of all these bands and their leaders, Tom Petty stuck his neck out most, in his case, to regain control of lucrative publishing rights to his music. In 1979, on the cusp of finishing “Damn the Torpedoes,” Petty refused to release the album. After his label, Shelter Records, was bought out by MCA, Petty grew unhappy with terms of the arrangement and declared he would not be “bought and sold like a piece of meat.” This move in a cutthroat business could have made the upstart Florida artist a pariah.
Petty doubled down by taking on the cost—about $500,000—of recording the album himself. Then he declared bankruptcy and took his fight to court. Times were so uncertain, the Heartbreakers took to hiding their master tapes daily, for fear the bankruptcy judge might order them seized among Petty’s other assets.
MCA ultimately caved, signing Petty to a fresh multi-million dollar deal with a newly created label. “Damn the Torpedoes” was released, quickly went double platinum, and made Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers superstars. Petty wasn’t done fighting. When MCA raised the retail price of his follow-up album, “Hard Promises,” he protested on behalf of keeping his music affordable, and once again, he prevailed.
The following decade, when he released the song that’s often most closely-associated with his ethos, “I Won’t Back Down,” anyone who had followed Tom Petty over the years knew damn well he meant it. The song was so uncomfortably autobiographical that Petty said he almost didn’t record it. His willingness to reveal himself, however, further endeared him to an intensely loyal fan base.
A sad commonality among these iconic classic rock bands with deep Florida roots is tragedy. While the Eagles pursued the drug-addled lifestyle described in their 1977 anthem, “Life in the Fast Lane,” they narrowly avoided becoming celebrity casualties like their lead guitarist Joe Walsh’s hotel-trashing party buddy, actor-comedian John Belushi, who suffered a fatal overdose on March 5, 1982.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ bassist and talented harmony vocalist, Howie Esptein died in 2003 at the age of 46. MTV News attributed his cause of death to a heroin overdose. “Howie was never not a Heartbreaker,” Tom Petty, who would himself die of an accidental drug overdose at the age of 66 in 2017, wrote in a Rolling Stone magazine eulogy. “He just couldn’t do it anymore.”
Tragically early in his career, Duane Allman’s love of fast motorcycles and living on the edge brought his rising star crashing to earth. In October 1971 a tractor-trailer turned into a lumber yard just down a hill Allman was cresting. To avoid hitting the rig, Allman laid down his bike and slid, incurring massive and ultimately fatal internal injuries. He was just 24. In an eerie coincidence, the band’s beloved bassist Berry Oakley died in a motorcycle accident the following year, in close proximity to where Allman met his fate. Despite two devastating losses, the Allman brothers soldiered on to an era of major success with the 1972 double album “Eat a Peach.”
On October 17, 1977, the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd were out promoting a strong new album, “Street Survivors.” A series of rare photos shows band members signing autographs at the Altamonte Springs Mall just north of Orlando. They played the Lakeland Civic Center the following night. One of the album’s most memorable songs, “That Smell,” included Ronnie Van Zant’s commentary on their escalating drug use and Gary Rossington crashing his Ford Torino into an oak tree. That smell, Van Zant wrote, was the smell of death surrounding them:
Say you’ll be all right come tomorrow, But tomorrow might not be here for you.
Van Zant admitted he abused drugs to deal with the pressure of being the band’s lead singer and vowed to get clean. Their upcoming tour included a headlining gig at the venue they had all dreamed of, Madison Square Garden.
On the evening of October 20, just three days after that autograph session in Altamonte Springs and two days after Lakeland, both engines of the band’s ancient Corvair, leased by their manager, quit in mid-flight over Louisiana. Gliding in completely powerless but still at high speed, the aircraft started striking scores of trees in a swamp near the Mississippi border. Survivors recalled what sounded like hundreds of baseball bats hitting the outside of the plane.
The aircraft cut a 500-foot swath through the treetops before ripping apart. Among those killed were Ronnie Van Zant; the band’s newest guitarist Steve Gaines; and his sister and backup vocalist, Cassie Gaines. Without their lead singer-songwriter, Lynyrd Skynyrd could not continue. MCA records pulled the original “Street Survivors” album cover, showing the band, Steve Gaines in particular, shrouded in flames.
For another of Skynyrd’s original lead guitarists, the smell of death lingered. Allen Collins survived the plane crash only to be paralyzed in a 1986 drunk-driving accident. The man who will be forever tied to his brilliant guitar work on “Free Bird” and other Skynyrd standards died of pneumonia four years later at just 37.
Despite the tragedies that brought the original Lynyrd Skynyrd to a premature end, the band reformed in 1987 with Van Zant’s younger brother Johnny on lead vocals. Founding member, guitarist Gary Rossington, has also been a constant alongside the younger Van Zant through decades of successful concert tours and lineup changes.
From aging Baby Boomers to kids just discovering them via digital download, the music of the Allman Brothers, the Eagles, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers remains timeless. Advances in technology have brought along a constellation of choices and distractions. Yet it’s all just noise compared to the infectious riffs and lyrical themes of rebelliousness, yearning and romance that keep bringing new ears to their old songs.
Bob Kealing is the author of four books on Florida history and culture and a six-time regional Emmy Award-winning journalist and two-time recipient of the Edward R. Murrow Award. In 2022-23, University Press of Florida will release his latest book, about the Beatles and 1964 Florida.
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