Craig Reed: A Lynyrd Skynyrd Survivor
Craig Reed with a Les Paul guitar that was signed by the band in the early 2000s.
How often in life do we chance upon something that has an immediate and profound effect on our lives? Imagine a scenario, completely governed by random chance, that dropped you, literally, in the right place at the right time and would significantly alter the course of your life.
As far-fetched as that may sound, it happened to one Northeast Ohio resident during the winter of 1973.
Imagine yourself having a chance meeting with an up and coming rock and roll band. Although you don’t have any idea what it’s like to be in a hard-touring band or even know how to tune an instrument, that chance meeting turns into the chance of a lifetime being an, uh, instrumental member of one of the most successful Southern Rock bands of all time.
This story became a reality for Craig Reed, a resident of southern Summit County. I spent some time with Craig at his residence where he recounted the fascinating story of how he met up with legendary southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd in Kent, Ohio in 1973. This is a story of how he befriended the band, became a roadie, a drum and guitar tech, and eventually their stage manager. This job lasted until that awful day in October of 1977, when Reed survived that horrible plane crash, but three members of the band including lead singer/founder Ronnie Van Zandt, guitarist Steve Gaines and back-up singer Cassie Gaines did not.
It’s been forty years since that fateful day and Craig Reed has an incredible story to tell.
This article is the first part of a two-parter detailing Craig’s involvement with Lynyrd Skynyrd. In this article, we’ll look at how he met the band, what he did for them and the events leading up to the plane crash. Part two will detail the fallout from the crash, what Craig did to get back on the road and the other bands with whom he’s worked, his eventual reunion with Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1987, and his tenure with them until his 2005 retirement.
It’s an incredible journey of being at the right place at the right time; but also that of a diligent work ethic, a Midwest sensibility, and gaining the respect of a young, up-and-coming band.
It was December 7th, 1973 and he and his girlfriend of the time decided to go to the Holiday Inn in Kent, Ohio hotel bar for a drink. As they got their beverages, the barmaid asked them if they ever heard of British rockers The Who. Craig said, “Yeah, of course I know The Who.” She responded, “Well, they were just here.” Pointing a finger, she muttered, “They should be around the corner.”
So the pair eagerly got up to see if they could see the likes of Pete Townshend or Roger Daltrey. Spying three long-haired guys, they approached the men.
“The Who” turned out to be Gary Rossington, Allen Collins and Billy Powell. Reed recounted that he said, “Hey, you guys aren’t The Who!” They said, “No, we’re Lynyrd Skynyrd. We just got off the road with The Who.”
So the barkeep, Reed contends, must have gotten a little confused with her rock stars.
Soon, two roadies approached him and asked if he had any marijuana. He did, so Reed recounted that he went to his car and brought back a large bag. The desperate musicians looked dejected. Point blank, they told Reed, “We can’t afford that much.”
In response, Reed told the trio,“You guys can just have it.” It was "no big deal" to Reed, so he and the band decided to party together: The band’s overnight accommodations and Reed’s pot made for an interesting night in Brimfield. He remembered that it was a Saturday night and Don Kirshner's’ Rock Concert was on TV. He hunkered down in the small hotel room with the band and partied with them as they watched Tower of Power, Joe Walsh & Barnstorm, and Cheech and Chong perform on the program.
The band had a show at Kent State University on December 8th and one in Cleveland on December 10th. Craig went to both of those shows, hung out backstage and helped the roadies by carrying guitars during the band's pre-show load-in and set-up. After those few days with the musicians, he returned back home and he thought that his extended rock-and-roll weekend was over.
However, he got a call from the band saying they wanted to see him before they left. So they stopped by his house and guitarist Ed King asked him if he wanted a job.
Reed responded,“Doing what?!” King said that everybody in the band liked him and they needed someone who could "do stuff" and get “things,” an obvious reference to drugs and women, for them. Reed, reluctant to commit, passed on the offer and they soon parted ways.
About a week or so later, he received a call from a girl in Florida who said that the band was playing a New Year’s Eve gig in Atlanta and they really wanted to see him. So, donning a what-the-hell-sure-why-not attitude, he met up with the girl and drove to Georgia. He had kept some of the passes from the Ohio gigs and brought them with him to Atlanta. When they got to the show, he flashed the passes to security and they let them in. Reed made his way backstage but the band was already on the stage, playing. Going to the back of the stage, he popped his head up from one of the amps and said, “Hey Ed!” to let him know he was there. King turned around, smiled at Reed, and they eventually met up after the show.
In the dressing room, Ed told lead singer Ronnie Van Zant that he wanted to bring Reed on as a crew guy. Reed remembers Van Zant saying, “You mean that guy we met in Ohio? He’s a Yankee!” King went on to vouch for Reed; Van Zandt relented and said, “Okay, Ed. I’ll give you one shot at this. He better be good or I’m gonna kick your ass!”
So Craig went to Florida with the band and he ended up staying at the Eight Days Inn with Ed King and drummer Bob Burns. He remembers that it was a whopping eight dollars a day to stay there. The band was rehearsing to record their next album at a place they called The Hell House. This recording studio was located in the middle of the hot and humid swamps of Florida.
After getting some equipment stolen one night, the band decided that one of them had to take turns staying at The Hell House overnight to watch their stuff. When it was Gary Rossington’s turn, he didn’t really feel like staying so Craig stepped up and offered to stay so Rossington could be more comfortable at The Eight Days Inn. According to Reed, this showed the band his dedication and willingness to do things for them, and thus, earning their trust.
After a few weeks of rehearsal, the band was ready to record at The Record Plant in LA. So Craig and roadie Joe Barnes drove an Econoline van full of equipment from Jacksonville, Florida to Los Angeles, a mind-numbing cross country drive, in about 36 hours. Reed said, “I drove crazy. I think when I was driving Joe was in the back of the van praying!”
Once they arrived and unloaded the equipment, Reed said he didn’t know what else to do because he didn’t know anything about the music business or music in general. So he was walking out of the recording studio and former Beatle John Lennon happened to be walking in. Reed stopped dead in his tracks, gobsmacked, and said to Lennon, “Do you know who you are?”
Lennon cracked up, Reed recalled. He ended up eating lunch with the former Beatle across the street at a cafe with several people staring at him, thinking that he was somebody famous because of the company he was keeping at lunch.
Reed remembered that there were several stars coming in and out of the Record Plant at the time. The Eagles were recording Desperado there and he ended up playing pinball with that crew along with Brandon Cruz who played Eddie on the TV series The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. "There were always famous people coming and going," Reed recalled.
Once the band laid down the tracks and put a final polish on their album they were ready to play a gig. So they booked the Whisky-A-Go-Go; that was the first concert in which Reed set up the drums. Craig said, “I had no idea what I was doing. I think I set up the drums on the wrong side of the stage. I didn’t know nothin’ about nothin’!” He put tape around the legs of the tom-toms so they would stop in the right place. He put the carpet down where it belonged and then, later, learned how to tune the drums.
After a week at the Whisky, Skynyrd opened up for Dave Mason at the San Diego Sports Arena. Reed admitted that Mason was “really good” and that it was the first time that “we didn’t really kick ass.” He didn't elaborate as to why the band wasn't playing their best, but perhaps it was due to the rigorous recording schedule while in Los Angeles.
Humbled by Mason's performance, Reed said that after that evening, anytime they opened up for anyone else Skynyrd "blew the headliners away." REO Speedwagon, Blue Oyster Cult and even Wet Willie and Marshall Tucker had top billing over Skynyrd. Their popularity, according to Reed, was soaring. Exponentially. As the band started doing more shows, Reed recounted that he started learning other things because there wasn’t much to do once the drums were set up except if a stick or drum head were to break during the performance.
In terms of becoming more important to the band members, Reed remembered that he noticed that the guys in the band would light a cigarette after every song. He took it upon himself to place ashtrays on the amps and have the cigarettes already lit. When Ronnie Van Zandt saw Reed take that initiative he said, “Man, that Yankee don’t even smoke and he’s lighting our cigarettes! He’s a team player!” After that, he recalled wistfully, Van Zandt became a pretty good friend.
As the warm-up act for whomever they were opening, he said the band didn’t have really much to do, so again Craig went out and took it upon himself to be useful. He would scan the audience and then went out to the crowd to “find girls or pot and bring it backstage, because that was kinda my job!”
Hanging out with the other roadies, he learned how to tune guitars. Reed reminisced that he got pretty good at it, and eventually became the production manager for a short time. He said that “things weren’t going so good” so they brought in a professional production manager to take over those duties. Reed ended up being a stage manager because he “really wasn’t cut out to be the production manager.”
“I knew the terminology,” he recounted. “But I didn’t know what in the hell it meant.”
As stage manager, he hired a drum tech and another guitar tech because Joe, his cross country drive buddy and prayer warrior, ended up getting fired. Eventually bringing on a “few other guys,” these new additions to the band wanted to get “triple the money” from what they were currently being paid.
The techs wanted Reed to go along with them but he said, “No, I’m cool" but they ended up having a big meeting with the band and Reed sat in on it. The band agreed to give the roadies a check for $15 and the one roadie said “Make it another fifteen bucks and you got yourself a deal.” Ronnie said, “Get outta here!” Another roadie said, “Me and Chuck made a pact” so Ronnie said, “Hit the door! Anyone else?”
Reed said that it was just he and another roadie named Kevin that remained. Ronnie said, “There goes our drum roadie; I know you can do drums. Can you do guitars too?” Reed said that maybe he could. The first time he strung a guitar he did it the wrong way. Recounting with a smile, Reed said that was the only mistake he ever made. Eventually he and Allen Collins would race to see who could string a guitar the fastest and he never lost. Reed said, “I could string it, tune it and clean it in six minutes!” He said he did that until the plane crash.
Reed sheepishly admitted that in the song “What’s Your Name” the line “one of the crew had a go with one of the guests” was written about him. Ronnie Van Zandt used to mix it up with some of the locals in the hotel bars. One night, Reed said that “Ronnie came up to me with a woman on one arm and a bottle of whiskey in the other and told me some guy at the bar is talking shit.”
Van Zandt proceeded to put $200 in Reed’s shirt pocket and told him to “take care of my light work, I don’t have time.” So, Reed got into a fight with the guy and they all got thrown out because the hotel “figured we were all long-haired red necks.”
Reed also stated that he was Ronnie’s “fighting buddy.” Often times, in the middle of the night, Ronnie would bang on Craig’s door and shout “Do I have a friend?” So Craig would wake up and ask what was going on. Van Zandt would say “these sons of bitches are messing with me in the bar.” Craig would ask “How many are there?” Van Zandt would respond, “Oh, about four or five. We’ll probably get our asses beat, but at least they’ll know that they’ve been in a fight.” So he would often wake up the other roadie named Raymond but Reed said he was often drunk but would go down and offer up one swing and would be done. Apparently, this happened often enough that Van Zandt wanted to put those exploits in a song and that’s how part of “What’s Your Name” got written.
Another example of just how close Reed was to the band is the drawing that appears inside the gatefold of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Gold and Platinum album. Reed happens to have a print of that drawing framed and hanging in his living room. When asked if he was in the drawing he smiled and said, “See that guy back there smoking a joint with all of that pot smoke curling up? That’s me!” The drawing was done by Dean Kilpatrick who served as the band’s road manager. He also perished in the plane crash.
During Skynyrd’s mid-‘70s heyday, Reed said he invented the “microphone toss.” During “Freebird” the mic stand would just be there in the middle of the stage during the solo so Ronnie would walk it off the stage so it wasn’t in the way. From the side of the stage, Reed stuck his head out and told Van Zandt to “throw it” and he would then catch it. Each show from that point on, Van Zandt went a little bit further until he was almost at the other side of the stage throwing his microphone.
Rossington also wanted to get in on the action so he decided that he would throw his guitar slide to Reed during “Freebird” before he went into the solo. Reed would crouch down like a catcher and Rossington would wind up like a pitcher and throw it to him.
Then, bassist Leon Wilkenson wanted to be a part of it too. Reed said when it was time for the solo, Wilkenson would grab a guitar pick and throw it to him and he would catch it with one hand. Rossington would then wind-up and throw him his slide and then Van Zandt would toss him his mic stand from across the stage, and he would catch it and twirl it. He said that it just added to the fun and the audience really loved it.
Reed said he purchased some photography equipment when they went to Japan. “My taste is simple,” he said. “Only the best will do.” So he had to learn about the camera’s features such as f-stop, aperture and shutter speed. From that point on, Reed was either filming with his new video camera or shooting still photographs. He figured it would give him something to do because there is so much down time between shows. (During our interview, Reed jumped up and decided to put in one of the DVDs that he had made and is currently working out a deal with Country Music Television to use some of his footage for an upcoming documentary.)
It’s a startling sight to see some of these home videos of the band in their prime. Reed noted that, after a tour, he would film both his and Ronnie’s family camping. The grainy first-person video that I saw featured the band hanging out on the tarmac and messing around with their families before they left on a tour.
As the video progressed, Craig identified everybody who was on the tape. He noted that the green Mercedes in the film was his, a gift that Ronnie had given him. Ronnie, he said, loved for him to have a Mercedes and was in a little competition with his brother, Donnie Van Zandt, who was in ‘70s rock band .38 Special. He would say “Donnie, even my roadies drive a Mercedes!”
In a haunting moment, the old home movie also showed both the exterior and the interior of the plane that would eventually crash, including its faulty engine that would doom the band members a scant year later.
There were two different tables set up for poker games and Reed said that "the guys loved playing cards." It was an eerie sight: the band curled up inside of the plane, laughing and joking with each other, knowing that less than a year later the plane would go down in Gillsburg, Mississippi on October 20, 1977, taking the lives of six people and forever changing those that survived the crash.
...Continued in Part Two, Stay Tuned!
Story and photos by Greg Drugan