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Steve Gaines: Southern Rock’s Magic Man

Steve Gaines

Steve Gaines brought a kind of magic to Lynyrd Skynyrd that no other member quite had… “He was a great songwriter and singer—and an incredible guitarist. I’ve never heard anybody, including any of us, play his picking part quite right.” Gary Rossington on Gaines and the track “I Know A Little.”

Who Was Steve Gaines?

Steven Earl Gaines was born on the 14th of September in 1949 in Miami, Oklahoma. He died tragically on the 20th of October in 1977. He is widely known as the vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter of Lynyrd Skynyrd from 1976 to October 1977. Cassie Gaines, the band’s backup vocalist, was his older sister.

Steve Gaines and Lynyrd Skynyrd posing for an advertisement in 1977.
Steve Gaines and Lynyrd Skynyrd posing for a trade advertisement for the single “What’s Your Name” (1977).

In 1964, when he was just fifteen, he went to see the Beatles live in concert in Kansas City. As his family returned back home, he pleaded with his father until he bought him his own guitar. Shortly after, he had started his first high school band, The Ravens.

Later on, Steve Gaines formed a band called Manalive. The group ended up recording at the well-known Sun Records Studio in Memphis, Tennessee. Whilst in Manalive, Gaines was playing with his famous Les Paul Black Beauty, which according to friends never left his side.

Sammie Ketcher, a member of two of Gaines’ early bands recalls. “There’s no telling what he would have developed cause he kept progressing. Whenever you saw him, he was always playing the guitar.”

The band ended up recording a single for Stax Records in 1971. But their greatest achievement was playing a show in Memphis with ZZ Top.

Throughout the 1970s, Steve Gaines played in bands such as ILMO Smokehouse from Quincy, Il, and Detroit. However, he had his own vision and in 1974 formed his own band, Crawdad. In 1975, the band recorded at the notable southern rock hub, Capricorn Studios in Macon, Georgia.

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In 1988, MCA Records released the recordings from the session under the album titled One in the Sun. It was Steve Gaines’s only solo album. Apart from this, Gaines had a compilation album of live recordings with Manalive and Crawdad released on CD in 2001 called I Know A Little… Live. Along with another compilation of live recordings with Detroit and Crawdad released as a CD titled Okie Special.

A remarkable singer and guitarist, Gaines may have had his initial inspiration from the Beatles. But as the years passed, the songs and sounds of Steve Cropper and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio served as his influence.

Steve Gaines – Lynyrd Skynyrd

In December of 1975, Cassie Gaines, Steve’s older sister, was inducted into Lynyrd Skynyrd’s The Honkettes, a group of female singers who sang backup vocals for the band. At the time, the band was in need of a new guitarist to replace the position of Ed King who departed from the band in the middle of 1975.

Cassie began suggesting her brother for the role, but the band had hesitations. Finally, on May 11, 1976, they gave Steve Gaines a chance. He joined the band for their performance of “T-For Texas, (Blue Yodel #1)” by Jimmie Rodgers in Kansas City, Missouri at the Municipal Auditorium.

Prior to the show, members of the band told the sound technician that, “Cassie’s brother is going to come up and play with us, if he does not have the level, unplug him.”

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It was hard for the band to hear Gaines playing onstage amid the distortions and sounds. However, Kevin Elson, the sound technician, had been listening intently through headphones. He reported to the band that the new guy (Gaines) was remarkable.

Two weeks later, Steve Gaines received a phone call from Ronnie Van Zant inviting him to join the band. Initially, the band members did not expect a lot from Gaines. But he soon proved his worth and his career thus took off. Gaines, along with Allen Collins and Gary Rossington (who later formed the Rossington Collins Band), came together for what is arguably the best guitar trio in rock music.

A few months later, Gaines was invited to join the band for the production of their live album, One More from the Road. The first of the three shows recorded for the album was only Gaines’ third time playing with the band.

The ‘Gaines Effect’ shook the world when he joined the band during their legendary performance at Knebworth Festival in 1976. It was a Lynyrd Skynyrd that hadn’t been seen before, blowing the Rolling Stones out of the water. With an audience of approximately 150,000 and 200,000 people, Lynyrd Skynyrd delivered a performance that took the southern rock artists to new heights.

Gaines’ skill with the guitar and his talent in writing lyrics strengthened the band in the recording studio as well as on stage. This was reflected in his sole studio album with the band, Street Survivors (1977). Recorded in the renowned Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, Gaines contributed four original compositions, two singles of his own, and two in collaboration with Van Zant. The pair shared vocals on the song “You Got That Right.”

He was the lead vocal in the song “Ain’t No Good Life.” But it’s songs like “That Smell,” “I Know A Little” (written before he joined Skynyrd), and “Honky Tonk Night Time Man” where he displays his remarkable guitar playing. The band released the album on October 17, 1977, soon becoming gold certified.

Van Zant openly disclosed his awe and admiration for Steve Gaines, even predicting that the other band members would “all be in his shadow one day.”

After the release of the album, the band and Gaines seemed to be entering a new and improved era musically. His proficiency in rock, blues, and country music, as well as his desire to widen his scope and vision, may have led to significant pieces of work in the future.

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He looked at life and music in a positive way, never taking his success for granted. This positive aura and thriving energy are not only visible in his songs, but is also reflected in his band members whom he brought a sense of unity to as well as new levels of creativity and inspiration.

Van Zant himself realized that Steve Gaines was bringing about a rebirth of the band. In a conversation with Gene Odom, the band’s security manager, Van Zant told him, “that Steve Gaines is the best thing to ever happen to this band.”

Steve Gaines – Death

On October 13, 1977, the band departed on a tour in their old plane to support and promote their new album. A plane that had problems the previous year. On October 19, they performed a concert in Greenville, the last song they performed being “Free Bird.”

Three days after the release of Street Survivors and five dates into their highest selling tour, a tragedy happened. On October 20, 1977, the band and the crew members were flying from Greenville, South Carolina to Baton Rouge, Louisiana when their plane crashed outside of Gillsburg in Mississippi.

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Both Cassie and Steve Gaines lost their lives in the crash as well as Ronnie Van Zant. Assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, the pilot, and co-pilot Walter McCreary and William Gray also died.

After the crash, the Street Survivors album cover had to be replaced as it was too tragic to see Steve Gaines in the center of the photo surrounded by fire with his eyes shut.

The band’s bassist, Leon Wilkeson, was one of the survivors of the plane crash. During surgery, it was said that his heart stopped beating twice. After recovering, Leon revealed that he had been sitting on a cloud with Ronnie Van Zant and Duane Allman. According to his story, Van Zant had told him to get himself out of there as it was not his time yet.


In 1977, the body of Steve Gaines was cremated and his ashes buried in Orange Park, Florida. However, they had to relocate it to a new location after his and Van Zant’s tombs were broken into.

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In 1988, MCA Records released the recordings Steve Gaines had made with John Ryan (producer) in the album titled One in the Sun. After thirteen long years of lying dormant in the vault, the recordings became a testimony to Gaines’ talent and short but impactful career.

In 2001, Steve Gaines was further penned down in the history of music when the band, Drive-By Truckers, wrote the song “Cassie’s Brother” about him.

Like Van Zant had forecasted that the band would be under the shadow of Gaines one day, it is sad we never got to experience it. But for the year and a half he played with Lynyrd Skynyrd, they were simply untouchable.

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