Guitarist Rickey Medlocke said Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s record label wasn’t thrilled about issuing “Free Bird.”
The single originally appeared on their 1973 debut album, reaching No. 19. Since then, it’s become a standard for fans to shout out by name during Lynyrd Skynyrd concerts – and, for comedy purposes, it can often be heard called out at other band’s shows, as well.
“It really happens at our shows a lot of times,” Medlocke told Q104.3 in a recent interview (via Ultimate Guitar). “People would go, like, ‘Free Bird!’ and we’re, like, ‘Okay, we’ll get to that.’” He continued: “And to think that the record company didn’t want Skynyrd to do it. They said it’s too long. ‘It’ll never go. … we shortened it to a three-minute version.'”
Earlier this year, Medlocke’s bandmate Gary Rossington said “Free Bird” had a difficult gestation period until they found inspiration by extending the song until its final runtime of 10 minutes and seven seconds. (The original album version was nine minutes long, while the single was four minutes 41 seconds.)
Their late frontman Ronnie Van Zant “wrote it really quick,” Rossington said. “With just jamming and playing, it got longer and longer and longer as we played it. At first it didn’t have the end, the long guitar end: It was just the slow love song. Then we came up with the end, and as we practiced every day, it came along.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd now presents the song in concert with a recording of Ronnie Van Zant singing the third verse. The rest of “Free Bird” is handled live by current frontman Johnny Van Zant, Ronnie’s brother. “Johnny brings out Ronnie’s hat, the black one, and puts it on top of the microphone stand,” Medlocke told Q104.3, “and the whole third verse and chorus is Ronnie on the screen singing with the band.”
In this way, “Free Bird” remains the emotional heart of their shows.
“I’ve seen grown men in the audience weeping,” Medlocke said. “It’s a very powerful thing and to be standing there. … Gary and I are standing right at the microphone stand with the lights on it. I’ve got pictures from it, and I’ve got a special one up in my house already where you can see Gary and I looking at each other with the hat right there – and with the lights down on it, and it’s almost religious to me. It’s a very special moment. I get chills from it every night.”