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Obituaries

Leon Wilkeson; Played Bass Guitar for Rock Band Lynyrd Skynyrd

July 29, 2001|JON THURBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Leon Wilkeson, bass guitarist of the vital Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, has died. He was 49.

Wilkeson died in his sleep Friday, according to a spokesman for the band's record company. The cause of death was not immediately known.

Wilkeson died at a hotel near Jacksonville, Fla., where he was taking a break from the band's summer touring schedule.

Other members of the group expressed shock at his passing.

"We just got through playing last Sunday in Wisconsin, had a great show and were excited about having a few days off before heading to California," said Johnny Van Zant, the younger brother of group founder Ronnie Van Zant who has been with the band since it re-formed in 1987.

"He seemed to be fine. He was one of the sweetest people in the world, a very colorful guy--our cartoon character in the group," Van Zant said. "We're just dumbfounded that he's gone."

The group's California shows in Chula Vista on Monday, Paso Robles on Tuesday and the Universal Amphitheatre on Wednesday have been postponed.

"Along with the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of the principal forces in one of the most stirring chapters in American rock 'n' roll--the fiery Southern rock movement of the early '70s," said Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn on Saturday.

"On stage and on record, Lynyrd Skynyrd played in a full-throttle boogie style that was both explosive and surprisingly graceful," Hilburn added. "Its soaring 'Free Bird' and tenacious 'Sweet Home Alabama' are among the genre's landmarks. While Wilkeson was often overshadowed by other members, he was a solid and valuable figure who contributed both to the sound and spirit of the group."

The band formed in Jacksonville in the 1960s and took its name from a high school gym teacher, Leonard Skinner, who was not particularly fond of longhaired students.

Wilkeson survived the 1977 plane crash in Mississippi that killed Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and singer Cassie Gaines. The group's road manager, the pilot and the co-pilot of the plane were also killed.

The group disbanded after the crash, but several members of the group, including Wilkeson, formed the Rossington-Collins band, which too was struck by tragedy. Guitarist Allen Collins, who also survived the plane crash, was partially paralyzed in a 1986 automobile accident. He died of pneumonia in 1990.

Information on Wilkeson's survivors and funeral arrangements were not immediately available.

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