The bassist surprised his bandmates by bowing out, and taking a job stocking ice cream at 'Farm Best Dairy Products.' Former Strawberry Alarm Clock member Ed King subbed for Wilkeson during the recording of Skynyrd's 1973 debut, Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd, but just as sessions wrapped up, Wilkeson began having second thoughts about leaving the group. After discussing the matter with Van Zant, Wilkeson was welcomed back into Lynyrd Skynyrd.
With its outlaw/party-hearty image, tough southern rock, and solid touring, Skynyrd quickly became one of the top bands of the Seventies, scoring such hit albums as 1974's Second Helping, 1975's Nuthin' Fancy, 1976's Gimme Back My Bullets and One More from the Road, plus 1977's Street Survivors -- and such hit singles as "Free Bird" and "Sweet Home Alabama". It was also during this 'classic' era of the group that Wilkeson picked up a gimmick of wearing colorful hats while onstage, garnering him the nickname Mad Hatter.
Somewhere along the line, Wilkeson acquired a "Fenderbird" bass from John Entwistle. Wilkeson can be seen playing this bass in a 1975 Lynyrd Skynyrd performance at the Old Grey Whistle Test venue. The Fenderbird bass mated a custom made Gibson Thunderbird body to a Fender Precision Bass neck.
With Skynyrd coasting along with hit albums and sold-out tours (as well as leading a southern rock 'movement,' with the emergence of such similarly styled acts as .38 Special, Blackfoot, Molly Hatchet, the Outlaws, etc.), it appeared as though things would only get better for the band. But tragedy was lurking just around the corner for Wilkeson and his bandmates. The group and its entourage were involved in a plane crash on October 20, 1977 outside of Gillsburg, MS, which left several bandmembers dead (including Van Zant) and the rest badly injured. Understandably grief-stricken, Wilkeson and the other survivors bowed out of the spotlight for the remainder of the '70s, as they attempted to put their lives back together (although Wilkeson did manage to lay down bass parts for a release by the project Alias - 1979's Contraband). The dawn of the '80s appeared to bring great promise for most of the surviving bandmembers, as a new group formed, the Rossington-Collins Band, consisting of Wilkeson, in addition to such ex-Skynyrd members as guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins, plus keyboardist Billy Powell. Wilkeson, whose left arm was so badly broken in the plane crash that doctors were considering amputating it, never completely recovered from that injury - he had to play bass in a more "upright" position (not unlike the Rolling Stones' Bill Wyman) because he couldn't fully extend his arm.
The Rossington-Collins Band got off to a good start, as their 1980 debut, Anytime Anyplace Anywhere, became a modest sized hit. But shortly after the release of their second album, 1982's This is the Way, the band split up. Wilkeson opted to remain with Allen Collins in a new venture, the Allen Collins Band, issuing a lone album in 1983, Here, There & Back. Subsequently, little was heard from Wilkeson during the mid '80s, with exception to some visits to the local Care Unit and short-lived membership with a Christian rock band called "Vision." But by 1987, Wilkeson signed on with a reunited version of Skynyrd (with Ronnie Van Zant's younger brother, Johnny, supplying lead vocals) - as the group embarked on a successful, sold out tour. The new version of Skynyrd continued to tour and release albums on a regular basis, when another mishap almost cost Wilkeson his life during the early '90s. Guitarist Ed King found Wilkeson (still sleeping) with his throat cut and bleeding profusely on the group's tour bus, and was rushed to the hospital. The bassist was patched up and able to continue on with Skynyrd, but exactly who was to blame for the incident remains unsolved to this day (King blamed Wilkeson's then-girlfriend, while she blamed King).
Skynyrd received another burst of renewed interest during the late '90s, due to an episode of VH1's 'Behind the Music' that explored the group's turbulent career. But yet again, just as it appeared it would be smooth sailing here on out for Wilkeson and his bandmates, tragedy struck. The bassist was found dead on July 27, 2001 in a Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida hotel room; he was 49 years old. Wilkeson had apparently been suffering from chronic liver and lung disease, the cause of death was deemed 'from natural causes.' Wilkeson's death also put the group in a strange position, since an agreement with Ronnie Van Zant's widow stated that at least three of Skynyrd's longtime members would have to be in attendance for it to be able to tour and issue albums under the name 'Lynyrd Skynyrd.' The group continued on anyway, with replacement bassist Ean Evans taking Wilkeson's longtime spot. However the reactions to Evans different style of playing was mixed, although he took informal lessons from Wilkeson.
Skynyrd's 2003 album Vicious Cycle, the band dedicated a song in memory to Wilkeson ('"Mad Hatter").
Guitar Gallows Bio Information - Leon Wilkeson
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Leon Russell Wilkeson (2 April 1952 - 27 July 2001) was the bassist of Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd from 1972 until his death in 2001.
Born on April 2, 1952 in Newport, Rhode Island but raised in Jacksonville, Florida, Wilkeson became a major Beatles fan just as he was becoming a teenager and began learning to play bass guitar in order to emulate his favorite member of the Fab Four, Paul McCartney. Wilkeson dropped out of his school band in order to focus on learning the bass at the age of 14 and, shortly afterwards, was approached by a fellow student, who told him that her brother was searching for a bassist for his band. Her brother turned out to be Ronnie Van Zant, and soon after, Wilkeson signed on with Van Zant's local group, the Collegiates. However, due to plummeting school grades, Wilkeson had to drop out of the group at the behest of his parents. Soon Wilkeson found himself in another local group, the King James Version. He began to study the 'lead bass style' of such accomplished players as Cream's Jack Bruce, Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, Jefferson Airplane's Jack Casady, The Grateful Dead's Phil Lesh, and the Allman Brothers' Berry Oakley. By the early '70s, Wilkeson was becoming one of Jacksonville's top bassists, and when Van Zant's new band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, found themselves without a bassist, Wilkeson was hired.
Skynyrd had just landed a recording deal with MCA, which should have signaled smooth sailing for the group. But this didn't prove to be the case, as Wilkeson began to get cold feet just prior to recording sessions getting underway for their debut album, as he felt that he was still too young and not ready for a 'life on the road.'