‘Street Survivors’ was going to be the album that would make Lynyrd Skynyrd even bigger stars. They had already dented the mainstream, reaching the Top 10 with ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ in 1974, and picking up a sizable following of Southern-rock fans since releasing their 1973 debut album. But 1977’s ‘Street Survivors’ was supposed to catapult them into a whole other realm of rock-star popularity.
The year before, they added a guitarist, Steve Gaines, who also sang and wrote. They sharpened their pop hooks, becoming a more soulful group as a result. And they tinkered with the album to the point where they scrapped the original recordings and returned to a Georgia studio with producer Tom Dowd to tweak all of the songs.
But three days after their fifth album was released on October 17, 1977, the band’s plane went down, killing singer Ronnie Van Zant, Gaines and Gaines’ backup-singer sister, as well as a crew member and the two pilots. And Lynyrd Skynyrd’s legacy was sealed.
‘Street Survivors’ eventually hit No. 5 — their highest-charting album. Its lead single, ‘What’s Your Name,’ reached No. 13, their second-highest charting song. Gaines co-wrote and shared vocals with Van Zant on another single, ‘You Got That Right,’ and contributed the Southern boogie ‘I Know a Little.’
And the LP holds up as the band’s all-time best, a smart, soulful look at the rock-star lifestyle they were caught up in and growing tired of. ‘That Smell,’ one of the album’s most popular songs, is one of Van Zant’s shrewdest, an anti-drug warning written to keep the band, and its hard-partying members, alive. But the “smell of death,” as Van Zant sings, was surrounding them.
Famously, the album’s original cover – featuring the band’s seven members engulfed in flames – was quickly pulled after the accident and replaced by an alternate shot of the group standing in front of a stark black background. ‘Street Survivors’ has since been reissued with the flame artwork restored. Outtakes have also showed up on various releases over the years, including a 2008 edition of the album featuring the original recordings the band made in Florida before replacing them five months later with the versions heard on the released album. No matter how you hear them, they rank among the band’s most focused and tightest group of songs.