Slide guitarist Gary Rossington, the last original founding member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, has died, the band confirmed on Sunday. He was 71. No cause of death was given, though the musician battled heart problems in recent years. His death comes months ahead of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s The Sharp Dressed Simple Man tour with ZZ Top.

“It is with our deepest sympathy and sadness that we have to advise, that we lost our brother, friend, family member, songwriter and guitarist, Gary Rossington, today,” the band wrote on Facebook. “Gary is now with his Skynyrd brothers and family in heaven and playing it pretty, like he always does. Please keep Dale, Mary, Annie and the entire Rossington family in your prayers and respect the family’s privacy at this difficult time.”

In many ways, Rossington defined the interminable spirit of Lynyrd Skynyrd. In 1976, he crashed his Ford Torino into a tree, with his bandmates turning the serious car wreck into the cautionary tale, “That Smell”. The following year, Rossington survived the deadly plane crash that killed his bandmates, singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and backing vocalist Cassie Gaines, emerging with two broken arms, a broken leg, and a punctured stomach and liver.

“I’ve talked about it here and there, but I don’t like to,” Rossington told Rolling Stone in 2006 of the crash. “It was a devastating thing. You can’t just talk about it real casual and not have feelings about it.”

The past two decades saw Rossington weather even more storms, including a quadruple bypass surgery in 2003. A heart attack followed in 2015, proceeded by numerous heart procedures including one that kept him off the road in July 2021 as he recuperated. During recent gigs, Rossington would play sporadically throughout the concert or not at all.

Gary Robert Rossington was born on December 4th, 1951 in Jacksonville, FL. His love of baseball was the impetus for his musical career, meeting Ronnie Van Zant and future drummer Bob Burns on the diamond when they played for opposing teams. After Burns was hit in the shoulder by one of Van Zant’s line drives, the trio decided to jam after the game and the initial Lynyrd Skynyrd lineup was born.

The group made a name for itself—somewhat literally—with its 1973 debut (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd), which included the eternal “Free Bird”. In addition to classics like “Simple Man”, “Tuesday’s Gone”, and “Gimme Three Steps”, the 10-minute track made the band stand out in a world of three-minute singles, with Rossington’s slide guitar ascending “Free Bird” to a place in rock history. Additionally, the group’s stylistic blend of hard blues and country lyricism helped Lynyrd Skynyrd solidify as a pillar of the emerging Southern rock movement started by the Allman Brothers Band the previous decade.

A run of three successful and well-received albums followed through 1976, with the band’s fifth album, Street Survivors, released on October 17th, 1977. Three days later, a deadly plane crash in Mississippi claimed the lives of founding frontman Ronnie Van Zant, newly minted guitarist Steve Gaines, and his sister, backing vocalist Cassie Gaines.

Out of respect for the dead, Lynyrd Skynyrd sat on the shelf for a decade. In the interim, Rossington started the Rossington-Collins Band with fellow original Skynyrd guitarist Allen Collins. The band would lead Rossington to his wife Dale Krantz, who sang lead vocals and married Rossington in 1982.

In 1987, five key members of the pre-crash Lynyrd Skynyrd lineup reunited under the old banner with Ronnie’s little brother Johnny Van Zant taking his brother’s place on stage. For the next four decades, the band continued to tour with myriad lineup changes. Over the years, all of the band’s original members passed away, leaving Rossington as the sole heir to the band’s legacy.

While the story of Lynyrd Skynyrd is marred with the type of worldly misfortunate that fills the group’s songs, Rossington told Rolling Stone he doesn’t consider it a tragic band.

“I don’t think of it as tragedy — I think of it as life,” he said upon the group’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2006. “I think the good outweighs the bad.”