Things didn't explode for Lynyrd Skynyrd right out of the gate. But when they released their second album, 1974's Second Helping, it would be a different story -- one which was overwhelming to the members of the group.

Though they were not in the band at the time, current vocalist Johnny Van Zant and guitarist Rickey Medlocke both have vivid memories of what was happening for the Southern Rock legends in that period. For Medlocke in particular, he remembers one key moment where guitarist Allen Collins came walking up and expressed with a sense of wonder, that it seemed like they were going to have a hit with this new song, "Sweet Home Alabama." Indeed, his premonition was one that would come true.

The pair checked in recently from the latest leg of their ongoing Sharp-Dressed Simple Man tour with ZZ Top. They dug in with Ultimate Classic Rock Nights program host Matt Wardlaw to look back on the long history of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Van Zant and Medlocke shared some of their favorite moments from along the way, both as music fans and members of the band.

You guys are back out on the road with ZZ Top. The two bands have a great bond. What do you think is so special about their music?
Rickey Medlocke: To me, ZZ went through that whole change. After their Worldwide Texas Tour, they took, like, a three year hiatus. When they got back together again, they reinvented themselves. You know, they put themselves into what the music was at that time -- and MTV was just huge in that period. When they went to making videos of those songs that they had reinvented themselves with, they just broke wide open. Again.

Johnny Van Zant: They were the Texas thing, man. I remember seeing ZZ years ago when they had the bulls on stage [for that tour]. It was just unbelievable. Like Rickey said, they went on to do great things. Frank [Beard] was an awesome drummer. Billy [Gibbons] and Dusty [Hill] were just unbelievable. It blew my mind when I saw those three guys making that kind of music together. Then as Rickey said, they went on and really became MTV video stars with all of their songs when they came back. You know what? I think it comes down to them being [good guys]. I know for us being out with them, it’s not like we’re out with just some other band, where we love their music, but we’re not really great friends. With these guys, we’re really good friends. We were out last summer and I can’t tell you how many times I saw Billy in his pajamas.

He’s got the best pajamas.
Van Zant: [Laughs] Yeah, you know, because right after he gets off stage, he puts on his pajamas and stuff! We’re out there watching them and they’re out there watching us. So many times Billy and his wife were out on the side of the stage, rockin’ out to us. It’s more like a family reunion out there to me. We did about 11 months with those guys.

Medlocke: The Millennium tour in 1999 and 2000. We did 103 shows with them.

Van Zant: I didn’t think I was ever coming home, but I was having a good time! [Laughs]

Medlocke: Johnny decorated the bus for Christmas.

Van Zant: You gotta do what you gotta do when you’re out there playing music.

The Fyfty box set came out last year. Rickey, you played on so many early versions of some of the songs back in the early days. What are your memories of recording "Free Bird" back then?
Medlocke: Interestingly enough, when I first joined the band, they let me know that in two weeks, we’d be starting our first record in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. So we immediately went to rehearsing and working me in. I gotta tell you, to me, it was the most eye-opening experience. We moved everything to Muscle Shoals and really, Jimmy Johnson and David Hood showed us the dos and don’ts of recording. That’s where we learned to record. I remember sitting up in this booth, I was playing along and we were doing the track, all in one [take] of “Free Bird.”

I remember watching Allen, because I took cues. Allen and I, when I’d get to a certain section, I’d go into that and Allen would go into his part and it was like it is right now, there’s sections to the song. I remember having eye contact with him and it was dead on. Watching him play that solo in Muscle Shoals, it was just phenomenal. We had a take on it and Jimmy Johnson said, “Allen, do you think you could double that?” [Laughs] Allen says, “Yeah, I think I can.” Well, if you listen on the early record, it fades into one section and then it fades out with a double. It fades back in, I mean, he was just really on his game at that time. All of those sessions, man. I still remember doing that stuff and being around the guys. You know, it’s a very beloved thing in my heart, it really is.

Listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd's Original Version of 'Free Bird'

Lynyrd Skynyrd had such incredible writers and players back in the day. Rickey, you mentioned Allen. Obviously, Gary Rossington and Ronnie Van Zant. Ed King comes in eventually. If we look at just the guitar players, Skynyrd had the market cornered on good guitar players.
Medlocke: You couldn’t beat playing with those two guys and sitting on a set of drums. Playing with them was just bad to the bone. They were really together. As a matter of fact, at the Hell House, when we would rehearse, we would go over and over and over songs, which is what Ronnie [Van Zant] loved to do. Those guys would play those leads over and over again. Everything was down pat like a machine. Johnny can tell you right now, we still do that. We still to this day, even when Gary was in the band and Hughie [Thomasson] was in the band or whatever, we made sure we went over all of that stuff and got it tight. I think Johnny will agree, we walk out there with big time confidence, knowing exactly what we’re going to do.

Van Zant: I think Ed King came in, like the icing [on the cake]. Looking back on it, Ed had that different little style to him. But I gotta tell you, one of my favorite records is Gimme Back My Bullets. It was basically Allen and Gary on that record. Ed was on it, but it was a lot of just Allen and Gary playing and Ronnie wrote a lot of his lyrics, he’d go, “Y’all play that,” and he’d walk around and come up with these lyrics and melodies and stuff. That’s the way it kind of groomed itself as it went.

What do you love about Gimme Back My Bullets?
Van Zant: I just think it’s raw. That record, they did with Tom Dowd. Tom Dowd, believe it or not, was never a guy [concerned with perfection]. We did Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991 with Tom and I was always like, “You know, maybe that sound is not really that great.” “Well, it doesn’t matter.” It reminded me of the [Rolling] Stones. It was dirty and gritty and didn’t have to have great sounds. It was the songs that stood the test of time.

Listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd's 'Gimme Back My Bullets'

The Second Helping album is turning 50. Johnny, you were around the guys at that time as you were growing up. What sticks in your memory about that period?
Van Zant: I remember when Pronounced 'Leh-'nerd 'Skin-'nerd came out and did well. All of the sudden, “Sweet Home Alabama” hit and I remember everybody going back and going, “Hey, I love this song ‘Free Bird’ from the first album.” I’m thinking, okay, “Wow, now that album might be up to par with Second Helping.” It was a good time for the band. I remember just seeing Ronnie and it was great for me as a kid to see him having the success that he was having. They were working their butts of and did the “Torture Tour” during that whole time. They were hitting it and they were all young guys. Everybody was scared of their success too early, because they were getting into all sorts of shit! [Laughs] But Ronnie wrote a lot of songs about all of the shit that they got into like “That Smell.”

READ MORE: Top 10 Lynyrd Skynyrd Songs

Medlocke: I’ll tell you something interesting about “Sweet Home Alabama.” When I went back to Blackfoot, we did a show with [Lynyrd Skynyrd]. This was at a gig up in New Jersey, they came walking in and I said hello to the guys. It was great to see them. Allen came walking up to me and I said, “Allen, how are you doing?” He goes, “Man, I think we’ve got a real hit song.” I went, “Really?” He goes, “Yeah, it’s called ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’” The next thing you know, sure enough, boom, there it was.

Van Zant: Looking back on it though, when they cut it, I don’t know if they thought it was a hit song. I don’t think anybody knew a hit song back then. I think it was, “Hey, we want a hit record.” Back then, FM radio stations played the whole record and there were deep cuts on ‘em. So I think they were just looking for a hit record. Luckily, they hit with “Sweet Home” and it took the first record up too. So they were having two records blasting at the same time. Because as I said, Pronounced did pretty good, but it wasn’t like when they hit with “Sweet Home Alabama.”

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Gallery Credit: Nick DeRiso