Jacksonville’s historic role in the founding of Southern rock

This unique style of rock ‘n’ roll emerged in the city almost 60 years ago and endures and thrives today

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Their names are world-famous: Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers Band, 38 Special, Molly Hatchet.

Not as well known, however, is that those bands are among several who together pioneered a new kind of music nearly 60 years ago in Jacksonville. As the city celebrates its bicentennial, Southern rock endures and still thrives today.

During a recent visit to Friendship Park, Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Rickey Medlocke reminisced with News4JAX anchor and reporter Tom Wills about playing drums with the original Lynyrd Skynyrd during free concerts the band put on at the park on Sunday afternoons.

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Tom Wills and Rickey Medlocke visit Friendship Park. (Special to WJXT)

The band’s leader, Ronnie Van Zant, sang with the old Gulf Life building in the background.

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Ronnie Van Zant can be seen signing with the old Gulf Life building in the background. (Special to WJXT)

Pat Armstrong, who became Lynyrd Skynyrd’s first manager, first heard the band at a free outdoor concert.

“What I saw was a band that had 2,000 come to see them and the band before had 200 and when they left all of a sudden they were down to 200 again,” Armstrong said. “They, Lynyrd Skynyrd, had a name and a reputation in Jax that needed to be shared with the rest of the world.”

Lynyrd Skynyrd concert (Special to WJXT)

The band did become world-famous, both before and after the tragic Mississippi plane crash in 1977, reforming in 1987 with Ronnie Van Zant’s younger brother Johnny as the new lead singer and currently playing concert dates across the country.

There is a monument dedicated to the memory of those who died and those who lived through the crash. According to Google maps, in the month of March, there were 49,000 visitors to the memorial.

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The scene of the Mississippi plane crash in 1977 (Special to WJXT)
The memorial in Mississippi is pictured. (Special to WJXT)
Johnny Van Zant (Special to WJXT)
Donnie Van Zant (Special to WJXT)

The middle Van Zant brother, Donnie, also became a rock star with his Southern rock band, 38 Special.

The Westside house where all three grew up is now preserved. It’s an Airbnb with a historical marker along Woodcrest Road.

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The Westside house where Ronnie, Johnny and Donnie Van Zant grew up is now preserved. It’s an Air B & B with an historical marker along Woodcrest Road. (Special to WJXT)

Another band with Jacksonville roots, the Allman Brothers Band also has a historical roadside marker. It’s on Riverside Avenue in front of a home called the Gray House.

Another band with Jacksonville roots, the Allman Brothers Band also has an historical roadside marker. It’s on Riverside Avenue in front of a home called the Gray House. (Special to WJXT)

Duane Allman is said to have founded the band after a jam session in the living room.

Duane Allman (Special to WJXT)

According to, Mildred Price the current owner of the house, Allman’s brother Greg wrote one of the band’s most famous songs in the house.

Greg Allman (Special to WJXT)

“‘Whipping Post,’ he didn’t have anything to write with, so he lit matches and used the charcoal on an ironing board to write ‘Whipping Post,’” Price said.

Mildred Price is the current owner of the home called the Gray House. (Special to WJXT)

The Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd are just two of the most famous trailblazers for a host of bands listed in a book by local author and historian, Michael FitzGerald, “Jacksonville and the Roots of Southern Rock.”

Michael FitzGerald's book titled “Jacksonville and the Roots of Southern Rock" (Special to WJXT)

They also include Cowboy, Blackfoot, 38 Special, Molly Hatchet, Alias, Johnny Van Zant Band, The Rossington Collins Band, The Allen Collins Band, Derek Trucks and Mofro.

Why Jacksonville?

Tom Wills speaks with Michael FitzGerald. (Special to WJXT)

“I think one of the primary reasons was this was a blue-collar town and these young people did not want cruddy day jobs and they were determined to get out of that grind and do something more fun and more stimulating with their lives,” FitzGerald said.

“There’s something in the water here,” jokes Medlocke when he is asked, “Why Jacksonville?”

However, he also points to the city’s remarkably rich heritage of African American blues music, which he and other Southern Rock stars listened to growing up.

Photos show Mississippi John Hurt and Huddie William Ledbetter, known by the stage name Lead Belly. (Special to WJXT) (Special to WJXT)

Such artists as Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt and Lead Belly performed at the Ritz Theater which opened in LaVilla, a Jacksonville neighborhood that came to be known as the Harlem of the South. Some argue Harlem was the LaVilla of the North.

According to author and historian Ennis Davis, the city’s blues history goes back even further

Tom Wills speaks with author and historian Ennis Davis. (Special to WJXT)

“In 1910, Jacksonville actually becomes known as the first place that is documented where the blues was performed live on a public stage,” Davis said. “If we go back to the 1900s, we had African American performers also performing for white individuals in town.”

“Music,” Davis added, “has no color.”

Medlocke would agree. Music has been his life since he was a child.

He appeared with his grandfather, Bluegrass star Shortly Medlocke, on Toby Dowdy’s “Country Frolics” when Channel 4 was WMBR-TV in the early 1950s.

Rickey Medlocke appeared with his grandfather, Bluegrass star Shortly Medlocke, on Toby Dowdy’s “Country Frolics" when Channel 4 was WMBR-TV in the early 1950s. (Special to WJXT)

His grandfather taught him to play a miniature banjo.

Rickey Medlocke plays the banjo. (Special to WJXT)

Decades later, he is still playing.

Rickey Medlocke is seen playing the guitar. (Special to WJXT)

As a Southern rock pioneer with Blackfoot and Lynyrd Skynyrd, he was asked if he thinks about all of his fellow pioneers who are now gone.

“Yeah, I miss ‘em,” he said. “Do I think about them every night, every night of my life that I’m standing on that stage and playing that guitar? Yes, I think about them.”

“And I hope when I see them again one day when I get there, I hope I don’t get a punch in the face because I didn’t do a good job,” he continued, laughing. “I hope I get a handshake and a hug, you know what I mean, but I’ve always been willing to take my licks, I’m alright, I’m from the Westside.”

Rickey Medlocke laughs. (Special to WJXT)

About the Authors:

Tom Wills joined Channel 4 in 1975 and has co-anchored Jacksonville's highest-rated evening newscasts for more than 40 years.