Leon Russell Wilkeson (April 2, 1952 – July 27, 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 afterward, 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. When Lynyrd Skynyrd’s bassist Greg T. Walker left the band, Wilkeson was brought in as his replacement.
Skynyrd signed with Al Kooper’s production company, Sounds of the South, a joint venture with MCA Records, in 1973, an event that should have signaled smooth sailing for the group. However, this didn’t prove to be the case, as Wilkeson began to get cold feet just prior to sessions for their debut album, recorded in Atlanta. Wilkeson returned to Jacksonville and his regular job stocking ice cream at Farmbest Dairy Products. Former Strawberry Alarm Clock member Ed King subbed for Wilkeson during the recording of Skynyrd’s 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 1970s, 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 that Wilkeson picked up the gimmick of wearing colorful hats onstage, garnering the nickname “Mad Hatter.”
Wilkeson acquired a “Fenderbird” bass from John Entwistle. The Fenderbird bass mated a custom made Gibson Thunderbird body to a Fender Precision Bass neck. Wilkeson can be seen playing this bass in a 1975 Lynyrd Skynyrd performance on the British TV series The Old Grey Whistle Test.
With hit albums and sold-out tours (as well as the emergence of such similarly styled acts as .38 Special, Blackfoot, Molly Hatchet, the Outlaws, etc.), it appeared that things could only get better for Lynyrd Skynyrd. But tragedy struck as the band and its entourage went down in a plane crash on October 20, 1977, outside of Gillsburg, Mississippi, which left members Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and Cassie Gaines dead and the rest badly injured. Wilkeson and the other survivors bowed out of the spotlight for the remainder of the 1970s as they attempted to put their lives back together. Wilkeson did manage to lay down bass parts for a release by Jacksonville band Alias, whose debut album, Contraband, was released in 1979 on Mercury. The 1980s appeared to bring great promise for most of the surviving band members, as a new group, the Rossington-Collins Band, formed, consisting of Wilkeson, guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins, and keyboardist Billy Powell. Wilkeson, whose left arm had been so badly broken in the plane crash that doctors were considering amputating it, never completely recovered from that injury. He had to play holding the bass in a more upright position because he couldn’t fully extend his arm.
After Lynyrd Skynyrd
The Rossington-Collins Band got off to a good start, as their 1980 debut, ‘”Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere,” became a modest 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 one album in 1983, “Here, There and Back.” After the Collins Band fizzled, little was heard from Wilkeson during the mid-1980s, except for a short-lived membership with Rocco Marshall’s Christian-rock band Vision, which also included Billy Powell. But in 1987, Wilkeson and Powell signed on with a reunited version of Skynyrd, with Ronnie Van Zant’s youngest brother, Johnny, performing lead vocals. The group embarked on a successful, sold-out tour. The new Skynyrd continued to tour and release albums on a regular basis, when another mishap almost cost Wilkeson his life during the early 1990s. Guitarist Ed King found Wilkeson with his throat cut, bleeding profusely on the group’s tour bus. Wilkeson was rushed to the hospital. The bassist was able to continue the tour, but exactly who was to blame for the incident remains unsolved.
Skynyrd received another burst of renewed interest during the late 1990s, due to an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music that explored the group’s turbulent career. Again tragedy struck. Wilkeson 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. His death was attributed to natural causes. Wilkeson’s death put the group in a difficult position, since an agreement with Ronnie Van Zant’s widow, Judy Jenness, mandated that at least three of Skynyrd’s longtime members would have to appear in order for the band to use the name Lynyrd Skynyrd. Jenness waived this proviso, and the group continued with replacement bassist Ean Evans. Reactions to Evans’ style was mixed, although he had taken informal lessons from Wilkeson.
The band dedicated the song “Mad Hatter” on Skynyrd’s 2003 album Vicious Cycle to the memory of Leon Wilkeson.