by Tim Gilmore, 3/31/2023
Every now and then, a fellow roadie or family member of the band mentions him publicly. Fewer of them remain these days. Sometimes when they bring up his name, they call him “the forgotten roadie.”
Ironic when the thing you remember about someone is how they’ve been forgotten. Then again, people who knew the band in the early years guard his name. Doubly ironic when you’re talking about someone who committed suicide because of survivor’s guilt. The ironies keep coming. The gun Chuck Flowers used had been a gift from Ronnie Van Zant, the band’s lead singer, who’d died in that infamous plane crash on October 20, 1977.
“Chuck was one of my favorite people,” Ronnie’s widow Judy tells me. “I still miss him.” The night of Chuck’s death she talked to him at a party on College Street. She was stunned when she heard the news the next day.
Street Survivors, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s fifth studio album, came out three days before the chartered plane, carrying the band between shows in Greenville, South Carolina and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, ran out of fuel and crashed in a Mississippi swamp. The crash killed Ronnie Van Zant, Steve and Cassie Gaines – brother and sister, guitarist and backup singer – and road manager Dean Kilpatrick. More gun-related ironies: the first person drummer Artemus Pyle encountered as he wandered from the wreckage, looking for help, shot him in the shoulder.
Chuck Flowers would have been on that plane, but the band had recently fired him. The reasons differ according to who’s telling the story.
Here’s one version. Sometime in early 1977, Chuck, who’d known the band since junior high school, asked Ronnie Van Zant for a raise for himself and fellow roadie Raymond Watkins. Van Zant offered them almost as much as they’d asked, but Chuck said it was all-or-nothing. Ronnie fired him and Watkins quit. So Ronnie told roadie Craig Reed, “Now you do Chuck’s job and since he’s not here, you can have his raise. And you do Raymond’s job and you can have his raise too.” That’s Reed’s version of things from Gene Odom’s 2003 book, Lynyrd Skynyrd: Remembering the Free Birds of Southern Rock.
“Tragedy seemed to follow individuals associated with the band as well,” wrote Gary Patterson in his 2008 book, Take a Walk on the Dark Side: Rock and Roll Myths, Legends, and Curses. “Shortly before the crash, the band fired both guitar tech Chuck Flowers and drum tech Raymond Watkins over what was said to be a dispute over a hotel bill.” Flowers was 27 years old when he shot himself with the rifle Ronnie Van Zant had given him. A girlfriend of Watkins shot him to death in a drunken dispute in 1986.
“Chuck Flowers, the longtime roadie who had once roomed with Ronnie, had been fired only days before the last flight over some hotel bill expenses,” says Mark Ribowsky in his 2015 book, Whiskey Bottles and Brand New Cars: The Fast Life and Sudden Death of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“We knew Chuck all the way back,” says Judy Van Zant Jenness. “He was such a sweet person. Chuck goes back to the very beginning.”
Early on, Chuck lived with Judy and Ronnie at two different places. Judy still has a blurry picture of the duplex they rented “somewhere off of Edgewood, or it might have been Edgefield” on Jacksonville’s Westside. Then Chuck moved with Judy and Ronnie into bassist Larry “L.J.” Junstrom’s house somewhere in Murray Hill or Hillcrest.
One night, probably in 1969, four members of a band called The One Percent and their roadie friend Chuck Flowers went to see the English rock band Free at Skateland on Kings Road south of Downtown. Decades later, guitarist Gary Rossington said the show was the best he’d ever seen and made the band start taking their music more seriously. Kids had jeered and called them “One Percent Talent.” Within a year, they’d changed their name to Lynyrd Skynyrd, after the high school gym teacher who’d told band members to cut their hair.
Rossington remembered that Free arrived late. He told Rock Cellar Magazine in July 2020, “They came on and only had one roadie so the guys in Free were bringing out their equipment. You saw [guitarist] Paul Kossoff pulling out his Marshall amps and setting it up. [Bassist] Andy Fraser rolled his bass cabinet onstage. It was chaos. They went offstage for a minute and came right back out and started playing all their songs from their very first album and they just blew our minds!”
Stage manager Joe Barnes remembers Chuck as “the forgotten roadie.” He says, “He wasn’t in the plane crash so he didn’t get famous for that, but it killed him too.” He remembers how once, early on, “He and this other guy Ronnie hired ran off looking for girls after the show and I had to straighten them out. End of show meant we had to pack up and load the truck and no fuckin’ off. Chuck made it, the other guy didn’t. Chuck became a great roadie and friend.” Joe says, “He was the guitar roadie ’til the end. He could also be one of the funniest people on earth when he got on a roll.”
Flowers “had his ups and downs,” Joe says, then adds another layer of irony. “He got upset about something a week or so before the plane crash and quit and went home. But he was going to get back with the band. They’d even planned for him to meet back up with them after the next show.”
The ironies continue with the very words I’m typing. I can see that. This is a story about Chuck Flowers and it’s a story not about Chuck Flowers. Who was Chuck Flowers apart from these few details? Girls liked him, his long blond hair and angular face and prominent cheekbones. He was little, no taller than Gary. He was engaged to get married. His fiancée still suffers when his memory’s resurrected. She doesn’t talk about him publicly.
And what else? There’s Chuck Flowers, the footnote in the Lynyrd Skynyrd history, but that’s not Chuck Flowers the man. There’s Chuck Flowers, tangentially remembered for the plane he didn’t board, but where’s Chuck Flowers when he once climbed an oak tree, when he woke up from bad dreams, when he laughed so hard his mirth infected everybody else in this or that motel room? Ironically, the few facts that remain obscure the man he was, though the public wouldn’t know him without those digressive facts. Chuck Flowers is extraneous to Chuck Flowers.
Even the brief newswire story published around the country unwittingly mocked the fact that Flowers should have been on the plane, for the lede misidentified him, saying, “A former member of the Lynyrd Skynyrd rock group was found shot to death Monday night, apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.” The story misidentified him as a “former backup rhythm guitarist,” referenced the plane crash, then made a final paragraph of the six-word sentence: “Flowers was not on that plane.”
The front page of the Entertainment section of The Florida Times-Union a year to the date after the plane crash, a month and two days after Flowers’s death, headlined a retrospective, “Lynyrd Skynyrd: One Year Later and the Survivors Are Still Healing.” It quoted Gary Rossington: “We get a little mad when everybody keeps asking us when we’re gonna get the band back together. Eventually we’ll play again, but with a new name, and we really don’t want people to concentrate on us being part of Lynyrd Skynyrd.” The story made no mention of Flowers’s suicide.
But the very night of Chuck’s death, Ronnie’s widow Judy saw him at a party at Raymond Watkins’s place somewhere on College Street in Murray Hill or Riverside. It was almost a year after the plane crash, following a time, she says, “when I didn’t see a lot of people.”
She and Teresa Gaines, guitarist Steve Gaines’s widow, decided to reconnect with friends and family members and head out to Raymond’s party “in our old stomping grounds” that late September weekend. Of course Chuck was there. He and Raymond were close. They’d worked side by side.
“It was the first time I’d seen Chuck in over a year,” Judy says, “since before the plane crash. I think everybody was still in some degree of shock. I talked to Chuck for a while. We had a nice long talk out on the porch. I was glad to see him and he was glad to see me.”
And the next day, Judy heard Chuck had gone home from the party and shot himself with the gun Ronnie had given him. “He didn’t seem depressed that night,” she says. Chuck was always so much fun to be around. She thinks of him often, but can’t remember, it was just so long ago, much about Chuck specifically.
“It seems like,” Judy says, “he might have said something about how he should have been there, should’ve been on the plane.” She hesitates, then starts to walk it back. “But it was so long ago, and I don’t know if my memory’s right, and I wouldn’t want to say something like that for sure.”
So I drive a couple circles around Caribbean Court in the 1950s subdivision called Arlington Hills, recognize these concrete-block ranch-style houses from the neighborhood where I grew up on the Westside. I knew what it was like to be young and rebellious and longhaired and walk these humble streets beneath camphor trees and the moon. So here’s the house, brick and stucco, long and low, with carpet and carport. And there’s the bedroom where he shot himself with that .30-30.
“Chuck was a really good guy that liked to get drunk and propose to strange women,” remembers former roadie Andy Tanas. Tanas later played bass for the Southern rock band Black Oak Arkansas and the Swiss heavy metal band Krokus. “It was quite a sight,” he says, “to walk into his room and find him so drunk he’s cross-eyed and he’s clinging to some girl and yelling, ‘This is the one. I’m marrying this one.’ I always said they’d make a lovely couple and have beautiful children and asked if I could be best man.”
Sound engineer Kevin Elson says, “Chuck was a great guy, but when he drank, he was a different person.” Elson saw the band through Street Survivors and later worked with bands like Journey and Night Ranger. He says, “Normally Chuck was really quiet, the nicest guy, but when he drank it was Jekyll and Hyde.”
His version of Chuck’s firing differs yet again, but he’s sure it’s definitive. “The band let him go before we even made the record. Before we did Street Survivors. He had this big blowout with the guys. He got really drunk and said a lot of things he couldn’t take back. They weren’t forgiving and we moved on without him.”
He elaborates. “Chuck came to the band-and-crew meeting in New York, we were on the road, and he started saying all these rude things to the band members about their wives and said the guys that get their hands dirty needed to get a lot more money. But you know, the money wasn’t the thing. None of us were making a killing then. I think he regretted it afterward, but it was too late. Maybe with some time, they would’ve had him back. I mean, those guys all grew up together. He wasn’t just some random guy.”
And there was something else Chuck did when he was drunk that he couldn’t take back, Elson says, but he catches himself. I ask him if he means the final night and he says does, but he says he couldn’t and wouldn’t want to say for sure.
Two years after the plane crash, surviving band members formed the Rossington Collins Band and released two albums during their three years together. Their 1981 song “Tashauna” memorializes a friend of singer Dale Krantz, those who’d died in the ’77 crash, and Chuck Flowers. (Krantz married the violently alcoholic Watkins for a few months and later married Rossington.)
An inscription on the reconfigured Lynyrd Skynyrd’s live 1987 album Southern by the Grace of God dedicates it to those killed in the crash, to Kathy Collins, guitarist Allen Collins’s wife, who’d died during a miscarriage in 1980, and to Chuck Flowers. The tragedies kept rolling. In 1990, Collins died of chronic pneumonia and complications from a car accident that had left him paralyzed four years earlier.
Along Peeler Road, next to Caribbean Court, teenagers walk home from school, long-limbed and longhaired and skinny, and a solitary palm tree grows in Chuck Flowers’s 1970s’ front yard. I wonder how many people unknowingly live in houses marked by tragedies. Isn’t that the metaphor of Poe’s 1843 story “The Tell-Tale Heart”? The unacknowledged tragedy beats back of every old wall. Flowers’s obituary in the local paper said, “In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Mental Health Association.”
I was four years old when Chuck Flowers died, but not only does this neighborhood remind me of my childhood streets, he reminds me of kids I hung out with in the early ’90s. Kurt Cobain entered that stupid romanticist concept of “the 27 Club” in ’94, shot himself too, and joined musicians Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin and Robert Johnson. Did Chuck get an invitation? Why is he “the forgotten roadie”? Is being remembered as being “forgotten” what keeps him from being forgotten? Time closes up so quickly on the other side of us.