If a cat has nine lives, Artimus Pyle is the human equivalent.
Aside from surviving the plane crash that killed three of his Lynyrd Skynyrd band mates in 1977, Pyle has survived other plane crashes, multiple vehicle crashes, and other life threatening encounters. But, with a life worthy of a book and a documentary, expected to come out this year, Pyle, 70, continues to play his music.
“It’s all I’ve got,” said Pyle while driving from North Carolina to a gig in Las Vegas last week. “Everything else has been taken away from me. My reputation, millions of dollars, my family has been destroyed by false accusations, I've been dragged through the mud. I’ve been beaten up, left for dead, all my money stolen, but I still love to play. I love to play Skynyrd music because that’s my music.”
The Artimus Pyle Band, which performs at the Norris Theatre Saturday, Jan. 19, has been together for eight years.
“My band (Lynyrd Skynyrd) does not have a bad song, every song we do is special to somebody, somewhere, somehow … right now I would open for any band in the world from Lady Gaga to the Rolling Stones, whoever ... We would hold our own with any band in the world.”
Pyle feels he’s playing drums better than “I’ve ever played in my life.”
“I’m definitely having more fun,” he said. “I’m not going to stop. I’m going to play the music as long as I can play it properly. It’s not easy to play Skynyrd music properly. Every song is different, there’s stops and starts, they’re very intricate, people think it's really easy and then we end with 'Free Bird.' To play the music properly you have to lay on it and get into it and thank God ... I can still play drums really good. At least Dave Grohl from Nirvana told me that the other night.”
Pyle joined Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1974, replacing original drummer Bob Burns. The band had released five albums, including “Nuthin' Fancy in 1975, in which Pyle first recorded with the band. They had sold millions of albums and had hits like “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Free Bird” and “What's Your Name,” when the plane went down in Mississippi.
Band members Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and Cassie Gaines, Steve's sister and a background singer, were killed (the band’s assistant road manager was also killed along with the pilot and co-pilot) while the other band members suffered serious injuries including Pyle, Allen Collins, Gary Rossington, Leon Wilkeson, Billy Powell and background singer Leslie Hawkins.
“I could barely drag myself along and yet I did it for over a mile to a farmhouse because my friends were bleeding to death ... a lot of my friends died right before my eyes,” Pyle said.
Pyle said he still suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. He broke his chest plate, among other injuries, and he needs to “concentrate to take a full breath of air.”
“Mentally I think about the plane crash every day,” Pyle said.
Lynyrd Skynyrd reunited in 1987 with crash survivors Rossington, Powell, Wilkeson and Pyle, with Johnny Van Zant (Ronnie’s younger brother), taking over lead vocals. The tour with the Charlie Daniels Band was planned for 100 shows, but that faced hurdles, according to Pyle, including heavy drinking and drug use, by his band mates.
Pyle had little professional contact with Lynyrd Skynyrd since the 1991 album, “Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991,” the first studio album completed since the plane crash. The album featured lead vocals by Johnny Van Zant and original guitarist Ed King.
Lynyrd Skynyrd, with Pyle, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.
While Rossington and Lynyrd Skynyrd continue to tour, because of a number of lawsuits over the years and other issues, Pyle has few kind words about the last incarnation of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“I love Gary as a friend, but they see him as a cash cow,” Pyle said.
Pyle added, “We play Lynyrd Skynyrd music better than any band in the world and that includes Gary’s band. Every two months they hire 10 new guys up in Nashville and call them Lynyrd Skynyrd, which is kind of an embarrassment. But my band of good old country boys, they’re all successful businessmen on their own.”
Multiple accidents and legal trouble
In 1971, Pyle's father, Clarence, was killed in a mid-air collision in Albuquerque, N.M. when Pyle was nearly finished with four years in the military. When his father was killed he had signed up for officer's candidate school to fly jets. He had passed Marine Corp history and they wanted him to return for two more years and then go to officer's candidate school at Quantico, but he “lost my heart for flight” when his father was killed. His father had taken lessons about the same time he started taking flight lessons. He soloed and he was about to when he was killed. Pyle was honorably discharged.
In 1980, he broke his right leg in 20 places during a motorcycle wreck. It took him a few years and six surgeries, even the V.A. Hospital told him his leg should be amputated, but he told them he was playing on five albums and needed his leg. He was able to recover enough to play drums again, but he has stainless steel from his right knee down his leg and has bone against bone against stainless steel against nerve ending.
Pyle faced serious legal jeopardy in 1993 when he plead guilty to attempted capital sexual battery and lewd assault on two girls in Jacksonville Beach, Fla., according to various news sources. In 2009, he was in the courtroom again when he was acquitted of charges that he failed to register as a sex offender and for lying on a driver’s license application. According to the Florida Times-Union, Pyle’s daughter, Kelly, said her father only plead guilty because he was facing 25 years to life in prison. He received probation instead.
Pyle repeatedly called the allegations “false accusations.”
Book and movie deal
Pyle has faced lawsuits against telling his story in a film and book, but that changed when the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled against Rossington and the estates of Lynyrd Skynyrd members last October.
Pyle was pleased that the “stupid ass lawsuit” was thrown out. This allows the feature film “Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash,” and the book “Street Survivor: Keeping the Beat in Lynyrd Skynyrd,” to be released this year.
“I'm the only one who knows the exact story,” Pyle said.
Pyle, who recorded with William Shatner on his Christmas album last year, has five children. His son Chris and their band Chappell has a song on the film's soundtrack.
Pyle, who raised money for Make a Wish and veteran's charities, calls his band the “ultimate tribute to Ronnie Van Zant,” and to what Lynyrd Skynyrd once was.
“I love all of them,” Pyle said. “I miss them. They were great people. It was great traveling the world with them. I with they were still here.”
Pyle said he never tires of playing the classics.
“When I’m playing those songs and I see how happy it makes people, that’s what keeps it fresh,” Pyle said.
Pyle will perform at the Norris Theatre, located at 27570 Norris Center Drive in Rolling Hills Estates, Saturday, Jan. 19. Tickets range from $55 to $95.
For more information, call (310) 544-0403, or visit palosverdesperformingarts.com.