Lynyrd Skynyrd was managed by my friend Peter Rudge from late 1973. Rudge’s main pre-occupation at this time was The Who, for whom he’d worked in a quasi-managerial capacity since 1969. As Who managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp shirked their responsibilities and fell out of favour, Rudge became The Who’s day-to-day manager in 1971, then set up in business in New York to look after their US affairs. His company was called Sir Productions and their offices were located on 57th Street, not far from Carnegie Hall. In November, 1973 Lynyrd Skynyrd supported The Who on their US Quadrophenia tour and Rudge took over their management around this time. In due course he would also manage .38 Special, whose singer Donnie Van Zant was the younger brother of Ronnie, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s charismatic singer and principal songwriter, and two other bands – The Dingoes, from Australia, and LeBlanc & Carr, from Muscle Shoals.
Peter Rudge was a smart, fast-talking, street-wise Cambridge University graduate who loved sport and could handle himself well if things became physical. At Cambridge he’d booked bands for college events and on June 11, 1968, booked The Who for a college ball. According to his account, he’d received a telegram from The Who’s management 24 hours before the gig cancelling but instead of accepting the situation he’d caught a train to London and marched uninvited into Kit Lambert’s offices at Track Records in Old Compton Street demanding the group perform and threatening to sue them if they didn’t. Lambert was impressed by this show of bravado and offered him a job on the spot.
In the event Rudge graduated first, then turned up at Track where he was given the onerous task of ‘looking after’ The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown. It was only a matter of time before his business acumen led to him ‘looking after’ Track’s main attraction, The Who. His speciality was organising US tours and he became so good at it that Pete Townshend recommended him to Mick Jagger in 1971 when The Rolling Stones were looking for someone to run their international tours after the death of Brian Jones. Rudge’s ultimate ambition was to build up a stable of successful acts and Sir Productions was the umbrella under which this goal was to be achieved. It had eight employees, including a girl on the west coast, an accountant and a travel agent.
I worked for Sir from March 1977 until the end of that year, at which point Rudge drastically reduced the size of the company, a decision brought about as a direct result of the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash. The reason I worked there in the first place was because of my long-standing friendship with Peter which came about through my fondness for The Who. During my years on Melody Maker Rudge had told me that if I ever felt like leaving MM, he’d give me a job, and he was as good as his word. At Sir I worked on promoting his bands and getting them publicity, but I also went out on the road with both The Dingoes and LeBlanc & Carr as their tour manager, dealing with day to day events on the road, collecting and disbursing cash, making sure the rest of the crew did what they were supposed to do and everyone got from place to place and to the gigs on time. I remember firing a useless roadie in Milwaukee, sorting out a bass player's clap problem in Chicago and running on stage to drag off an over-excited punter in Memphis.
By the time I got to Sir, Rudge’s relationship with The Who was fast deteriorating, largely because he’d been devoting a disproportionate amount of time to The Rolling Stones, and The Who felt he’d somehow betrayed them by shifting his loyalty. Also Bill Curbishley, strongly supported by Roger Daltrey, had emerged as a formidable rival for The Who’s management. In the meantime, though, Lynyrd Skynyrd were coming up fast.
During 1977 I saw Skynyrd perform about half a dozen times, arranged various press and radio interviews for them and helped produce the press kit that accompanied the ill-fated Street Survivors album. By this time they were at a peak of popularity, their previous (double live) album One More From The Road having sold over a million copies. Much of their popularity could be put down to Rudge’s hard work ethic – they played something like 200 gigs a year under his management, and just got better and better at it. Now the top prize of a headlining show at Madison Square Garden was within their grasp.
The seven individual members of Lynyrd Skynyrd all drank like fishes, took all known illegal drugs, fucked anything female on two legs and liked nothing better than to fight with their fists, either against others or amongst themselves. Singer Ronnie Van Zant, who sang barefoot because, he said, he liked to feel the stage burn beneath his feet, was the toughest of the lot and he could more or less silence any of the others with the threat of a beating. Before their shows Skynyrd liked to psyche themselves up in their dressing room, winding themselves up by breathing deeply together like US football players, passing the Jack Daniels around in a ritual drink, willing each other on to perform as if their lives depended on it. Rudge, a sports fanatic, encouraged this. It worked, too.
Group meetings in Rudge’s big office were all day and night affairs at which bottle after bottle of Jack Daniels was consumed, piles of coke snorted, and carton after carton of cigarettes smoked. Voices were often raised and the language was as bad as you could hear anywhere. Anyone who’d crossed them was dead meat. MCA Records threw a party for them that summer at a bar near Nathan’s Restaurant which almost got out of hand when someone made a loose remark to one of Skynyrd’s women. Keith Moon, then living in LA, turned up in a loud pinstripe suit, drunk as a lord, and Rudge told me to keep Moon away from him as he’d probably beg for money. It was my first intimation that Moon, of all people, was broke – and sick with booze too. He was very podgy, glassy eyed and mournful. It was the last time I ever spoke to Keith.
I took particular pleasure that same summer when Skynyrd appeared as the penultimate act on an all-day show at Philadelphia's JFK Stadium and half the audience of 100,000+ walked out during Peter Frampton's very limp closing set. They’d played an hour’s set – short for them – and restricted themselves to their best known songs, performed back-to-back with a minimum of fuss and maximum of swagger. The closing ’Freebird’, their best known song, brought that huge crowd to their feet and as I watched from the side of the stage, just behind their amplifiers, it seemed to me that all 100,000 of them were stomping and cheering as the band played faster and faster, running away down the tracks to the song’s stupendous finale. Perfect. Philly conquered. Rudge and the band were laughing all the way to the Garden, or so we all thought.