Larry Junstrom Recalls His Days with Lynyrd Skynyrd and Talks About His Band, .38 Special
by Scott Greene
In the late '60's something happened in the northern Florida city of Jacksonville that to this day has changed the musical landscape forever. Never has one city been such a center of a musical explosion, and as the birthplace of the music known as Southern rock, it forever holds a special place in the hearts of all of us fans of Southern music. One of the key players in the original musical explosion was and still is Larry Junstrom, or LJ, as the fans of .38 Special know him.
In this exclusive interview, we will take a trip down memory lane with LJ as he shares his story, and some of his best memories of Ronnie Van-Zant. LJ was born in the Southern part of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and he moved to Jacksonville at the age of ten, where he lived in the same west side neighborhood that was home to a virtual who's who of the Southern rock world.
Tell me about growing up on the west side of Jacksonville.
The west side is a rough area to live in and you really had to know how to fight your way out at times. Ronnie Van Zant always called it shanty town and it was. It was a close knit family kind of place, and the musicians that came from that area are amazing.
How did you become interested in playing music?
I played saxophone and clarinet in the school band in 5th and 6th grade. Then I saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, and they looked so cool and I knew that's what I wanted to do.
Did you always play bass - other than the band instruments?
I got my first guitar for Christmas, it was a old Silvertone from Sears that came with the amp built in to the case. When I started playing, I found myself drawn to the bass parts and would be playing them on this 6-string guitar by simply playing the lower strings. So what I did was fashioned a piece of balsa wood and put it on the neck of the guitar. I also used a piece of balsa wood for the bridge so I in effect created my own brand of bass out of that old Silvertone 6-string.
What was the first band you ever played in and what kind of music did you play?
It was called After Five, and we did mostly cover stuff. There were many different bands after that, and at times I would be playing with more than one just to make enough money to live. Then of course there was the band that would go on to become Lynyrd Skynyrd. It was called My Back Yard when I joined them.
Tell me how you met Ronnie Van Zant?
On the street where I lived these local boys would race up and down the road on a home made beach buggy, and I always remember one of them had canary yellow hair. One day I heard this loud crash at the end of the street, I ran down there and found they had crashed that buggy and were struggling to turn it back over so they could run it again. It was a sight, one guy had busted out some of his teeth, some were cut and banged up but they were not worried about anything except getting that thing back on its wheels so they could run it again. I helped them get it back right side up, and Ronnie looked at me and said " Thanks man," and that was it. That was the first time I was face to face with Ronnie. I knew who he was before that, but we had never met before that day.
How did you come to play in the My Back Yard band?
They had a bass player named Jimmy Parker but his amp was not the best and they heard that I had a good amp, so they asked if they could use mine for some gigs, and I said “sure.” I stared hanging around with them and going to see them play. Jimmy decided he did not want to play anymore, so they asked me to join them. Much later on, Jimmy died in a head on crash on Blanding Blvd. in Orange Park not 100 yards from where Ronnie was buried before Judy had to move him to protect his grave site.
Tell me about those early days in Skynyrd. What kind of music did you play and who were some of your favorite bass players in those days?
Skynyrd signs with Alan Walden. L.J. is on the far right.
Lacy told me Ronnie was on the road but that Donnie had a band and was at the rehearsal hall on Riverside Avenue. I went down and when I walked in the door I knew this band had something, and that I wanted to be a part of it so I ask them if there was anything I could do. They hired me to be on the road crew driving the truck and tuning guitars on stage. At this time Ken Lyons was the bass player and they had the two drummers, Steve Brookins and Jack Grondin. After a while the pressure was on and Ken Lyons decided he did not want to stick with it so he left and I moved in to fill the bass slot which I am proud to say I have held on to for 27 years. Ken is on some of the tracks off the first album, I think I recorded two of them and he is on the rest of the album. Then all the albums since have been my playing.
What do you do in your time off the road?
I just bought a house on the lake and I enjoy fishing a lot. I also love ham radio and have since 1962, but the equipment was not so good back then, and money was tight so I had to let it go. But as the radios got better and I had the money to buy them, I got back in to it and its great. One minute you can be talking to someone in Russia and the next someone in Australia and I think that brings us all closer together.
What kind of rig do you play now?
I played an old Fender jazz bass for a long time during my Skynyrd days. It had a clicking sound to define the tone and Ronnie called it my "Old Click Licker," much like Daniel Boone’s gun was called “Tick Licker.” I kept that bass for a long time and played it some with .38 Special, then I switched to Peavey basses until about 2 years ago. I got hooked up with a company called Lakeland and that's all I use now. They have several lines of basses, and a lot of great players use their basses like Charlie Hayward of the CDB - and the bass player of U2 also uses Lakeland basses.
What's next for .38 Special?
We are working on our new CD, and its going to be a rocker, really greasy sounding guitars. I think the fans will love it. But it's been slow going, as we are doing it in pieces at Danny's studio - but I promise it will be worth the wait.
Why do you think .38 is still around after all these years?
Well, a couple of things first and foremost it’s our fans, I know everyone tells you their fans are the best, but nobody is more loyal than a .38 fan and we all want to take this chance to say thank you to them. We are grateful for their support. We would not have ever made it this far without our fans and I can't say enough about them. Second is our drive and dedication, we knew when we started this would be hard, but if we stuck with it the reward would be making a living doing what we love the most - and that's just what we have been able to do. Also, I think it has a lot to do with our music. We give 110% at everything we do and that shows in our ability to survive the trends in the music business. To the fans, thanks for the ride and hang on, we got a lot of great music left for ya.
something was very wrong. We stopped playing and they took Donnie out to another room and told him there had been a plane crash. We all loaded up and took off to Lacy's house and the wait began. It seemed like every ten minutes Lacy would call over to the police station in Mississippi to check and see if they knew details, and each time they would promise to call him as soon as they knew something either way.
The later it got with no word the more we all felt that something serious was wrong. Then we got the call around 1 am. I was sitting right next to Donnie and I have to tell you that was one of the hardest nights of my life. Ronnie was not only a great man, he was one of my best friends and even now as I tell you this story it brings tears to my eyes remembering that night and how sad and helpless I felt. Ronnie was a man’s man. He loved to fish and spend time with his family. He was someone who I really looked up to and he was someone who you could shape your life after. I still miss him every day of my life. Donnie Van Zant is just like Ronnie in that he and I are best friends, not one day goes by that I don't at least talk to him on the phone or go hang out with him.
Tell me about the early days in .38 and about your first live show you ever did with them.
When we started out I knew we had something special and that's why I was so willing to do anything they needed just to be in the band. Shoot, when we first started off I was making fifty bucks a week on the crew and when I got the bass gig I got a raise to a hundred bucks a week. Times were tough but we knew we had something special and we were determined to make it work. My first show with .38 was the Super Bowl of Rock and it is to this day one of the biggest shows we have ever done. It was at Soldier field in Chicago and there were about 100,000 people there. I will never forget it - the acts on the bill were Journey, Skynyrd, Ted Nugent and several other bands. I was so nervous before that show that I could not sleep for three nights before the show, but once I hit the stage it was natural and everyone said I did great.
Tell me about getting your first gold record.
It was for Wild Eyed Southern Boys, we went out and they had catered BBQ for us and I remember thinking how we had seen those things on other peoples' walls and now we had one for ourselves. We have received a lot since then but they are always special. Most people don't know how hard it is to earn one, I believe Skynyrd is on their way to one for their latest CD Vicious Cycle cause that thing is so good. I went out the other day and bought it for myself. My favorite track on it is “Red, White and Blue.” Man that song has a great message to it and I want to send out my best wishes to those guys - they are the best
What’s life on the road like for you?
It much harder than people think man just getting enough sleep is hard. That's why, when we are off the road we all want to sleep so much - it’s just to catch up. The song on Resolution “Fade to Blue” is about life on the road. I think most people just think its party after party but to give as much as we try to give with every show it takes a lot out of you. It’s the fans that keep us going. They give as much energy to us at each show as we put out, and that sure makes our job easier.
Tell me about Don's leaving the band and how that changed the .38 sound.
We were touring a lot and it was stressful so Don just got burned out. He needed some time off the road, and we all understood and supported him. We all wanted to keep going, so our manager got a tape of Max Carl singing and we hired him and Danny Chauncy . Max was an awesome singer and in 1989 our song "Second Chance" was song of the year and went to number one on the charts. We did two records with Max, and even thought they had a different sound, they were records we are proud of. Max wanted to stay closer to home and Don was ready to come back so we just kept going with Don back in the band. It was about a year, and Jeff decided he wanted stay home and so he left and that's how we got to where we are now. We lost Jack Grondin right after Bone Against Steel and we had several drummers tour with us until we found Gary Moffet . Gary is like playing with two drummers in one. He is the best drummer I think we have seen in a long time and I love playing music with him. We also added Bobby Capps to play key boards and he sings “Second Chance” as part of the medley. Bobby has a great voice and adds so much to our music.
Where were you when you heard that the Skynyrd plane had crashed?
We were at the rehearsal hall, right in the middle of a song and two of our road crew came in and from the look on their faces we knew
How were you accepted in Jacksonville at that time?
Well, we had long hair and Jacksonville had a lot of rednecks at the time so we fought our way out of a lot of places just because we had hair longer then they did. I remember one night some guys chased me and pulled a gun on me just cause I had long hair. Looking back on it now it’s kind of crazy, but the one person who gave us the most trouble about our hair ended up getting rich off us just cause we decided to name the band after him. Coach Leonard Skinner really got famous and it’s all because of us. We were all in different grades at Lee High School and he would send us all to the office for haircuts. Shoot, years later everyone in Jacksonville had long hair so I guess you could say we started the trend. Between the pickers there was a bond that we all helped each other out and played with each other in different bands. Only thing was when one band played, the others wanted to get on stage and blow them away, kind of like a competition. Don (Barnes) used to say we have a good ball club, we move the ball real well.
I remember another time when I was playing with Skynyrd around 1969 and we were playing this teen club on the north side of Jacksonville. Back then I had this Clint Eastwood poncho that I wore along with a hat and had the cigar that I held in my teeth while I was on stage. These guys did not like the way I looked and as soon as I stepped down off stage they jumped me. I was on the floor under this pile of guys who were beating on me, and then Ronnie jumped on the pile and started beating on them. Well Donnie (Van Zant) was there and he jumped in the pile and had a shoe and started beating on what he thought was one of the guys who started the fight, but in fact he was smacking Ronnie in the head with his shoe. Well, Ronnie looked up and said " Hey brother, whatcha trying to do kill me"?
That's just one of many memories Donnie and I share about Ronnie and those early days.
Why did you leave the Lynyrd Skynyrd band?
I left because I needed to make more money and my folks were moving to Miami so I joined them and got started playing in all different kinds of bands. I played in a black show band where we all dressed the same and played soul music. We played Vegas with that band and I learned a whole lot about the music business from it. I stayed there for about three years or so and played in several different bands. Then my mother died in 1974 and on our way to bury her in Pennsylvania I stopped by Lacy Van Zant’s house to see where Ronnie was, as in my heart I knew I really wanted to stay in Jacksonville.
One time this caused us a little trouble. We were playing this church in Arlington and this guy comes up and tells Ronnie " you are going to play a slow song." Ronnie replied that he would not be playing a slow song, and they went back and forth and it was only a minute before Ronnie was down off stage fighting with this guy and his friends started to swarm the stage, so Gary took his guitar and smacked some guy off the stage, I took my number 13 boot and shoved another one off the stage and it was really getting intense before a couple of cops working at the dance broke it up and sent them guys home -or so we thought. We rocked through a couple of more sets and started loading up when these three cars pull up and the same guys -along with all their buddies- tell us they will see us down the road. We open the trailer back up and start grabbing mic stands and drum stands anything we could use in a fight and take off. Well, sure enough, they get right behind us and Ronnie is driving like mad running red lights and stop signs trying to get away, until all of a sudden we hit road construction and we can't go any further. We hear them get out and say " let’s get them," so Ronnie jumped out with a tire iron and the car started rolling. Poor Allen was sitting in the front and he finally got the car stopped so we all jumped out and the fight was on right there on the street.
Bob chased one guy in a ditch and I chased one guy in between the trailer and the car and he busted his butt on the tongue and that stopped him. It was pure bedlam going on and I heard something that made me look back to their car and there was Ronnie standing on the hood of a brand new Chevy Super Sport, with his tire iron busting out their windshield. We took off driving down the expressway. We saw them in one of their other cars with a big long 2x4 sticking out the window trying to ram us or something. Bob reaches down and grabs a RC bottle and chunks it out the window and smashes the second car’s windshield. That slowed them down a little bit and we took off heading for home, we got to the bridge and up to the toll booth, Ronnie jumps out and the poor old lady looks like she is about to faint at the sight of him with his shirt off, hair all messed up, bloody and bruised. A cop pulled up and ask what is going on and we explained it to him and he gave a police escort the rest of the way home.
In Skynyrd, back then, we played mostly covers of the Stones, Yardbirds, Cream , The Beatles and even some Jefferson Airplane. My favorite bass players were people like Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane and Berry Oakley of The Allman Brothers. We all used to go see them when they were still called the Allman Joys. I am also a huge fan of Paul McCartney of The Beatles and Jack Bruce of Cream.
One special memory of the early Skynyrd days was our trip to Miami stadium to see the Cream farewell show, we all went and its something I will never forget. We played mostly teen clubs, church dances and even a skating rink or two. Ronnie had one policy. He refused to play a slow song. He said if someone went home and had bruises from dancing too hard, then they knew they had seen a good band.