The youngest brother of Lynyrd Skynyrd founder Ronnie Van Zant and .38 Special's Donnie Van Zant, Johnny Van Zant grew up in the shadow of his older siblings, who emerged as major figures in rock & roll during the early and mid-'70s. The death of Ronnie Van Zant and other key members of the Lynyrd Skynyrd lineup in a plane crash on October 20, 1977 eventually put Johnny in the position of being one holder of the Lynyrd Skynyrd legacy, but he started performing long before he became a part of the re-formed '80s/'90s version of the band.
Johnny began performing at age 15. His original inclination was to be a drummer, but he ultimately chose singing as his profession -- his brother Ronnie used to say that Johnny had the best voice in the family. His first group, the Austin Nickels Band, featuring Robbie Gay on guitar and Ribbue Morris on drums, played the local bar circuit, with Ronnie as mentor to the band. After Ronnie's death in 1977, Donnie Van Zant helped advise the group, but they didn't record their first album until 1980. Under the name Johnny Van Zant, he cut his first album, No More Dirty Deals, with the band -- by now including Eric Lundgren on guitar and Ronnie Clausman on bass -- in 1980. That debut record concluded with his tribute to Ronnie, "Standing in the Darkness."
Van Zant recorded two more albums for Polydor, Round Two and Last of the Wild Ones, in 1981 and 1982, before moving on to Geffen Records, where he recorded Van Zant in 1985. His career was going strong into the middle of the decade, playing with the same band he'd started with a decade earlier, but later on in the '80s, he found his brand of high-energy Southern rock falling out of favor. Rather than change his sound, Van Zant left the business and spent the next few years making a living driving a truck.
He rejoined the music business with the help of the revived Lynyrd Skynyrd band. He joined the surviving original bandmembers as vocalist for one tour and then became a permanent member. Although some critics consider their tours and periodic recordings to be tantamount to musical grave-robbing, Van Zant once again proved himself a superb vocalist and the group acquitted itself exceptionally well. Van Zant recorded Brickyard Road for Atlantic in 1990, but has otherwise involved himself deeply in Lynyrd Skynyrd during the '90s and 2000s. ~ Bruce Eder