Allen Collins was a member of the Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd’s power three of guitarists. He could shred and co-wrote several of Skynyrd’s best-known songs, including “Free Bird,” “Tuesday’s Gone,” and “Gimme Three Steps.”
He was also the youngest founding member of Skynyrd, having been recruited at the age of 12 by then-16-year-old Ronnie Van Zant in 1964.
Collins shattered two vertebrae in his neck and wounded his right arm so seriously in the 1977 plane disaster that killed his bandmates Van Zant, Steve Gaines, and Cassie Gaines that doctors advocated amputation.
His father, however, refused to allow the amputation, and he eventually recovered. (Collins was also sat directly between brothers Steve and Cassie Gaines when the plane crashed, and he struggled from post-crash survivor’s guilt.)
Collins established the Rossington Collins Band with Skynyrd bandmates Gary Rossington, Leon Wilkeson, and Billy Powell after his rehabilitation, and they were positioned for success; a new beginning.
But then, just days after the band’s first major tour began, his wife of 10 years, Kathy — they met in high school and married at 18 — miscarried their third child and died, a loss that destroyed him and pushed him into a tailspin of drug and alcohol abuse. He “dove to the bottom of a bottle,” as bandmate Billy Powell put it.
Despite this, he continued to make music until tragedy hit him again in 1986. Collins was driving under the influence when he drove into a ditch, killing his fiancée, Debra Jean Watts, and leaving him paralyzed from the waist down with limited use of his arms, robbing him of his ability to play guitar.
In Debra’s death, he pleaded no contest to vehicular manslaughter.
Collins was the one who organized and encouraged the resuscitation of Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1987, despite the fact that he could no longer play, and as part of his plea agreement, he lectured to the audience before every show about the hazards of drinking and driving.
But he suffered from physical issues due to his paralysis, and his mentality never recovered. “He never recovered from Kathy’s death,” said Rossington Collins bandmate Dale Krantz-Rossington. He never got any sleep.”
Allen Collins died of persistent pneumonia, a consequence of his paralysis, on January 23, 1990, at the age of 37. He was survived by two teenage daughters, Amie and Alison.