As chairman of the dance committee at Baylor School in the early 1970s, Joe Martin worked hard along with fellow student committee members to book good bands.
So when the time came for the Baylor commencement dance ending his senior year in 1973, the boarding student from Athens, Ala., took much care to get a band the attendees would not forget.
And did he ever succeed, as the band he eventually secured – Lynyrd Skynyrd -- became one of the most famous in rock and roll history. But at the time, the Jacksonville, Fla.-originated band was still a year or so away from becoming famous.
As a result, its members were willing to play at about any event in which the price was right – including a prep school in Chattanooga.
But as Mr. Martin recalled recently in looking back at the historic local event 40 years later, the price almost ended up being not right.
As he remembered, he worked with booking agencies in Atlanta to get bands. Usually, he could secure a music group that the students, their dates and other attendees – including even a few McCallie students – would likely enjoy hearing.
As he and the other committee members tried to figure out a band for the 1973 commencement dance – which was the equivalent of a prom – some extra negotiations ensued.
“One agent said, ‘I’ve got this amazing group that is about to break loose.’ But the price was a little higher -- $900,” said Mr. Martin, adding that his committee usually secured bands at that time for between $500 and $700.
“I sort of put them off. I didn’t jump on it right away.”
However, the booking agent called him back and seemed persistent that this was an unbelievable group. And to help the then-all-boys school out, he said that Baylor could book the band for a reduced price of $700.
So Lynyrd Skynyrd was signed to perform on Friday night, June 1, 1973, in the Baylor School quadrangle at the top of Baylor Hill. Although that seemingly changeless part of the Baylor campus had seen some spirited pep rallies and intense military training over the years, this would be a whole new experience for sound and exuberance.
Baylor at the time was two years removed from dropping the military curriculum and was now allowing longer hair length among students, a move that would no doubt please Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Actually, the band members might have likely felt like pulling their hair out, as the spring of 1973 was apparently a busy time for them. Just days before and after their appearance at Baylor, the group members would record some of their most famous songs – including “Free Bird” and “Sweet Home Alabama.”
The group had been around since the 1960s, and after a few years as a band began using the name Lynyrd Skynyrd to parody a man named Leonard Skinner. He was the physical education teacher at Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, where several of the band members attended.
Mr. Skinner was known for enforcing the school’s strict hair code at the time, and several future band members liked to try to wear their hair long. Although he was not that crazy about being the inspiration for the band’s name initially, he grew to develop amicable relations with them as he later entered other lines of work, including real estate.
Lynyrd Skynyrd later became the house band at Funocchio’s bar on Atlanta’s Peachtree Street, and it was there that musician and producer Al Kooper noticed them. As a result, he produced their first record for an MCA label and performed with them.
From March 27-May 1, 1973, possibly while Mr. Martin was negotiating with the agent about getting them to Baylor, the band was at Studio One in Doraville, Ga., recording songs from its first album, “Pronounced leh-nerd skin-nerd.” Tunes on the album included such now-familiar hits as “Tuesday’s Gone,” “Gimme Three Steps,” “Simple Man,” and, of course, one of the classic songs in rock and roll history – “Free Bird.”
And sometime in June 1973 – just days after their Baylor appearance -- they recorded “Sweet Home Alabama,” which would be released about a year later and would be the band’s first hit single.
“Free Bird,” the band’s first song to be played on the airwaves, was actually a few weeks from being released as well along with the other songs on the first album.
Because of the band’s anonymity that would not last much longer, Mr. Martin was unaware of any of their songs and admittedly does not recall which of their future hits he or the other students may have heard.
This was not the group’s first performance at a prep school dance, as it also performed at Jacksonville’s Bolles School in 1972, when former roadie Billy Powell was discovered as a talented keyboardist.
Mr. Martin, who is involved in design work in Chattanooga with his wife, Happy Baker, said that when the commencement dance at Baylor was held that Friday night, he remembers seeing the band show up in very casual clothing.
However, while their attire was not overly impressive, their first sound check was.
“It was very clear they were going to blow the quad out,” he recalled with a laugh. “It was amazingly loud.”
In fact, during their first set, the power somehow blew out on the entire Baylor hill, Mr. Martin said.
Eventually, the power came back on, and they continued, he recalled.
Current school director of institutional advancement Matt Lewis was a junior at Baylor at the time and believes that it also rained that night, forcing part of the dance into the Guerry dining hall.
Van Bunch, who was then finishing up his sophomore year and attended the dance, also remembers part of the dance being inside Guerry Hall.
“I remember because we fled to the basement of Trustee Hall next door, where the sound level was tolerable,” said Mr. Bunch.
Herb Barks, who was completing his second year as headmaster/president at Baylor, definitely recalls the loud part of the Lynyrd Skynyrd performance.
“I’m such a bad one about rock and roll,” he joked. “I like Barbra Streisand. But I do remember they (the Baylor students) loved having them and that they were extremely loud.”
While Dr. Barks said other administrators like Ray Deering were usually involved in working with the student committees to get bands for dances, he over the years did try to get some well-known people from the worlds of fine arts and adventure to come to Baylor for special presentations.
Among them were musician “Doc” Watson and drummer Baba Olatunji, as well as writers Madeleine L’Engle, author of “A Wrinkle in Time,” and Richard Adams of “Watership Down.”
Dr. Barks simply thought the exposure would expand the students’ horizons.
“It was good for the kids to meet people from the larger world who push themselves to do extraordinary things,” he said.
As the Lynyrd Skynyrd show continued that night, Mr. Martin also remembered that, during the intermission, the seniors and their dates were presented. And class valedictorian Greg Settles, who had taken a filmmaking class during the school year, presented a film of the seniors.
Mr. Martin said he remembers going up to a band member with a beard (perhaps Ed King, the only bearded musician on the first album cover) and asking him if they could play a soft song to set the mood. But this was Lynyrd Skynyrd, not the Carpenters, so one can imagine the answer Mr. Martin received.
“He looked at me with a cold stare and said, ‘No buddy, I don’t think we can do that,’ ” Mr. Martin said.
But what they could do and do well was play loud, rhythmic rock and roll with a Southern flavor.
Mr. Martin remembers that their second set was excellent. By then, he recalled, he was pretty emotionally drained from having to worry about the details of the event and was just trying to enjoy the music and social time.
His career at Baylor was concluding, but Lynyrd Skynyrd’s as a popular music act was just beginning.
Within a couple of years, the band would become one of the most popular rock bands in the United States, particularly in the South. As evidence, a show they did at Chattanooga’s Memorial Auditorium on March 19, 1975, was sold out.
They were scheduled to perform again at Memorial Auditorium in late October 1977, but on Oct. 20, a plane crash in Mississippi during a concert tour killed three band members, including lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, and several others.
As a result, the group disbanded for several years before reuniting. This year, they performed at Riverbend Festival, with guitarist Gary Rossington the only member from the 1973 Baylor dance era band still playing.
While Mr. Martin is admittedly not a diehard Lynyrd Skynyrd fan, even though he considers himself a music aficionada and appreciates the group, he did light up when thinking about how his committee was able to get a future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band to come to a small Baylor dance.
“We just took a chance based on what the booking agent told us,” he said. “And it was a great show.”