Remembering Leonard Skinner

Leonard Skinner, a high-school gym teacher who inspired a group of pupils to name their band Lynyrd Skynyrd, died Monday in Jacksonville, Fla. NPR's David Greene talks to Skinner's son, Leonard S. Skinner.

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(Soundbite of song, "Sweet Home Alabama")

Mr. RONNIE VAN ZANT (Founding Member, Lynyrd Skynyrd): Turn it up.

DAVID GREENE, host:

The most famous gym teacher in rock 'n' roll history has died - yesterday. Leonard Skinner taught P.E. at Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, Florida. In the late 1960s, the by-the-book Skinner sent several students to the principal's office. The crime? Their hair was too long. He quickly forgot about the incident, but those students never did.

And when they later formed a band, they paid some tongue-in-cheek tribute to their teacher by calling themselves Lynyrd Skynyrd. The band took off in 1973 with its first album, "Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd," which included the seminal Southern rock anthem "Free Bird."

We're joined now by Mr. Skinner's son, also Leonard Skinner.

Mr. Skinner, welcome to the program.

Mr. LEONARD SKINNER: It's a pleasure to be here.

HOLMES: And we are very sorry to hear about your loss. We appreciate you offering this time to us.

Mr. SKINNER: Thank you.

GREENE: Can you tell us what you know about the story that, I guess is now really part of rock legend - about this fateful trip to the principal's office?

Mr. SKINNER: Well, he was a very strict coach, and he was straight, by the book. And if your hair touched your collar, your sideburns were below your earlobes - and I think your bangs had to be three fingers above your eyebrows - anybody, he would send you to the dean. And if you couldn't afford a haircut, he had his razor and would give them a haircut - for them.

GREENE: He was ready to make sure that rule was met.

Mr. SKINNER: His whole basketball team had a flat top just like his -the whole team.

GREENE: And these guys just weren't fitting the flat-top rule.

Mr. SKINNER: Well, they got a band, and they said that they couldn't because they were in a rock band. And he said, well, then buy a short wig. He didn't - he wasn't going for that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: Well, how did your father actually find out that his name had been appropriated by this band? Did anyone from the band actually ask?

Mr. SKINNER: Well, actually, he got out of coaching. And I remember, I was in high school and I'm listening to "Pronounced," you know? And I'd go, wow, that's really close to my name. And I remember Dad walking by the hallway - what is that noise you're listening to?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SKINNER: And, you know, I'm young, now. I'm, I guess, 16 or so. And when the second album came out, they called his real estate company and asked permission to put a picture of his real estate sign on the inside cover of the "Second Helping" album. We had a home extension at the house. He had a one-man real estate company, just starting out. And the phones are ringing at 5 o'clock in the morning and...

GREENE: So the album had the phone number on it, and people just started calling you to see who would pick up.

Mr. SKINNER: They called so much, he had to take the home extension out of the house...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SKINNER: ...and put a recorder at the office (unintelligible)...

GREENE: People just wanted to reach and - they wanted to reach and talk to Leonard Skinner.

Mr. SKINNER: Yeah, yeah. Drunk at 5 in the morning - well, here; I don't what time it was in - wherever they were, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: So when he walked by your room that time and he was - he heard the music coming from your radio - I mean, I guess he, as you said, he didn't like the music that much at that point - did he come to like the music?

Mr. SKINNER: Well...

GREENE: I mean, would he...

Mr. SKINNER: ...you know, when you're a kid, you know, like, my kid listens to rap and stuff, I mean, you know, just the generation gap. It's all - you know what I mean.

GREENE: Sure.

Mr. SKINNER: But I think later on, you know, 15 years later, he really got accustomed to it and kind of liked it, and listened to it a little bit. But at that time, he's listening to Frank Sinatra and stuff like that, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: So we do want to recognize your dad. If we were to play a piece of music sort of saying goodbye to you here, what would be your pick?

Mr. SKINNER: Oh, wow. He liked "Gimme Three Steps." I know that. I've heard him say that. Now, any music other than that, I don't know. I was in a whole different generation, so...

GREENE: We'll see if we can cue some of that music up for him. Thanks for talking about your father. We appreciate the time.

Mr. SKINNER: All right. I appreciate you, too.

GREENE: Leonard Skinner is the son of the late Leonard Skinner, who is the namesake of the Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd.

(Soundbite of song, "Gimme Three Steps")

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News.

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