When a Radio Legend and a Bottle of Jack Saved a Lynyrd Skynyrd Concert

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Lynyrd Skynyrds double live LP, One More From the Road, released in September 1976

Longtime record label fixture Ray D’Ariano is writing a book about his days in the music business in which he’ll share some behind-the-scenes stories about many of your favorite classic rock acts. Here’s one such tale of how a New York radio legend solved a big problem.

In the mid 70’s I was an executive at MCA Records. The band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, was kicking some serious butt down south selling out stadiums and the like. In New York, their great single, “Sweet Home Alabama,” got played for just one week on Top 40 powerhouse WABC before they dropped it. (I was astonished the station ever played a tune celebrating the deep side of Dixie.) As unusual, it was album rock mainstay WNEW-FM’s airplay from album one, cut one, onward, that broke the group in New York.

Watch Lynyrd Skynyrd perform “Sweet Home Alabama” in 1976

One summer morning in 1976 I got a call from Skynyrd’s management. MCA was about to release their double live LP, One More From the Road, and the plan was to book the band into the Capitol Theatre, a 3200-seat Fillmore East clone located in beautiful downtown Passaic, New Jersey. Their management wanted a live broadcast on WNEW-FM. That way, in addition to the few thousand hardcore fans at the venue, hundreds of thousands could hear Skynyrd on the radio. I was asked to set it up.

The station’s legendary program director and afternoon drive host, Scott Muni, instantly agreed, as he knew Skynyrd were great and destined for stardom. I bought advertising on the station promoting the date, their live album, and the broadcast, and to hype the live gig the jocks started playing Skynyrd more frequently. Overall it was a good promotion for everyone: the band, the record company, the promoter, the station, and the fans.

On a chilly night in “Rocktober,” as WNEW used to call the tenth month of the year, Scott and I made our way to Passaic. He wanted a pop before the show and there just happened to be a funky workingman’s bar behind the Capitol. When we entered, the watering hole was bursting with Skynyrd fans loosening up before the show. The legendary DJ was instantly surrounded by fans who bombarded him with drinks, questions and observations on the current rock scene. As always, he was genial and accommodating. As show time approached I decided to leave the impromptu party and check in with my act.

As soon as I arrived backstage, the frantic promoter announced, “The group won’t go on.”

“Why not?”

“Nobody told them about the live broadcast.”

I headed straight for the dressing room where I was “greeted” by guitarist Allen Collins, who screamed, “You fucked us!”

MCA Records’ Ray D’Ariano with Ronnie Van Zant at the Capitol Theatre, Passaic, NJ, Oct. 30, 1976 (Photo: Ray D’Ariano Archives; used with permission)

After that welcome I figured it would be better to talk to the group’s leader, Ronnie Van Zant, in private rather than take on the entire Skynyrd crew. We adjourned to the hallway. Fortunately, Ronnie and I were friends and often, while on the road, we’d discuss everything from country music, UFO’s, women, and fresh water fishing. So, there was an established trust between us and at that moment backstage in New Jersey I needed it. He told me the band weren’t playing because they “didn’t know nothing about any live broadcast,” and were concerned about sound quality. I explained that it was WNEW-FM who had broadcast the Allman Brothers on the final night of the Fillmore East. I told him it was to the station’s advantage, as well as the band’s, to have the concert sound great. After all, ‘NEW were turning hours of their programming over to the concert.

Van Zant recognized that I was sweating and working hard to sell him on the concept. He said, “That’s all well and good, but nobody informed us about a live broadcast and we ain’t doin’ it.” I countered with, “Your management requested it. I assumed they informed you.” He smiled and said, “They didn’t.” Then he went back to the dressing room and I ran back to the bar.

Scottso, still surrounded by his newfound drinking buddies, was having a fine time. I squeezed through the horde and caught his ear.

“We got a problem.”

“What’s that, fats?”

“Skynyrd refuses to go on.”

He downed his drink, stood up, and said, “Thanks everybody, got to get over to the show.”

L-R: Skynyrd’s Gary Rossington, producer Leon Tsilis, WNEW-FM’s Scott Muni and Skynyrd’s Allen Collins

The ecstatic throng parted and as we strolled through them they actually applauded. We hastily walked to the theater and I filled him in. Inside, the opening act was just about done. As soon as the anxious promoter greeted him, Muni asked, “You got a fresh bottle of Jack around here?” Instantly a bottle appeared. (You can get anything you want backstage at a rock concert.) We moved into the dressing room where I announced, “Here’s the man who makes sure your albums are played on the radio here in the north, Scott Muni.” They were respectful and thanked him with hugs and handshakes. Scott made eye contact with Ronnie and said in his gravelly voice, “We need to have a conversation, like, right now.”

We left the room. Scott and Ronnie moved to a corner. I couldn’t hear a word spoken but watched as the bottle of Tennessee whiskey was passed back and forth with each guy taking a slug before handing it off to the other. After about ten minutes they strolled back toward the dressing room. Ronnie entered, and Scott announced, “Show time.” Within minutes he was onstage with the band. “Good evening, I’m Scott Muni from WNEW-FM. Please welcome our friends from Jacksonville, Florida… Lynyrd Skynyrd.”

They tore into their opening number and the audience roared with a great reception. We caught a few tunes from the wings before Muni said, “We’re outta here.” Our driver was blasting the broadcast in the limo and Skynyrd were rockin’ loud and clear. Scott poured two stiff ones from the vehicle’s bar, clicked his glass to mine and said, “It always sounds better on the radio.”

Watch Skynyrd perform “Whiskey Rock a Roller” that same year

Related: Lynyrd Skynyrd are saying farewell from the road

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Ray D'Ariano
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