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Jacksonville icon reflects on recording Lynyrd Skynyrd's first songs, including 'Free Bird'

He and his friend, the late Jim Sutton, formed Shade Tree Records in the late 1960s with high hopes.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Jacksonville has thousands of Lynyrd Skynyrd stories, and this is one of them: It’s about two local men who saw a good thing in a young band from the Westside — “the tightest little bar band you ever heard,” they liked to say — and how they signed them to a contract and got them in a studio so they could all become stars.

They made their first record, 300 copies, with “Need All My Friends” on the A-side and “Michelle” on the B. The band’s name, still a work in progress, was spelled Lynard Skynard, there on the label for Shade Tree Records of "JAX FLA."

Four other songs were recorded, though they didn’t make it to vinyl. Most notable, perhaps, was the final song: A primordial 7½-minute version of “Free Bird,” without Billy Powell’s piano lines, which would come later, and with just one lead guitar on the lengthy ending solo, instead of the overlapping leads on the best-known version.

Even so, it seemed obvious, these guys, who soon settled on the name Lynyrd Skynyrd, would be big.

Tom Markham, 83, still has the record he helped make, and he still has the tapes on which the six Skynyrd songs were recorded, all carefully stored in an air-conditioned space in his house in Mandarin.

He and his friend, the late Jim Sutton, formed Shade Tree Records in the late 1960s with high hopes. “Let’s make some money," Markham proposed. "Maybe we could make millions."

It was Sutton who came up with the Shade Tree name, which they both quickly agreed on.

"Real backyard, homey, a couple good-old boys, that’s what Jim and I were,” Markham said.

He also said it was Sutton who in 1968 saw the potential in The One Percent, a Westside band led by a stocky, self-confident singer named Ronnie Van Zant. They signed them to a five-year contract, promoted them at grocery stores and shopping center openings, and got them in the recording studio at the Norm Vincent Studio off Beach Boulevard. They also got them airplay on local TV and the Big Ape, WAPE, the city's powerhouse AM station.

It wasn't a big-budget signing. No one involved in the venture — the band or the record-company producers — had much money. Instead, Markham said, Shade Tree offered the young rockers their time and expertise in the recording studio in exchange for publishing rights and royalties to the songs.

"We all became sort of a family, trying to make it," he said.

The first two songs, "Need All My Friends" and "Michelle" (which is not the Beatles song) were recorded on two tracks. The band played live, then Van Zant sang over the musicians. Markham even hired a four-piece string section to spice up "Need All My Friends."

They switched to eight-track tape for the other four songs, including "Free Bird," which gave more flexibility.

“That mix, the way the whole thing ended up, it kind of amazes me today, because of what we had to do," Markham said.

Markham grew up on San Jose Boulevard near the Duck Pond. He soon discovered he had an "electro-mechanical" aptitude, which he funneled into recording systems, ham radios and model airplane engines.

While still at Landon High School, from which he graduated in 1954, he made his recordings. He set up an old tape machine in his house and used a bathroom as an echo chamber.

"We took all the furniture out of the living room, brought in a band," he said. "Back then a band would be a saxophone, a trumpet, a bull fiddle, that kind of thing.“ A girl, a classmate, was the singer.

He appeared on an afternoon dance show on TV where he and a girl classmate were the "Pepsi-Cola Team," passing out sodas to the dancers. He remembers that a very young Elvis Prelsey appeared on the show. Elvis was polite, nervous, fidgety.

While still in high school, Markham and a friend, Tom Sheally, built a Tesla coil that could make lightning 3 or 4 feet long. They took it from class to class at Landon, doing demonstrations, before it ended up on display inside a glass box at the Jacksonville Children's Museum.

In 1959 he and partner Tom Rose opened a recording studio on Lovegrove Road, calling it Magnum Studios. He bought a tape machine and a high-end condenser microphone, and rigged up a salvaged gasoline tank in the backyard to work as an echo chamber, running sound out to a microphone and speaker in the tank.

They had some success, including a hit called "Angel" by a Jacksonville singer named Dave Meadows, backed by the studio's band, the Neanderthals.

Markham said Rose worked at a TV station where the Stanley Brothers, a renowned bluegrass band from Live Oak, had a show sponsored by Jim Walter Homes. The band came to Magnum in 1960 to record "Rank Stranger," a melancholy classic later named to the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry.

Markham remembers setting up just two mics for that song. One was for the standup bass. The other for the rest of the band, which performed "this kind of ballet of instruments" around the mic, in classic bluegrass style, as they stepped up or back for vocals and solos.

Rose, who now lives in Umatilla, said Markham is smart and offbeat. “Tom is a very intelligent guy, a brilliant, brilliant mind. But he definitely deviates from the straight path and goes off in different directions at times."

And he could overcome any obstacle in the studio, Rose said.

"Yeah, he was good. He had an ear for music, and then he had this electronics talent and this brain that would think outside the box," he said. "It was a combination that made him really a genius of engineering and recording.”

Markham went on to be a DJ and a television station engineer, and established the long-lived Warehouse Studio where many recordings were made, including early songs by Molly Hatchet, another Jacksonville band.

He has strong memories of the Skynyrd recordings, but wishes he had thought to take photos. They were just too wrapped up in the work to think of chronicling it.

Van Zant was the undisputed leader of the band, and while his temper showed occasionally, he was deferential to Markham and Sutton, both a decade or so older. “He was very respectful, a little gentleman with us," Markham said. "We said, 'Ronnie, we want to try this,' and he was like, 'Yes sir, yes sir.' We ate that up."

He tells several Skynyrd stories, including this one.“One day they came in and said, 'We’ve changed our name.' We sure didn’t like The One Percent. We wanted the Bomb Blasters or the Destroyers or the Dynamites or something," he recalls. "We said, 'Great, what did you change your name to?' They said, 'Leonard Skinner.' That was worse.”

Michael Ray FitzGerald was in the audience at the Forest Inn on Jacksonville's Westside when Van Zant announced the band was changing its name.

Much of the audience was composed of Lee High School students, who laughed and cheered at the news. They knew the inside joke: Skinner was the tough Lee coach who had sent guitarist Gary Rossington to the principal's office for having longer-than-approved hair.

FitzGerald is a veteran Jacksonville rock 'n' roller who recently published a book called "Jacksonville and the Roots of Southern Rock" (University Press of Florida), which includes a section on Markham, Sutton and Skynyrd.

Signing with Shade Tree was a pivotal moment for the band, which he said was overshadowed by the Second Coming, an early version of the Allman Brothers.

“I think it turned things around for them,… they were very much underdogs on the local scene," FitzGerald said. "The fact that Tom [Markham] picked them up and got them played on the Big Ape really turned things around for them."

Markham and Sutton had 300 records made of the first single, spending their own money to get them made. A hundred of those were sent to record stations across the country, in an attempt to get airplay. Even with follow-up calls, it was hard to get noticed.

The band eventually asked to be released from their contract with Shade Tree. The partners agreed: Sutton was taking a job in Texas and getting married, while Markham was going through a tough divorce. It seemed time to move on.

"We hadn’t gotten them off the ground," Markham said. "We’d pressed records, promoted them, all that, but a spark just didn’t happen, so we released them"

He said they were pleased when Lynyrd Skynyrd, a few years later, became a success.

"When they got big, we were both happy for them. Jim and I both felt like they were family. We acted like family, and they felt like family," he said.

And they were saddened when a plane carrying the band crashed in Mississippi 43 years ago this week, killing Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, vocalist Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, the pilot and co-pilot.

"All of us," Markham said, "it was like being in the same foxhole, everybody trying to make it big.”

Click here to read this article from Florida Times-Union.

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