Gospel According to Abraham
Every night on tour, as Lynyrd Skynyrd soak up the cheers from their legions of adoring fans, spare a thought for the unsung heroes that make it all happen, out of the spotlight, behind the scenes – the band’s road crew.
Paul Abraham joined Skynyrd’s crew in 1987 and spent the next 10 years travelling the world working for the band. Here, he reflects on his many memorable experiences and the crazy high jinx that became part and parcel of life on the road.
Paul’s association with Skynyrd stretches back much further, back to the early 70s when the band were setting American concert halls alight with their fiery brand of southern blues-tinged rock.
“First and foremost I was a fan of Lynyrd Skynyrd.”, he proudly proclaims. “In 1973, I heard them in Atlanta nightclubs and became a fan. I was in the same class as them, the same working class, I didn’t have a lot of money.
“Actually, my brother and I promoted them on March 7, 1974 at the Bolivar County Expo Center in Cleveland, Mississippi. That was the first day I got to meet Ronnie Van Zant, it must have been after they toured with The Who.
“We put them in a decent size venue, we must have had about 5,000 people there, it was pretty cool. We got to meet Ronnie that night. They liked me and my brother because we were so much like them, I guess. They decided to stay the next day too, so we hung out all day with all the guys in the band.
“I saw them with the Charlie Daniels Band and also when they were playing with Chicago down in Tampa. Every time I would go out there, Craig Reed (former Skynyrd roadie) would get us backstage passes and I’d hang out with Ronnie for a while and talk.
“He was the salt of the earth, a good man. He was tough. I saw that side of him one time, but it was towards someone else and not me, thank goodness! They were incredible, the best I have ever seen live.”
Paul explains the story behind him being recruited to work for Skynyrd in 1987:
“I was living in Colorado and and I found out from Billy Powell that Gary and Dale were living in Jackson, Wyoming. I thought, that’s not far from me, I’ll take a ride up there to see them. I would visit up there from time to time.
“Then the Rossington Band was opening for Kansas at the Fox Theatre, Atlanta. We all ended up there. Billy and Leon were there and they were trying so hard to get Gary to do this tour. They had been approached by someone to do a Tribute Tour.
“Gary mentioned to me that someone had talked to him about doing these 32 shows. He said he wanted to do it, but wanted to do it right. We talked a little bit more and he said, “if you come out and work with us on these 32 shows, I’ll do it.”
“It’s wasn’t that it was me that pushed him over the edge or anything like that, but that’s what he said to me. And I said, OK, I’ll do it and 10 years later I was still out there doing it with him.
“The first two years on the Tribute Tour, it was so much fun. It was hard work, but like I said, to look out there every night from the stage and see a huge, full crowd at these big venues, it was really something. We were playing huge shows. The band was playing off the people too, the music was excellent.
“When I went to work for them my favourite thing to do was stand in guitar world or monitor world and watch the crowd, the people in the audience, it was incredible.
“It makes me sad that Ed’s not in the band. Randall Hall, he’s an exceptional picker and he’s not in the band. Artimus too.”
Paris, the city of love……
I ask him about an infamous incident that took place in Paris in 1992 during Skynyrd’s European tour. Gaskets blew and simmering band tensions boiled over resulting in a fist fight erupting backstage. It’s a grisly tale, and Paul remembers it well:
“I kinda put myself in his place when Ronnie was gone and I was out there working for the band. There were occasions when I had to put almost all of them in their place”, he laughs.
“We were playing the Elysee Monmatre in Paris. The trouble originally started after ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, and then we went back to the dressing room. There was something about that someone missed a part, missed a queue, something on stage. I never really knew what it was, but it ended up like a scrum in the dressing room.
“When we got back to the hotel it started up again. It was Johnny, he was the one that started everything. He was in his room, and someone called me in my hotel room at about 2 am to say he was fighting or something.
“I knock on the door. I hear all the ruckus that’s going on in there, and I go in. Johnny looks as if he has the demon inside of him, his eyes were sunk inside his head and he is just vicious.
“I said something to him, but he picked up the luggage rack and threw it at me and hit me right across my knee. Then, as he ran at me, I jacked him right between the eyes. I hit him as hard as I could and as he was going down, I hit him in the ribs with an upper cut.
“Immediately, I thought oh-my-god, I’m going to get fired over this. Well, I didn’t get fired. The next morning we were all waiting out front ready to leave and Johnny came out, wearing sunglasses, and he kinda growled at me.
“Then Dale and Gary came out and asked if there was any way they could get back to London without catching an airplane with those guys. We took the bus and went across the English channel on a ferry.
“That was our night in Paris. It was nuts man, absolutely nuts. That’s not the only time things like that happened and I had to get in the middle of it. It comes along with the job because Ronnie wasn’t there anymore.”
In an emotional conclusion to the interview, Paul expresses his heartfelt love for Skynyrd, articulating his profound sadness at the loss of band members, his friends, that have passed away in recent years:
“I would not trade what I did with them for anything in the world, it was such an honour to be out there working for those guys.
“We had our moments. When you are thrown together on a metal tube running down the highway and nowhere for you to go, other than enjoy each other’s company or hate each other. Sometimes, both of those things happen!
“It’s a hard, hard life for those guys, they were born on the west side of Jacksonville with nothing and then all of a sudden they are the biggest thing since sliced bread.
“They were just an exceptional band and exceptional people. They would all do anything in the world for you, that’s one thing I found out about them. They’d give their right arm for you. Leon and Billy are gone, that’s really difficult for me to accept. They were absolutely the salt of the earth.”
Following his departure from Skynyrd, Paul worked as a road manager for acts such as Billy Ray Cyrus, Marshall Tucker Band, Barefoot Servants, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Paul Rodgers and Bad Company.
Photo above: Paul in 1997 with Billy, Leon and in the background, Owen Hale.