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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Artimus Pyle: A Great Drummer, A Simple Man

Artimus Pyle keeping Lynard Skynard alive
If famed former baseball manager and player Leo Durocher had known Artimus Pyle, he might not have been so certain of his noted quip: "Nice guys finish last".

Pyle, 67, is the original drummer for the classic Southern Rock band Lynard Skynard. He survived the fatal 1977 airplane crash that claimed the lives of 3 band members. For more than a decade now, Pyle has been leading his own group of early Skynard-song players in the Artimus Pyle Band.

Pyle and his bandmates, who produce sets of crowd-pleasing recreated versions of such Skynard staples as "Free Bird" and "Sweet Home Alabama" performed earlier this year as one of 22 bands on the Rock Legends IV Cruise. The band had played on the three previous cruises and has already been named as one of the bands participating in the 2017 sailing.

Now while many well-known rock stars (and during their heyday Lynard Skynard was one of the most famous bands on the planet) are recognized for their arrogance or off-putting behavior, Pyle defies that description.

Offering the "Free Bird" salute
The Kentucky-born drummer is widely acclaimed for his accessibility on the ship. In fact, most fans begin talking about him with a statement something like this: "He's a great drummer, but what a nice person, regular person., too. Really easy to talk to and he seems interested in what you're saying".

Take Bill from North Carolina, who was on his 3rd Legends Cruise. On his first sailing, Bill had gotten a chance to talk to Pyle. He told him that he and his brother, Tim, had been huge Skynard fans since their teenage years. They had planned to take the cruise together, but Tim had died of cancer before the trip.

Each set, the Artimus Pyle Band closes with "Free Bird," the rock classic that vies with Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" as the most popular rock song of all-time. Before the song's musical intro, Pyle comes from behind the drums to center stage and addresses the crowd. The day that he talked to Bill, he dedicated the song to Tim with a short, but moving story.

"Now he didn't have to do that," Bill says. "But he did. And it meant so much. In a way, it made it like Tim was right there next to me to hear the song".

I have my own personal story to attest to Pyle's generosity and friendliness.

When I first wrote on Facebook that my wife Judy and I were going on the 2016 cruise, I listed some of my favorites that would be appearing.

My South Jersey friend and fellow keyboard player Floyd Dyer immediately contacted me after he saw my post. "You have to see Artimus and thank him for what he did for us," Dyer said. He went on to explain that in February, 2011 he and his band In High Gear were playing the Golden Nugget, not the Atlantic City casino but one South Jersey's premier bars for country music. In the early morning hours between their Friday and Saturday performances, the bar caught fire. The bar was all but destroyed and In High Gear's equipment was ruined or badly damaged.

Pyle, who was friendly with the bar's owner, played a benefit for the establishment and In High Gear.
"He didn't have to do that, but it really helped out a lot," Dwyer said.

On board the ship, Judy and I kept an eye out for Pyle so I could relay Dwyer's message. We checked out the line when Pyle and the band had a meet and greet, but it was too long and we wanted to see another act.

Finally, on the third day of the cruise, we ran into Pyle on the top deck of the ship. He was chatting
Drummer turned drawer
with a small group of fans and friends. I stood outside the circle, waiting for him to finish. I was joined by a young man in his early 30s who was carrying a guitar he wanted Pyle to sign.

When the crowd dispersed, I nudged the young man forward so he could go first.  Pyle took the guitar, sat down, and began drawing a bird in flight (for Free Bird) and while signing told us the story about how that song came to be and what it means to him today.

I told Pyle I had a message from New Jersey from Floyd Dyer and then delivered it. At first, the drummer looked at me blankly. "Was that David Bowie's guitar player, the one from New York?" he asked, a puzzled look on his face.

"No, "I said. "It was a bar in South Jersey".

Suddenly, Pyle's face lit up with recognition. "That's when we played in the parking lot on that flatbed trailer, right?," he said, obviously pleased that he had recognized the event out of the thousands he has played in his career. "Sit down, let's talk".

So for the next 10 minutes or so Pyle and I talked about a wide range of musical subjects. His son, who now plays percussion in his band and his grandson ,who was also on the cruise ,walked by. "Hey," he said to his grandson. "Did you go snorkeling today? You've got to tell me all about it after dinner"

Artimus and me
A couple of minutes later Pyle stood up. "I've got to go. They have a dinner scheduled for the band tonight. Then we have to play. I suppose we'll close with 'Free Bird'. We always close with 'Free Bird,'" he said with a smile as he shook my hand.

As he walked away, I couldn't help but think of Mr. Durocher and his saying about nice guys and their place in life. Others might agree, but I think he was wrong and people like Artimus Pyle disprove his contention every day.

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