Leon Wilkeson, bassist and founding member of the legendary Southern rock group Lynyrd Skynyrd, died Friday in his sleep. He was 49.
Wilkeson died of natural causes, Judy Van Zant Jenness, widow of band founder Ronnie Van Zant, told the Florida Times-Union. On a break from Lynyrd Skynyrd's summer tour, he was discovered Friday in a hotel in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, 17 miles south of his home of Jacksonville.
Additional details about his death will be revealed as they are known, the band's management company said in a statement.
Lynyrd Skynyrd formed in Jacksonville in the mid-'60s and recorded such classics as "Sweet Home Alabama," "Free Bird" and "What's Your Name."
Named after the members' high school gym teacher, Leonard Skinner, the band has suffered several losses over the years. On October 20, 1977, lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and background singer Cassie Gaines died when the band's chartered plane crashed in Mississippi. Wilkeson was one of the survivors of that crash.
In 1990, founding member Allen Collins, who was paralyzed in a 1986 car wreck, died from complications while battling pneumonia.
Still, the group has continued to release records and headline arena and amphitheater tours, with Johnny Van Zant, Ronnie's younger brother, on vocals a duty he took over when the band reunited in 1987. Their 1998 live album, Lyve From Steel Town, was recently certified gold by the RIAA.
Wilkeson had missed some concert dates in the past year or so because of illness, according to Reuters.
Lynyrd Skynyrd's management has not said whether the band will complete their summer tour or the studio album their label has scheduled for next year.
Under a legal agreement with Jenness, Lynyrd Skynyrd must contain three original members in order to retain the name, according to Reuters. Following Wilkeson's death, only guitarist Gary Rossington and pianist Billy Powell remain. Former drummer Artimus Pyle and guitarist Ed King are estranged from the band.
A memorial service for Wilkeson will be held Wednesday (August 1) at 11 a.m. at the Evergreen Cemetery in Jacksonville.
In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that memorial contributions be made to the Musician's Assistance Program. Donations may be mailed to 817 Vine Street, Suite 219, Hollywood, California, 90038.