Why do people yell 'Play 'Freebird'' at concerts?

A Murky Story

Skynyrd plays the Fox Theater in 1976. Is this where the "Play Freebird" phenomenon first began?
Skynyrd plays the Fox Theater in 1976. Is this where the "Play Freebird" phenomenon first began?
Tom Hill/WireImage/Getty Images

Let's go back to 1976. Skynyrd was performing at the Fox Theater in Atlanta, Ga., when deep into the concert lead singer Ronnie Van Zant asked the crowd, "What song is it you want to hear?" The answer was a resounding "Freebird." The epic, nearly 15-minute-long live version of "Freebird," including the question and answer, appeared on the Skynyrd album "One More From the Road." This recording is often cited as the reason "Freebird" is shouted at concerts [source: Fry].

The other often-given explanation comes from an unlikely place considering the band's Southern roots -- Chicago, Ill. Kevin Matthews, a Chicago radio personality, claims to have originated the whole "Freebird" phenomenon when he called upon his fans, known as KevHeads, to yell the song title out at a Florence Henderson (she played mother Carol on "The Brady Bunch") concert in the late 1980s. KevHeads did their master's bidding, and a tradition was born. Matthews insists that he never intended for it to be yelled at every concert, however. "It was never meant to be yelled at a cool concert -- it was meant to be yelled at someone really lame," he says in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. "If you're going to yell 'Freebird,' yell 'Freebird' at a Jim Nabors concert."

But Matthews' idea spread across time and genres and has by now produced as many responses from bands to the request "Play Freebird" as there are bands (we'll take a peek at some of these on the next page).

Derek Phillips on his blog Glorious Noise calls yelling "Freebird" the "joke that isn't funny any more." His informal poll of people who yell it out at concerts, basketball games and more seems to suggest that it is now viewed by screamers as a joke that the whole world -- including the next generation -- is in on. Phillips is ready for the joke to end [source: Phillips].

But what do musicians who hear the same request night after night think about it? We'll explore their various responses on the next page.