Penned by Allen Collins and Ronnie Van Zant, “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” was recorded by American rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. The song was first released on the band’s 1974 album, Second Helping. It was then released again on their compilation, The Essential Lynyrd Skynyrd and later on All-Time Greatest Hits.
It is on many of their compilation albums and before the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crashed, it was performed once live on stage.
In an interview, Ed King said,
“The original version of the band only played ‘Curtis Loew’ one time on stage. We were playing in a basement in some hotel and thought we’d try it. We never played it again until the Tribute Tour with Johnny Van Zant.”
Curtis Loew is not the name of an actual person from Ronnie Van Zant’s life. Rather, Curtis Loew is a composite of different people, including Skynyrd lead guitarist Ricky Medlocke’s grandfather, Shorty Medlocke. Contrary to the song’s lyrics, Shorty was not black. In a 1997 interview on the Lyve From Steel Town album, the band was quoted as jokingly saying, “We needed to ‘color’ the song up.”
According to Ronnie Van Zant’s widow Judy Van Zant Jenness, the unusual spelling of “Loew” was Skynyrd guitarist Ed King’s idea. When he was writing the liner notes for the Second Helping album, he decided to name the character after Loew’s Theater – thus giving an old bluesman a Jewish name.
Who is Curtis Loew?
A young boy wakes up “before the rooster crows” and searches for soda bottles to cash in to give some money to a man named Curtis Loew, who buys wine and plays his Dobro guitar “across his knees” for the boy all day.
Curtis is described as a “black man with white curly hair” who “looked to be sixty“. The boy idolizes Curtis. Despite receiving beatings from his mama, he returns to him to hear the old man play and clap along. He recalls “people said he [Curtis] was useless. Them people all were fools.” He professes Curtis to be “the finest picker to ever play the blues.“
When Curtis eventually dies, the boy notes that nobody “came to pray.” The song ends with a lament to Curtis: “I wish that you was here so everyone would know.“
The band’s website says that the song is based on a composite of people. These people actually lived in the Van Zants‘ original neighborhood in Jacksonville, Florida. Specifically, the country store “is based on Claude’s Midway Grocery on the corner of Plymouth and Lakeshore in Jacksonville.”
The business has since been renamed Sunrise Food Store, but still occupies the same location. The specific spelling of the surname comes from Ed King. He wrote the liner notes for the Second Helping and decided to name the bluesman after the Jewish Loew’s Theatre.
Listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Ballad of Curtis Loew” below.