Billy Powell, keyboardist for the legendary Southern Rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, died at his home near Jacksonville, Florida, early Wednesday morning, January 28. No causes have been given as yet, but Billboard reported that the 911 call from Powell’s home mentioned that he was having trouble breathing. The Lynyrd Skynyrd website posted the notice: “A Great Loss – Beloved Pianist for the Lynyrd Skynyrd Band, Billy Powell, passed away last night. We will post more info shortly. The family and band request your respect and understanding during this difficult time. Thank you.”
Billy Powell is probably best known for his piano intro to the Southern Rock anthem “Freebird,” the live version of which (and the version where Billy Powell’s prowess at the piano is showcased) became an album-oriented radio hit during the 1970’s and remains one of the most commonly played songs on many stations today. There is rarely a Top Songs of All-time list voted on by radio listeners where “Freebird” does not come in second (and occasionally first) to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven.” (In fact, this writer has heard dozens of these countdowns over the years on various rock stations in various states, and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” always are the top two requested and voted-on songs. Rolling Stone lists “Freebird” at #191 in its “Greatest Songs of All Time.”) It is also Billy Powell’s distinctive honky-tonk tinklings on “Sweet Home Alabama” that gives the song much of its rollicking appeal.
Billy Powell joined Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1973 after working as a roadie for the band for a year. It was Powell’s work on the intro that prompted Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant to ask him to become part of the band. Lynyrd Skynyrd, on the strength of their energetic live shows and extensive radio play of their first two albums, would become the salient point of a new sound of country laced bluesy hard rock coming out of the south that critics would dub Southern Rock. Songs like “Freebird,” “Simple Man,” “Gimme Three Steps,” and “Tuesday’s Gone” off the album “pronounced‘lĕh-‘nérd ‘skin-‘nérd” became radio favorites. “Sweet Home Alabama” off of “Second Helping” launched the band onto the national music scene.
Powell would remain with Lynyrd Skynyrd until 1977’s “Street Survivors,” when the band met with tragedy. A plane crash in October 1977 took the lives of lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, lead guitarist Steve Gaines, backup singer Cassie Gaines, road manager Dean Kilpatrick, and the two pilots. Billy Powell walked away from the crash with sever facial injuries, his nose nearly completely separated from his face.
A couple of years recuperating and he would later join up with former Lynyrd Skynyrd members Gary Rossington, Allen Collins, and Leon Wilkeson to form the Rossington-Collins Band. The band was a minor success, producing two albums between 1980 and 1982 and the hit single “Don’t Misunderstand Me.” The band dissolved when Rossington and Collins had a falling out over the affections of Dale Krantz, the band’s lead singer, who Rossington later married. Powell moved on to play in the Christian rock band Vision.
Billy Powell would reunite with Lynyrd Skynyrd when the group decided to reform for a one-time tribute tour behind Ronnie Van Zant’s younger brother, Johnny Van Zant. After a highly success live tour, which was captured on “Southern By The Grace of God” in 1987, the band decided to give Lynyrd Skynyrd new life. Several studio and live albums followed.
The original members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, including Billy Powell, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, along with blues legend Buddy Guy, R&B greats The O’Jays, international rockers U2, soul sensation Percy Sledge, and influential 80’s rockers The Pretenders.
Although the band had maintained a huge faithful following in the American South, Kid Rock revived popular interest in the band nationwide as in 2008 with his hit song “All Summer Long,” which featured the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” and Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.” The band was the opener for Kid Rock on his 2008 tour and, for the first time in their history, Lynyrd Skynyrd played Madison Square Garden in May.
The band has been working on a new album with Marilyn Manson guitarist John 5 due to be released in the Spring. It has been rumored that it will contain a pre-crash Lynyrd Skynyrd song that has been previously unreleased.
Gary Rossington is the only original band member still living.
The band’s publicist reported that some shows, as yet unspecified, would be cancelled in order for the band to show their respect for the late keyboardist. Lynyrd Skynyrd was scheduled to perform next in Kinder, Louisiana on January 30. A European tour was due to begin in Finland in May.
Billy Powell was 56.