Billy Powell, born William Norris Powell on June 3rd of 1952 in Corpus Christi, TX, died on January 28 of 2009 at the age of 56 due to an apparent hear attack in his northeast Florida home. Original member and keyboardist to legendary Southern-rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd from 1972 to 2009, Powell seduced the rock world with his unique sound and skill, as has inspired many piano and organ players that have followed his extensive musical career.
Billy Powell was born to a military family and lived, for a period of his childhood, in Italy where his father, Donald, was stationed with the Navy. Upon his father’s death to cancer in 1960, Powell moved back to Jacksonville, Florida with his mother Marie and siblings Ricky and Donna. Shortly thereafter, Billy developed his interest in music while attending the Sanford Naval Academy in Florida. During his years at the Academy, Powell took piano lessons and learned the theory behind his passion; later switching to Bishop Kenny High School were he met future Lynyrd Skynyrd co-member, Leon Wilkenson.
1970-1977 Powell in Lynyrd Skynyrd
Powell’s history with Lynyrd Skynyrd began after graduating from high school in 1970, when he began work as a roadie for the legendary group – then called One Percent.
Schoolmate Leon Wilkenson joined Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1972 in replacement to bassist Larry Junstrom, along with Powell who was admitted into the group after impressing Ronny Van Zant with his own introductory version of Skynyrd’s hit song “FreeBird”
Lynyrd Skynyrd went on to sign contract with MCA records and their success soared for the following years with hits like “FreeBird”, “Sweet Home Alabama” and “What’s Your Name.” The band’s unmistakable style was best articulated in albums such as their debut record ‘Pronounced ‘lĕh-‘nérd ‘skin-‘nérd’, follow-up ‘Second Helping’, live album ‘One more for the Road’ and their most acclaimed title today, ‘Street Survivors’ featuring the rocking guitar performances of Steve Gaines.
The 1977 Tragedy & Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Dissolution
The band toured and impressed with their 3-lead guitar attack and complementary piano harmonics until tragedy spoke on October 20th, 1977 when the Lynyrd Skynyrd’s touring plane crashed on the way to Baton Rouge, Louisiana – 3 days after their fifth release. The accident cost the lives of Ronny Van Zant, Steve and Cassie Gaines, as well as that of pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot’s William Gray. Billy Powell suffered severe facial lacerations, yet was the first surviving band member to leave the hospital, and the only one able to attend the funeral service that followed the crash.
After the tragedy Lynyrd Skynyrd dissolved, and Billy Powell, along with surviving members Gary Rossington, L. Wilkenson, and Allen Collins formed The Rossington-Collins Band from 1979 to 1982. Later in 1987, Billy briefly joined the Christian rock band called Vision, leaving said group to perform in the ‘Lynyrd Skynyrd Tribute Tour’ in 1989.
Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991
After the tour, the band decided to continue the legacy of Lynyrd Skynyrd, reforming in 1991 and recovering the infallible 3-lead guitar attack in 1996 upon the new membership of Hughie Thomasson and Rickey Medlocke.
In spite of going through several line-up changes after the death of members Leon Wilkenson and Hughie Thomasson in 2001 and 2007 respectively, Billy Powell continued his unconditional devotion to Lynyrd Skynyrd and went on with the show until his death in 2009.
Lynyrd Skynyrd performing at the Champlain Valley Expo in Vermont in 1998, on a Steppenwolf tour. (Left to Right) Rickey Medlocke, Hughie Thomasson, Johnny Van Zant, Billy Powell, Gary Rossington and Leon Wilkenson.
Billy Powell Passes On
After a history of heart problems, Billy Powell suffered a heart attack in his Orange Park home on January 28th a little before 1AM. Despite having called 911 for a breathing difficulty and receiving CPR upon paramedics’ arrival, the musician and songwriter was pronounced dead on January 28th, 2009 at 1:52 AM. Due to his medical history, no autopsy was required.
Jonny Van Zant expressed the band’s pain upon Powell’s loss and said upcoming shows in Orlando, Louisiana and Mississippi will be cancelled. “We’ve got to lay our brother to rest,” he said. “That old saying, the show must go on, always counts. Unless you die.”
A man of faith and loyalty and perhaps one of the best and most talented piano players the past will heed, Powell has blessed the world with his music, and marked the blueprint of music history with his talent. Maybe we can hear some of Powell’s music legacy through the guitar work of one of his sons, Brandon, on Syntenic.
He will be missed.