Billy Powell's keyboards make Skynyrd's sound one of the most distinctive in rock and roll history -- a sound that has resonated with power and authority for over a quarter of a century.
Born the son of a Navy aviator in Corpus Christi, Texas on June 3, 1952, Billy grew up in a stern no-nonsense household. While Billy was still a toddler his father, Donald, was reassigned to a Navy base in Italy where his family -- wife, Marie and children, Billy, Ricky and Donna -- later joined him. In Italy, Donald died of cancer in 1960 and the Powells returned to the United States where Marie took a civilian job at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida.
Billy's mother enrolled him in Sanford Academy, a military boarding school located in Sanford, Florida. Here Billy first began developing his taste for music. Billy started taking piano lessons from a lady in Sanford named Madeleine Brown. His first music teacher soon taught Billy everything she knew. She swore he didn't need her -- Billy was a natural at the piano who could play any song after hearing the tune once.
As he outgrew his first piano teacher, Billy returned to Jacksonville where he enrolled at Bishop Kenny High School and began taking piano lessons with a local teacher named Robert Steppe. At Bishop Kenny Billy met Roy Simpson who introduced him to Leon Wilkeson -- before long the three of them were virtually inseperable. When he graduated from Bishop Kenny in 1970, Billy enrolled in Jacksonville's community college as a Music Theory major.
Around the same time, Billy began exploring the local music scene and found work as a roadie for Lynyrd Skynyrd while playing in a band called Alice Marr with Don Barnes and Donnie VanZant. One of the first shows Billy worked for Skynyrd was when Mountain played Jacksonville's local baseball field -- the original opening act, Sweathog, cancelled and Skynyrd landed the gig. Although the pay was minimal and, at times, non-existent Billy stayed on Skynyrd's road crew for almost two years.
In 1972 Skynyrd was hired to play the Bolles School prom and while they were setting up, Billy noticed a piano off in the corner. "All of a sudden I sat down and played them my own version of 'Freebird', Billy remembered. "Ronnie VanZant came up to me and said, 'You mean to tell me, you've been playing the piano like that and you've been workin' for us for a year....' And I said, 'Well, you know, I've been classically trained most of my life.' So, right then and there, he said, 'We need a keyboard player.'"
In 1973 things finally started coming together for Lynyrd Skynyrd. During a week-long stint at Funochio's in Atlanta, the band was discovered by the renown Al Kooper. After signing a record deal with MCA subsidiary Sounds of the South, Skynyrd entered the studio with Kooper producing. The result -- Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd -- started the band on its rise to fame with standards like 'Gimme Three Steps', 'Simple Man', and the incendiary, guitar-driven classic, 'Freebird'.
Gold and platinum albums followed a string of hit songs like 'Sweet Home Alabama', 'Saturday Night Special', 'Gimme Back My Bullets', 'What's Your Name?', and 'That Smell'. Over the four years Skynyrd recorded, the memories gradually turned into legends. Opening the Who tour. "Skynning" Europe alive. 1975's Torture Tour. Steve Gaines. One More From The Road. The Knebworth Fair '76.
By October 20, 1977, Skynyrd's songs had become radio staples. Their latest album, Street Survivors, had just been released to critical and popular acclaim. Their ambitious new tour, just days underway, saw sellout crowds. Then it all fell away at 6000 feet above a Mississippi swamp.
At 6:42 PM, the pilot of Lynyrd Skynyrd's chartered Convair 240 airplane radioed that the craft was dangerously low on fuel. Less than ten minutes later, the plane crashed into a densely wooded thicket in the middle of a swamp. The crash, which killed Ronnie VanZant, guitarist Steve Gaines, vocalist Cassie Gaines, road manager Dean Kilpatrick and seriously injured the rest of the band and crew, shattered Skynyrd's fast rising star as it cut a 500 foot path through the swamp. Lynyrd Skynyrd had met a sudden, tragic end.
After several years of recovery, the crash survivors felt the time was right for another try. Billy was the first of the survivors to return to music playing on a .38 Special album as well as several other projects. In 1979, Billy and Leon Wilkeson joined with several other Jacksonville players and formed Alias. Their one album, Contraband, did not sell well. When Gary Rossington and Allen Collins slowly began planning a new band both Billy and Leon signed on.
The Rossington-Collins Band debuted in June 1980 with the Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere album. Kicked by such songs as 'Getaway” and 'Don't Misunderstand Me' the album sold more than a million copies and the band toured to enthusiastic, sellout crowds. However the band's 1981 follow-up effort stumbled in the marketplace despite being well-received critically. When Gary Rossington and Dale Krantz left the Rossington Collins Band, Allen formed the Allen Collins Band which produced one album, Here, There and Back in 1983.
After the Allen Collins Band folded, all the band members maintained their musical pursuits but on a smaller scale. Billy and Leon joined a Christian band, Vision, in 1985. As the tenth anniversary of Skynyrd's fatal plane crash approached all the band members knew there would be more and more calls for a Skynyrd reunion. Billy and Leon began considering reforming the band, but nothing gelled until Gary reluctantly signed on to the project. Reuniting all the crash survivors, Ed King and attempting to fill the shoes of Ronnie VanZant and Steve Gaines and Allen Collins proved a daunting task. The band, however, took the stage for the first time in a decade at the 1987 Charlie Daniels' Volunteer Jam.
The band found that the devotion of Skynyrd's fans had increased dramatically in the years since the plane crash. As the Tribute Tour stretched on, the band approached the delicate issue of continuing with new material. What had started as a tribute to the glory of Skynyrd's past had become an important part of the band's future.
Billy and the Skynyrd band returned to the Fox Theatre in December 1995 to cement Skynyrd's place in rock roll history with the debut of Freebird... The Movie. Centering around Skynyrd's famous 1976 performance at the Knebworth Fair and candid "home movies" of the band on and off the road, the film serves as the final testimony on the significance of one of the greatest rock bands America produced.
Billy Powell passed away unexpectedly on January 28, 2009 of a heart attack at his home in Orange Park, Florida. He was 56.
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