Billy Powell 1952-2009
Longtime Lynyrd Skynyrd keyboardist Billy Powell was found dead of suspected heart failure at his Orange Park, FL home this morning. He was 56.
Born into a military family in Corpus Christi, TX, the keyboardist spent his formative years in Italy where his father was stationed with the Navy. Powell originally entered the Skynyrd family as a roadie, but famously moved over to keyboards in 1972 after lead singer Ronnie Van Zant heard him play the intro to the future classic Free Bird during a rehearsal. The following year the groups full-length debut, pronounced ‘lĕh-‘n ‘skin-‘n, propelled Lynyrd Skynyrd to stardom, and Powell continued to help anchor the bands ever-changing lineup in the years since.
Powell survived the tragic 1977 plain crash from Greenville, SC to Baton Rouge, LA that killed Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, singer Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray. Lynyrd Skynyrd officially split after the crash, and Powell spent much of the 1980s playing in the Christian rock band Vision.
In 1987, Powell, bassist Leon Russell Wilkeson, guitarists Gary Rossington and Ed King and drummer Artimus Pyle reformed Lynyrd Skynyrd for a tribute tour with Van Zants younger brother Johnny supplying lead vocals. The reunion was a success, and the group has toured regularly for the past 22 years. Lynyrd Skynyrd has been plagued by lineup changes since that time, however: Pyle acrimoniously left the band in 1992, King retired from the road due to heart problems in 1996 and Wilkeson died in 2001. Rossington is currently the only remaining member of the groups classic lineup.
Lynyrd Skynyrd headlined the southern rock-themed Simple Man Cruise earlier this year. The group plans to continue without Powell, though a handful of upcoming shows have been cancelled. The band may face legal problems in the future, however, since a post-reunion settlement with Van Zant and Gaines wives requires any band touring as Lynyrd Skynyrd to contain at least two members of the bands pre-crash lineup.