Five Years Ago: Lynyrd Skynyrd Pianist Billy Powell Dies
The ranks of legendary southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd were deprived of yet another member on Jan. 28, 2009, when the band’s longtime keyboard player, Billy Powell, passed away suddenly at his home in Orange Park, Fla.
Born into a military family on June 3, 1952, in Corpus Christi, Texas, Powell moved to Skynyrd’s home base of Jacksonville after his father’s death and was soon attending elementary school with future Skynyrd bassist Leon Wilkinson. Powell also began taking piano lessons at an early age and was deemed “a natural” by his instructors. He later majored in music theory at a local community college and then took on work as a roadie for a fledgling Lynyrd Skynyrd in the early ’70s.
As the story goes, Powell had been working with the band for more than a year before they even learned about his remarkable keyboard skills. They then immediately asked him to join the band — just in time to play on their classic 1973 debut album, ‘Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd.’
Years later, Powell was among those who miraculously escaped the horrifying plane crash that claimed the lives of singer Ronnie Van Zandt, guitarist Steve Gaines and backing vocalist Cassie Gaines. And like his fellow survivors, he duly gravitated back to performing as Lynyrd Skynyrd after several years spent in the musical wilderness (not to mention in physical and emotional recovery).
Powell would remain a Lynyrd Skynyrd mainstay throughout their renaissance over the next few decades and, right up until the end, continually thrilling longtime fans and earning new admirers along the way with his immortal piano contributions to classics like ‘Free Bird,’ ‘What’s Your Name,’ ‘Tuesday’s Gone‘ and ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’
It was during a break from Skynyrd’s grueling touring schedule that Powell suffered a fatal heart attack on Jan. 28, 2009, at the age of 56. His passing inspired countless tributes, in and out of the southern-rock community and extending across the country-music world, where he had many friends and admirers.
Powell’s death left a void in Lynyrd Skynyrd, who filled his spot with Peter Keys. But the band will never be the same without him.