Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Billy Powell Dead at 56

Keyboardist's Work Helped Define Southern Rock

Lynyrd Skynyrd keyboardist Billy Powell died Wednesday morning (Jan. 28) at his condo in Orange Park, Fla., near Jacksonville, of an apparent heart attack.

Law enforcement authorities said the musician called 911 around 12:55 a.m. to report that he was having trouble breathing. Paramedics performed CPR, but Powell was pronounced dead shortly before 2 a.m. He had reportedly failed to show up Tuesday (Jan. 27) for an appointment with a heart specialist to undergo a cardiac evaluation.

In what has always been considered a guitar-based band, Powell’s distinctive piano work helped define Lynyrd Skynyrd’s sound and Southern rock, in general.

Lynyrd Skynyrd co-founder and guitarist Gary Rossington and drummer Artimus Pyle (who left the band in 1992) are now the only living members of the band’s lineup who survived a 1977 plane crash that claimed the lives of lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, vocalist Cassie Gaines and road manager Dean Kilpatrick. Guitarist Allen Collins died in 1990, and bassist Leon Wilkeson passed away in 2001.

Powell was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, and attended school in Florida. While majoring in music theory in college, he became a roadie for Lynyrd Skynyrd and performed in a band named Alice Marr. Although biographies differ on when Powell actually became a member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the band’s official Web site states that he made the transition from roadie in 1970.

Johnny Van Zant, who became Lynyrd Skynyrd’s lead vocalist years after Ronnie Van Zant’s death, told The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville that his brother invited Powell to join the band after hearing him play piano during a rehearsal of “Free Bird,” the song that became a rock anthem.

Following the plane crash, Powell performed with other bands and formed his own group, Alias, in 1979. He joined Rossington and Collins to play in the Rossington-Collins Band and also worked in the Allen Collins Band. In the mid-’80s, Powell played in a contemporary Christian music band called Vision.

By the late ’80s, the surviving members of Lynyrd Skynyrd began playing a series of reunion shows. With Johnny Van Zant handling the vocals, the band launched a national tour in 1991. Powell also recorded a solo album, Second Time Around.

In recent years, Powell and Rossington worked with an evolving list of musicians to continue recording and touring as Lynyrd Skynyrd. The band teamed up with Montgomery Gentry for an episode of CMT Crossroads in 2004. Lynyrd Skynyrd also paid tribute to Hank Williams Jr. during a CMT Giants episode that aired in 2007.

“Billy was a true friend of CMT,” said Brian Philips, CMT’s executive vice president and general manager. “He and the band were always happy to help us.”

In 2008, Lynyrd Skynyrd performed on separate tours with Kid Rock and Hank Williams Jr.

Williams, who has enjoyed a lengthy friendship with the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, said in a statement, “I will truly miss Billy. We have all lost one of our best rowdy friends.”

The band has canceled shows scheduled for this weekend in Louisiana and Mississippi. In May, they are scheduled for a European tour with shows in Finland, Norway, Germany, Scotland, England, Italy and Switzerland.

As a member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Powell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.

Powell is survived by his wife, Ellen Vera Powell, and four children.