NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Another Death, but Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Legacy Endures

Keyboardist Billy Powell Added a New Sensibility to the Music

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

The death of Billy Powell this week is another sad chapter in the long, strange saga of a great American band, one that has been seemingly cursed with tragedy. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s long, arduous odyssey brings to mind the legend of the Flying Dutchman, the doomed ghost ship that sails forever but will never find safe port. Skynyrd has been one of the longest-running, most accomplished and influential bands in history, but that’s been achieved at great personal cost.

In Southern rock, there was Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band … and then there was everyone else. Skynyrd’s powerful fusion of country’s sensibility and rock ’n’ roll’s intensity created a lasting body of music that endures to this day. Ironically, Skynyrd came close early on in their career to signing with the Allmans’ label, Capricorn Records, but didn’t for mundane personal reasons. If they had, music history may have been drastically different. As it is, those two bands have left major legacies. And both suffered massive personal losses and drug and alcohol problems.

In a business long known for a high mortality rate, Skynyrd remains the most beset and accursed of all rock bands. Writing the band’s history involves almost as many obituaries as albums. The band has long lived in close proximity to the death angel. In 1976, both Allen Collins and Gary Rossington were involved in severe car wrecks that delayed the band’s progression. Rossington’s drunken and drugged accident in particular inspired the band’s song “That Smell,” a warning about living too close to the edge.

The cover of their 1977 album, Street Survivors, showed the band members covered in flames. Three days after the album’s release, their chartered plane crashed in Mississippi, killing lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, vocalist Cassie Gaines, road manager Dean Kilpatrick and the plane’s pilot and co-pilot. There were serious injuries to everyone else. Billy Powell had his nose almost ripped off, along with all of his other injuries. The group Aerosmith had earlier considered chartering that particular airplane but had rejected it, after an inspection, as being a bad risk.

Tragedies continued apace. Allen Collins’ wife died as a result of a miscarriage. His drinking and drugging increased and his next car wreck killed his girlfriend and paralyzed him. He later died of pneumonia after repeatedly going on stage at Skynyrd concerts in a wheelchair and testifying about why he could no longer perform. Skynyrd bassist Leon Wilkeson died of liver disease and emphysema. One-time Skynyrd guitarist and vocalist Hughie Thomasson died of a heart attack.

Billy Powell had been a great addition to the band as keyboard player. He was a music theory major in college and played classical music. He was thoroughly grounded in music and added much musically to the band, filling out the triple guitar attack with his full keyboard sound. He loved playing music, but he always shunned the spotlight. He found Christ after the plane crash and pursued Christian music, as well as continuing with playing with Skynyrd. He died Wednesday (Jan. 28) at home of an apparent heart attack at age 56.

There have long been vehement arguments over which song is the Southern rock anthem. “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Freebird” are usually the two finalists. Each has its fierce advocates. When I met American Idol runner-up Bo Bice, I was most struck by the fact that he seemed immensely proud of his elaborate Freebird tattoo, which he showed off to me (perhaps he was showing it off more to my wife than me). As I remember, Bice had sung “Freebird” on Idol, and he championed that song.

“Freebird” was Billy Powell’s song. He didn’t write it — Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins did — but his piano arrangement completely gave that song its identity and its lasting appeal. As I recall, at that time, Billy had been working as a Skynyrd roadie and had worked up his own piano intro for “Freebird” and was playing it one afternoon before a band rehearsal. Ronnie Van Zant listened to it and told him, “You’re in the band now.”

Hell, he’ll always be in the band. Now and forever.