Lynyrd Skynyrd Pianist Billy Powell Dies


Lynyrd Skynyrd was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame on September 8, 2007. Photo courtesy of Sanctuary Records.

Jan. 29, 2009 — Fans and critics have focused for years on the signature guitar licks and the Watergate references in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s "Sweet Home Alabama," but the barrelhouse piano rolls were also an important element in that recording, which had a huge influence on modern country music. Billy Powell, who played keyboards with Skynyrd on "Alabama," died early Wednesday morning, according to The Florida Times-Union.

Billy called 911 from his condo in a Jacksonville suburb just before 1 a.m., complaining of breathing problems. He was pronounced dead less than an hour later after a rescue crew attempted to revive him with CPR. No official cause of death had been determined, though officials believed a heart attack was likely responsible.

With Billy’s passing, guitarist Gary Rossington remains the only musician currently playing with Skynyrd who was in the band before the October 1977 plane crash that killed several group members, including lead singer Ronnie Van Zant. Billy was severely injured in that tragic accident but was able to attend the funeral for his friends days later.

Billy, who turned 56 in June, originally joined Skynyrd shortly before the band began recording its first album, according to the biography Lynyrd Skynyrd, written in part by the band’s former security manager, Gene Odom. Billy had been a roadie for the group but was able to impress them by playing an impromptu audition of "Free Bird," another song in which his piano parts lend some of the track’s trademark character.

Skynyrd’s hard-edged music made them a Southern rock staple, but the band would also influence an entire generation of country musicians. A 1994 tribute album, Skynyrd Frynds, featured remakes of their biggest songs by the likes of Travis Tritt, Sammy Kershaw, Alabama and Wynonna. Current Skynyrd vocalist Johnny Van Zant and his brother Donnie, of .38 Special, found their way onto the country charts in their duo project, Van Zant.

The Country Music Foundation’s 2003 book Heartaches By The Number hailed "Sweet Home Alabama" as one of the 500 greatest country singles ever made. That song was announced last month as a new addition to the Grammy Hall of Fame. It also formed the backbone of Kid Rock’s 2008 hit "All Summer Long." "Free Bird" has been namechecked of late in the Brad Paisley/Keith Urban duet "Start A Band."

Billy’s survivors include wife Ella Vera Powell and four children.