January 28, 2009 – William Norris “Billy” Powell was born on June 3rd 1952 in Corpus Christi, Texas. Powell grew up in a military family and spent several of his childhood years in Italy, where his father was stationed with the U.S. Navy. After his father died of cancer in 1960, the Powells returned to the United States to settle in Jacksonville, Florida. In elementary school, Powell met Leon Wilkeson, who would become a lifelong friend and the bassist for Lynyrd Skynyrd. Powell took an interest in piano and he began taking piano lessons from a local teacher named Madalyn Brown, who claimed that Billy did not need a teacher as he was a natural and picked things up well on his own.
After a short stint in a Community College where he majored in Music Theory, he found work as a roadie for Lynyrd Skynyrd, who opened at the time for Mountain, and in ’72 he became a full band member as keyboardist.
Here is the story: In 1972, Skynyrd played a show at the Bolles School prom. During a break, Powell sat down at a piano and launched into his piano-based version of Free Bird. Ronnie Van Zant, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s lead vocalist, astonished at his roadie’s hitherto secret ability, said ‘You mean to tell me, you’ve been playing the piano like that and you’ve been workin’ for us for a year….’. Billy replied, “Well, you know, I’ve been classically trained most of my life.’ He was then told Skynyrd were looking for a keyboardist, and was offered that position. Things went from good to great, as life quickly became a dream come true for Powell and his bandmates, as they set about making album rock history.
In 1977, the dream however turned into a nightmare. A plane carrying the band members on a tour crashed into a patch of Mississippi swamp land. It was only three days after the release of the Street Survivors album, that Skynyrd’s chartered plane crashed into a forest near McComb, Mississippi. The crash took the lives of singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister and backing vocalist Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, and both pilots. The remainder of the band suffered mild to severe injuries. Powell suffered severe facial lacerations, almost completely losing his nose, but was otherwise relatively uninjured. He was the first to be released from the hospital, and the only member able to attend the funerals of his fallen band-mates.
As the band disbanded ( there was no heart left in Lynyrd Skynyrd) after the plane crash and guitarists Collins and Rossington formed the Rossington-Collins Band in the early 1980s and the Lynyrd Skynyrd reunion in 1987, Billy Powell first formed his own band ALIAS in 1979, then joined Rossington-Collins and later the Allen Collins Band, until in 1985 he joined a Christian rock band named Vision, where his keyboard playing was spotlighted in their concerts. During their concerts, Powell spoke about his new-found Christianity; messages that were also delivered via 2 bonus tracks (Leon Wilkeson and Billy Powell) included on the album Mountain in The Sky.
In 1987 he played again on the Lynyrd Skynyrd 1987 tribute tour, when Ronnie Van Zant’s youngest brother Johnny took the frontman’s position and he remained with the band until his death. In 2007, he played piano on Kid Rock’s summer anthem All Summer Long.
He died from a suspected heart attack on January 28, 2009 at the age of 56. Rescue crews found him unconscious with the phone still in his hand, they performed CPR, but Billy was pronounced dead at 1:52 a.m.. He had a history of heart problems, and the day before his death he had missed an appointment with his doctor for a cardiac evaluation.