June 24, 2010 – JoJo Billingsley was born Deborah Jo Billingsley on May 28, 1952 in Memphis Tennessee and raised in Tennessean country communities. She started singing at age three; took dance lessons (tap and jazz) from the time she was three to about age 14. She also was church soloist by the time I was 10 or 12 and deeply involved in the music program at school; choral group, girl’s vocal ensemble, as a soloist coloratura soprano. She received a scholarship to attend the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) but had a difficult time because she never had music theory. When she was 16 she was invited to attend Juliard School but her dad would not let her because it was in New York City.
After her dad passed in 1971 she took up singing as a profession and first joined Oil Can Harry with whom she toured the US and Europe in 1973/74, and then joined Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Honkettes”.
A friend of mine named Bob O’Neal was doing the lights for Skynyrd and Fleetwood Mac; he turned my name into them and Kevin Elson (the sound producer) invited me to come to Nashville to a concert. It was there I met Ronnie Van Zant for the first time and he hired me on the spot. When I entered the room backstage where he was sitting with his bare feet propped up on a table, he took one look at me, tipped his hat back, smiled and said, “she’ll do just fine!” and hired me without ever hearing me sing. Good thing I knew how!
The next 3 years were magic with numerous tours around the world until on October 20, 1977 the airplane crash killed several members of the band and road crew, but Billingsley was the only band member not on the flight.
Asked Why weren’t you in the plane? in an interview in 2008 she said:
It is a long story, but it is my side of the story and I am glad to set the story straight. I had my problems but one thing is for sure I could and can sing. Ronnie told me he wanted to try going back to just the male members of the band and as a result in Aug. 1977, the last gig I sang with them, was at the Aladdin Theatre in Las Vegas, Nevada. I had been physically sick due to being hooked on drugs and alcohol, so I went home to stay at my mother’s for a while in Senatobia, Mississippi, where I was under doctor’s care. I had heard through the grapevine, Leslie was hired back, then Cassie. Honestly I did not care at the time because I was tired of that lifestyle. It is a hard life being a rock & roll star! They played four shows without me right after the “Street Survivors” album came out. Ronnie then called me and asked me to come back on the road that he missed me and he needed me. That was music to my ears! He asked me to fly to meet them in Greenville, S.C. but I told him I would meet them in two days in Little Rock, Arkansas, since it was only 150 miles from where I was staying in Mississippi. That night when I went to sleep after talking to Ronnie, I woke up after God giving me the most vivid dream of my life: I dreamed the plane crashed! I saw the whole thing in my dream two nights before it really happened. The next day after my dream, I called to try and warn them to please not get back on the plane. I later learned they took a vote before they left Greenville that it would be their last time to fly on that plane. Well we know it was.
Following the crash, she became a born-again Christian and made a living recording and touring extensively as a Christian singer, performing only a handful of times with Lynyrd Skynyrd. But in 2005, she performed several times with “The Honkettes” in an alternative version of Lynyrd Skynyrd called “The Saturday Night Special Band” that included former Skynyrd members Ed King, Artimus Pyle and Leslie Hawkins, which helped raise money for Hurricane Katrina victims.
In 2006, Hawkins and Billingsley performed with Lynyrd Skynyrd for the third time since the 1977 plane crash. The first was at Charlie Daniels’ 1979 Volunteer Jam (film of which appears in the VH-1 Behind The Music profile of the band, the second at the opening of Freebird The Movie at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre in 1995), and singing “Sweet Home Alabama” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony at which Lynyrd Skynyrd was honored. In 2006, she reunited with the then-current members of Lynyrd Skynyrd at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She also performed with members of the group at occasional charity or memorial events.
Billingsley also made many television and radio appearances, appeared in several movies and DVDs, and traveled extensively. Her latest CD to be released was titled I Will Obey.
She lost her battle with cancer at age 58 on June 24, 2010.