Lynyrd Skynyrd's Billy Powell Dead at 56

CMT News; Keyboardist's Work Helped Define Southern Rock
(Video; Free Bird Live 1975 BBC Old Grey Whistle Test)
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 cancelled 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. January 28, 2009; Written by Calvin Gilbert

account of 1977 plane crash;

20 October 1977, 6:55 pm. While flying from Greenville, South Carolina to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Lynyrd Skynyrd's chartered Convair 240 aircraft crashed in a Mississippi swamp. The plane was carrying 24 passengers and 2 crew members. The band members on board were: Allen Collins, Cassie Gaines, Steve Gaines, Leslie Hawkins, Billy Powell, Artimus Pyle, Gary Rossington, Ronnie Van Zant, and Leon Wilkeson. Rumour has it that several of those involved had misgivings about flying on the plane, and that they planned to get rid of it once they had reached Baton Rouge. Cassie Gaines lacked confidence in the aircraft and Jo Jo Billingsley (who was not on the plane) had a dream that the plane had crashed. She called Allen Collins, asking him to tell the others not to get on it. Stage manager, Clayton Johnson, remarked afterwards that, "There had been a lot of mistrust of that airplane since we chartered it."
The following account is from keyboardist Billy Powell:


"The right engine started sputtering, and I went up to the cockpit. The pilot said they were just transferring oil from one wing to another, everything's okay. Later, the engine went dead. Artimus [Pyle] and I ran to the cockpit. The pilot was in shock. He said, 'Oh my God, strap in.' Ronnie [Van Zant] had been asleep on the floor and Artimus got him up and he was really pissed. We strapped in and a minute later we crashed. The pilot said he was trying for a field, but I didn't see one. The trees kept getting closer, they kept getting bigger. Then there was a sound like someone hitting the outside of the plane with hundreds of baseball bats. I crashed into a table; people were hit by flying objects all over the plane. Ronnie was killed with a single head injury. The top of the plane was ripped open. Artimus crawled out the top and said there was a swamp, maybe alligators. I kicked my way out and felt for my hands -- they were still there. I felt for my nose and it wasn't, it was on the side of my face. There was just silence. Artimus and Ken Peden and I ran to get help, Artimus with his ribs sticking out."

Artimus Pyle remembers strapping Ronnie Van Zant into his seat and trying to put a velvet cushion under his head. They crashed into a swamp in McComb, Mississippi, and the plane was destroyed by the impact. There was no fire. Two crew members and four of the passengers were killed; twenty others were injured. Those who were not killed lay for hours, awaiting rescue. Pyle, despite suffering a broken sternum and several broken ribs, ran for help. About a mile away, he came upon a farmhouse and ran, raving, towards it. The farmer, Johnny Mote, frightened by Pyle's dirty, bloody appearance, mistook him for a madman and shot him in the shoulder. (The shotgun blast was not fatal.) Once Mote realized that Pyle was a refugee of the plane crash, he called for help. The effect of the crash was devastating. In addition to general cuts and bruises...
Allen Collins suffered two cracked neck vertebrae and an arm amputation was recommended. (His father refused.)
Leslie Hawkins endured a concussion, broke her neck in three places, and had facial injuries which required plastic surgery. She was partially paralyzed and suffered permanent neurological damage.
Billy Powell sustained severe facial lacerations. (Powell was the only band member well enough, on crutches and with his face in bandages, to attend the funerals of those who perished.)
Artimus Pyle suffered a broken sternum and several broken ribs.
Gary Rossington broke both legs and both arms and sustained a concussion.
Leon Wilkeson broke his jaw and had most of his teeth knocked out, suffered a crushed chest (with a punctured lung), almost needed an arm amputated, and he sustained internal injuries. (Wilkeson reportedly coded at the hospital and had to be revived.) Those were the fortunate ones.
In addition to the pilot (Walter McCreary) and co-pilot (William Gray), Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines, and Dean Kilpatrick (Skynyrd's road manager) were killed.

According to Billy Powell on VH1's "Behind The Music", Cassie Gaines's throat had been cut from ear to ear and she bled to death in his arms. He also stated that Ronnie Van Zant had sustained a severe head injury, which was the cause of his death. Powell's account of events scandalized many associated with the band, and was contradicted by Artimus Pyle and Judy Van Zant Jenness (Ronnie's widow). In 1998, the widow Van Zant posted Ronnie's autopsy on Lynyrd Skynyrd's website to prove the truth of his injuries.

Steve Gaines was 28. Cassie Gaines and Ronnie Van Zant were 29. Steve and Cassie Gaines were laid to rest on 23 October 1977 in Orange Park, Florida. A private ceremony was held for Ronnie on 25 October. Among those who attended were Ed King and Bob Burns (both former members of Skynyrd), Billy Powell, Dickey Betts (Allman Brothers Band), Charlie Daniels, Al Kooper (founder of Blood, Sweat & Tears), and Tom Dowd (producer/engineer who had worked on the Manhattan Project). Merle Haggard's "I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am" and David Allan Coe's "Another Pretty Country Song" were played. Charlie Daniels read a poem, and with .38 Special, performed "Amazing Grace". The band's fifth album, Street Survivors, was released three days before the crash. The cover showed the band engulfed in flames. After the crash, the album was pulled from stores and re-released with new artwork, showing the band against a plain black background. Street Survivors went on to become the band's second platinum album, and reached #5 on the U.S. album chart. The single "What's Your Name" reached #13. Also included on the album is the song "That Smell": "The smell of death surrounds you. The angel of darkness is upon you"In 1986, Allen Collins crashed his car while driving drunk near his home in Jacksonville, Florida. His girlfriend was killed and he was paralyzed from the waist down. He died in 1990 from pneumonia, which was a result of decreased lung capacity from the paralyzation. He was 37.

During the early '90s, Ed King found Leon Wilkeson on the group's tour bus, sleeping, but with his throat cut and bleeding. Wilkeson was taken to the hospital and recovered. It is still a mystery as to who was responsible - Ed King blames Wilkeson's girlfriend-at-the-time. Leon Wilkeson passed away from liver disease in 2001. He was 49.

In 2006, Lynyrd Skynyrd was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The honorees were: Bob Burns, Allen Collins, Steve Gaines, Ed King, Billy Powell, Artimus Pyle, Gary Rossington, Ronnie Van Zant, and Leon Wilkeson.

Billy Powell suffered a fatal heart attack in January of 2009; he was 56. Powell had called 911 complaining of difficulty breathing. Paramedics found him in his bedroom unresponsive, still holding the telephone.
- video encodings still in process -