Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Lynyrd Skynyrd Keyboardist Billy Powell Dead At 56

Billy Powell, keyboardist for southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd has died at his northeast Florida home.

Orange Park Police Lt. Mark Cornett says 56-year-old keyboard player Billy Powell called 911 about 12:55 a.m. Wednesday saying he was having trouble breathing. Rescue crews performed CPR, but he was pronounced dead at 1:52 a.m.

Cornett says no foul play is suspected and an autopsy will not be performed.

He says Powell missed a Tuesday appointment with his doctor for a cardiac evaluation. A heart attack is suspected.

The band, based in Jacksonville, Florida, formed in 1966 and took its name from a gym teacher they disliked: Leonard Skinner. Powell joined the group around 1972, the year before they released their first album, Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd.

The band, of course, went on to become one of the biggest-ever Southern rock groups, and is best known for its hit "Free Bird," which opens with Powell's piano flourishes. Skynyrd's other classics include "What's Your Name," "Gimme Three Steps" and "Sweet Home Alabama," which was a top-10 single in 1974.

A plane crash on October 20, 1977 — which killed singer Ronnie Van Zandt, guitarist Steve Gaines and backing vocalist Cassie Gaines, among others — decimated the band, although its members have continued through the years as the Rossington-Collins Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Powell had been onboard the plane.

Lynyrd Skynyrd were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.

Powell was one of two surviving band members who were with the group before a 1977 plane crash that killed three of its members.

Born in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1952, Powell grew up in a traveling military family and went to Bishop Kenny High School in Jacksonville, Fla., where he became friends with Leon Wilkeson, future bassist for Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Powell, who took music lessons as a youth, became a roadie for the band until about 1972 when he helped set up the band's equipment at a school prom. There, he sat down at a piano and began to play a version of "Free Bird." Van Zant hired him as keyboardist.

The song featured a keyboard introduction that helped turn the piece into a rock 'n' roll anthem and made Powell a star.

By the band's second album, featuring "Sweet Home Alabama," Lynyrd Skynyrd was a popular fixture. After the death of key members, the remaining group formed the core of the Rossington-Collins Band and later reunited as a new Lynyrd Skynyrd, with Van Zant's brother Johnny on vocals. Powell also had a stint performing with a Christian rock band.

Powell's survivors include his wife and four children.

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