march 2009

'If I Leave Here Tomorrow, Would You Still Remember Me?'

Billy Powell, in an early promotional photo.

Billy Powell

June 3, 1952-Feb. 2, 2009

Billy Powell, keyboardist and member of the original Lynyrd Skynyrd band, died of an apparent heart attack on the morning of February 2, at his home in Orange Park, FL. He had called 911 at 12:55 a.m., complaining of shortness of breath. EMS responders found him unconscious and unresponsive, still holding the telephone. He was pronounced dead at 1:52 a.m.

Born into a military family in Corpus Christi, TX, Powell spent some of his childhood years in Italy, where his father, a Naval officer, was stationed. Following his father's death from cancer in 1960, he and his family moved back to the U.S., settling in Jacksonville, FL. While enrolled at Sanford Naval Academy in Sanford, FL, he developed an interest in music and began taking lessons with a local teacher. After moving back to Jacksonville and enrolling in Bishop Kenny High School, Powell met and befriended aspiring bass player Leon Wilkeson. Upon graduation in 1970, Powell enrolled in a community college as a Music Theory major, taking a job on the side as a roadie in the new local band Wilkeson had joined, Lynyrd Skynyrd. As recounted in an obituary written by Matt Soergel for the Florida Times-Union and posted at, prior to the band's set at a high schoool prom, Powell was noodling something at the piano that caught the ear of Skynyrd lead singer Ronnie Van Zant.

"What's that?" Van Zant asked.

"That's the introduction to 'Free Bird,'" Powell replied.

"I like that," Van Zant said. "You're in the band."

Powell's introduction to "Free Bird," which closed the band's Al Kooper-produced debut album, Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd, became a sure-fire crowd igniter and one of the most recognizable instrumental signatures in rock music history, although his honky tonk punctuations in "Sweet Home Alabama" are at least a close second. When a good, thorough rock 'n' roll pounding was in order—as on "Saturday Night Special"—he had stamina to spare; when the music turned inward and reflective—"Simple Man," "Tuesday's Child"—he added nuanced, gospel-rooted musings that elevated the songs' anthemic grandeur. The Music Theory major who could often be found playing classical music in his off hours possessed a broad and deep stylistic range that he drew on to add subtle harmonic richness to the band's material. Never one to seek the spotlight for himself, his position on the far side of the stage-literally out of the spotlight-spoke volumes about where his heart was at. And though the cliché has become abused over time, and sickly sentimental, it is true of Billy Powell that his beating heart may have given out, but the heart he injected into Skynyrd's musical legacy pumps with a robust, enduring passion.

The band's 1977 plane crash in McComb, Mississippi, which killed lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, Steve's sister and Skynyrd backup singer Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick and both pilots, left Powell with severe facial lacerations and his nose almost ripped off; still, he was the only band member physically able to attend the funerals of his bandmates (guitarist Ed King, who had been replaced by Steve Gaines—whose birthday he shared—attended Ronnie Van Zant's funeral). After experiencing a religious conversion and returning to music, Powell joined Vision, a Christian rock band, and from that platform often testified to his newfound embrace of Christ as his personal savior. He joined a reconstituted Skynyrd (with Ronnie Van Zant's brother Johnny, formerly lead singer with .38 Special, as the frontman) for a 1987 tribute tour, then remained with the group as it experienced a popular resurgence (in concert if not on record, although its catalog still sells in the millions every year) and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.

According to Soergel's report, on the morning Powell's death was announced Johnny Van Zant spoke by phone with the only other original Skynyrd member still playing with the band, guitarist Gary Rossington. "He's hurting," Van Zant said. "You know, he was very sad and wondering why all us brothers are leaving him, why he's still here."

Speaking to Soergel by phone, Rossington's wife Dale, near tears, described her husband as too distraught to speak. "We're just lost," she told the reporter.

Van Zant requested Soergel pass along the news that "if anybody wants to do something, say a prayer for Billy and his family. That would be greatly appreciated."

Billy Powell is survived by his wife, Ellen Vera Powell, and four children.

Get flash player to play to this file

Lynyrd Skynyrd, "Free Bird," 1975, BBC, a beautiful Billy Powell performance

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024