Though they are best known for the triple-guitar line-up of Gary Rossington, Allen Collins and Ed King – and his replacement Steve Gaines – and the passionate vocals of their original leader and lyricist Ronnie Van Zant, the Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd owed part of their trademark sound to the distinctive contributions of their stalwart keyboard-player, Billy Powell.
Originally a roadie for the group, Powell impressed the others when, after setting up their equipment at a high-school prom in 1972, he sat at the piano and began improvising his own introduction to “Free Bird”, the Collins-Van Zant composition which would become the band’s signature song. “Ronnie said: ‘You mean to tell me, you’ve been playing the piano like that and you’ve been working for us for a year?’” Powell recalled. “I replied: ‘Well, you know, I’ve been classically trained most of my life.”
With the addition of Powell’s sensitive piano introduction and his fills and flourishes behind the slide-guitar solos, “Free Bird” turned into a slow-building epic and a staple of American FM radio in the Seventies, second only to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”. It was included on the group’s 1973 debut album, which was produced by Al Kooper, who discovered them in a club in Atlanta, and also on the live double album One More from the Road in 1976.
Originally written in tribute to Duane Allman, the guitarist with the Allman Brothers Band who died in a motorcycle accident in 1971, “Free Bird” took on an even more poignant significance when Van Zant, Gaines and his backing vocalist sister, Cassie, were killed when the group’s chartered plane crashed in a Mississippi swamp in October 1977, a few days after the release of the band’s fifth studio album, Street Survivors. Powell suffered facial injuries but fared better than the other surviving members of the band and became the group’s unofficial spokesman, updating the media after the tragedy. He was also the only one able to attend the Van Zant and Gaines funerals.
Along with the Lynyrd Skynyrd bassist, Leon Wilkeson, Powell joined the Rossington-Collins Band and made two albums with them between 1979 and 1982 before participating in a full-blown reunion of Lynyrd Skynyrd which began in 1987 and is still on-going, with Ronnie Van Zant’s youngest brother, Johnny, on lead vocals.
Born in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1952, Powell grew up in a Navy family and spent some of his childhood in Italy where his aviator father was stationed.
When his father died in 1960, the family moved back to the US and his mother got a job at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida.
Powell attended Sanford Academy and took piano lessons, though his teacher soon realised that he didn’t need much tuition and could play by ear. Itwas while he was at Bishop Kenny High School in Jacksonville that Powell befriended Wilkeson. He then studied music theory at Jacksonville Community College and began playing in a local band which featured another Van Zant brother, Donnie, and Don Barnes, who later formed 38 Special.
Itwas at this point that he also started to roadie for Lynyrd Skynyrd – named after Leonard Skinner, a gymteacher who didn’t like their long hair – before joining them on a fulltime basis. The band had previously struggled, but once Powell came on board their ascent was steady. In 1973, they opened for The Who on a US tour, and the following year they made their first foray into the US Top Ten with the rocker “Sweet Home Alabama”, their controversial answer to Neil Young’s “Southern Man”.
In 1975, their blend of blues, boogie and Southern rock began attracting UK fans after considerable TV exposure on The Old Grey Whistle Test, and their status as one of the hottest bands to come out of the US was confirmed when they supported the Rolling Stones at Knebworth in August 1976.
Sadly, the plane crash which took the lives of their lead singer and their newly- arrived guitarist stopped Lynyrd Skynyrd in their tracks.
Powell struggled on as best he could, guesting on 38 Special’s album Special Delivery in 1978, recording with a group called Alias, and helping his former comrades launch the Rossington- Collins Band. In 1985 he joined the Christian rock group Vision but he battled with a drink problem and also fought the attentions of the IRS, who claimed that he owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s successful years in the Seventies.
Reuniting the group on the 10th anniversary of the fateful crash provided a way out of his financial troubles and helped to heal old wounds. After a tentative appearance at the Charlie Daniels Volunteer Jam, the reunion became permanent and led to new studio and live recordings. Rossington, Powell and Johnny Van Zant became the three mainstays of the band over the subsequent two decades. The latest of the many events they staged was a four-day cruise on a ship out of Miami with 400 Skynyrd fans earlier this month.
Powell also found time to release a solo album, entitled Second Time Around. “Now I feel like I’ve really accomplished something and contributed to the music industry in a big way,” Powell said in 2006 when Lynyrd Skynyrd were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame by Kid Rock, who has occasionally guested with the group and referenced their “Sweet Home Alabama” in his recent hit single “All Summer Long”.
William Norris Powell, keyboard player, songwriter: born Corpus Christi, Texas, 3 June 1952; married (four children); died Orange Park, Florida, 28 January 2009.