2009 – Lynyrd Skynyrd keyboard player Billy Powell died at the age of 56 of a suspected heart attack in Florida. Powell called police saying he was having trouble breathing and emergency services tried to resuscitate him, but he was pronounced dead an hour later. Powell had missed a doctor’s appointment on the day before his death; the appointment was for a checkup on his heart. He played piano on Kid Rock’s ‘All Summer Long’ (which sampled the Lynyrd Skynyrd song ‘Sweet Home Alabama’).
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Billy Powell, the original keyboard player with the southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, died early Wednesday at his Orange Park home.
Powell was 56.
Orange Park police said Powell called 911 just before 1 a.m. complaining of difficulty breathing. Paramedics found him in his bedroom unresponsive with the telephone still in his hand.
Ross Schilling, a publicist with Vector Management, said they believe Powell suffered a heart attack.
Orange Park police told Channel 4 Powell had an appointment with his cardiologist on Tuesday, but he did not go. Because he was under a doctor’s care for a heart condition, police said no autopsy will be performed.
Powell is survived by his wife and son who were at the family home early Wednesday morning.
Powell moved to Jacksonville as a child and attended Bishop Kenny High School, where he met Leon Wilkenson, future bass player for Skynyrd. He originally joined the band as a roadie in the early ’70s. Before a gig playing at the The Bolles School prom, he sat down at the piano and impressed lead singer Ronnie Van Zant enough to be invited to join the band as its keyboard player.
Skynyrd went on to sign a national recording contract and become the best-selling southern rock band in history, with hits that included “Free Bird,” “What’s Your Name,” and “Sweet Home Alabama.”
In 1977, Van Zant, along with guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister, and backup vocalist Cassie Gaines and assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick were killed when the band’s chartered plane crashed in Mississippi. The pilot and co-pilot also died.
Powell suffered facial injuries in the crash, but eventually recovered. He was the only band member well enough to attend the funerals of those killed in the crash.
Powell played in a Christian band for several years, then rejoined Skynyrd for a tribute tour in 1987 and has toured with the band ever since. He and guitarist Gary Rossington were the only two original band members who continued to record and tour with the band.
In 2005, as the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Powell told Channel 4:
“The best thing is that I can speak for our brothers that can’t be here: Ronnie, Alan, Leon, Cassie, Dean and Steve. I know they’re smiling down on us from heaven.”
Channel 4’s Tom Wills, who traveled to Mississippi to cover the crash and has stayed in touch with members of the band ever since, said Powell was known for his smile.
“He was always cheerful; he was always friendly. He treated every single person like he was their dearest friend,” Wills said. “He loved that band, that music and playing those keyboards.”
Ronnie Van Zant’s widow, who continues to run Freebird Live, a nightclub at Jacksonville Beach, issued a statement about Powell’s death:
It’s another sad day for the Lynyrd Skynyrd family and their friends. We all loved Billy and he’s going to be missed.”
Skynyrd’s public relations firm announced that concerts planned Friday in Louisiana and Saturday in Mississippi were cancelled due to Powell’s death. Those shows were to be rescheduled in the near future.