Billy Powell, 56

Keyboard Player for Lynyrd Skynyrd

By Ron Word
Associated Press
Thursday, January 29, 2009

Billy Powell, 56, the Lynyrd Skynyrd keyboard player who performed on hits such as "Sweet Home Alabama" and survived the 1977 plane crash that killed three band members, died Jan. 21 at his home in Orange Park in northeast Florida. He had a history of heart problems, and a heart attack was suspected as the cause of death.

The Jacksonville-based band was formed in 1966 by a group of high school students. It took its name from a physical education teacher the students disliked, Leonard Skinner. Mr. Powell joined the group in 1970 and became its keyboardist in 1972, the year before the band released its first album, "Pronounced leh-nerd skin-nerd."

Lynyrd Skynyrd became one of the South's most popular rock groups and gained national fame with hits such as "Free Bird," "What's Your Name" and especially "Sweet Home Alabama," which reached the top 10 in 1974. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.

The band was decimated Oct. 20, 1977, when its chartered plane crashed in a swamp near McComb, Miss.

Six people were killed: lead singer Ronnie Van Zant; guitarist Steve Gaines; Gaines's sister, vocalist Cassie Gaines; an assistant road manager; and the pilot and copilot.

Mr. Powell received facial injuries in the crash but recovered. He was the only band member well enough to attend the funerals of those killed.

Two years after the accident, Mr. Powell and fellow members Allen Collins, Gary Rossington and Leon Wilkeson formed the Rossington-Collins Band. It broke up in 1982.

In 1987, Johnny Van Zant, Ronnie's brother, and a new Lynyrd Skynyrd Band went on a tribute tour. Mr. Powell was on hand in 1991 when the revived version of the band put out the album "Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991" and started a tour in Baton Rouge, La., where the band was headed in 1977 when the plane crashed.

Fans who kept their tickets from the canceled 1977 concert were admitted free.

The band's last album, "Vicious Cycle," was released in 2003.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company