Billy Powell was the only keyboardist Lynyrd Skynyrd ever had. And last night he died at the age of 56 at his home near Jacksonville, Florida.
At this time there is no known cause of death, but a post on the official Lynyrd Skynyrd website reads, "A Great Loss - Beloved Pianist for the Lynyrd Skynyrd Band, Billy Powell, passed away last night. We will post more info shortly. The family and band request your respect and understanding during this difficult time. Thank you."
Roadie made good
A one-time roadie for Lynyrd Skynyrd, Powell joined the band after singer Ronnie Van Zandt became impressed hearing him play a piano section that would eventually serve as the intro to the band's iconic (and much requested) Free Bird.
Powell remained a member of the band until the tragic night of 20 October 1977, when a chartered Convair 240 ran out of fuel and went down in a heavily wooded area Gillsburh, Mississippi. The crash killed singer Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, backup singer Cassie Gaines and other crew members. Powell suffered facial lacerations and nearly lost his nose, but he was the first band member to be released from the hospital and the one one to attend his bandmates' funerals.
Back in the band
After the crash, Powell spent time playing in Christian-based bands, most notably a group called Vision. But in 1987, a Lynyrd Skynyrd reunion tour was put together and Powell signed on. He remained with the band ever since.
Last year Powell and Skynyrd played New York's Madison Square Garden, fulfilling Ronnie Van Zandt's lifelong dream of performing at the famed arena. In 1977, the band was booked to headline the venue a month before the plane crash.