Billy Powell, the only keyboardist Lynyrd Skynyrd ever had, died last night at his home near Jacksonville, Florida. He was 56. No cause of death has been announced, and a post on the official 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.” The band is canceling upcoming shows and directing fans to its Website for tour updates.
Powell first joined Skynyrd in 1973 after serving as the band’s roadie for a year. His keyboard work features prominently on the band’s debut (pronounced ‘leh-‘nerd ‘skin-‘nerd), with Powell credited for crafting the intro for their epic anthem “Free Bird” (Number 191 on Rolling Stone’s Greatest Songs of All Time). After impressing Ronnie Van Zant with his work on the song, Powell was officially invited to join the band, and remained a member from their debut album until 1977’s Street Survivors.
Powell survived the 1977 plane crash that took the lives of singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, backup singer Cassie Gaines and other crew members. Despite suffering injuries including facial lacerations and nearly losing his nose, Powell was the first to be discharged from the hospital and was the only member to attend his bandmates’ funerals. After Skynyrd, Powell joined the Christian rock band Vision, but reunited with Skynyrd after a decade-long hiatus for some concerts in 1989, and ultimately remained with the band until now. In May, Skynyrd played their first-ever gig at New York’s Madison Square Garden with Kid Rock.
Powell and the rest of his Lynyrd Skynyrd bandmates were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. With Powell’s death, guitarist Gary Rossington becomes the lone surviving original Skynyrd member touring with the band.