Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Lynyrd Skynyrd Keyboardist Dies

Unless you were a teenager in the 1970s, you may not recognize the name of Billy Powell.

But Powell was the keyboardist for Lynyrd Skynyrd, perhaps the most successful Southern rock band of all time.

The news from Jacksonville, Fla., today is that Powell has died at the age of 56. He apparently had a heart attack.

I was a senior in high school when the plane carrying Powell and the rest of the band developed engine trouble and crashed in Mississippi in October 1977. Not all the band members were killed, but Powell was the only one whose injuries did not prevent him from attending the funerals of the ones who were killed.

The day after the crash, I remember that someone wrote on the chalkboard in one of my classes, "Lynyrd Skynyrd Tickets for Sale — Cheap." A bit of gallows humor — Lynyrd Skynyrd had been scheduled to play a concert in Little Rock a couple of days later. I went to high school in a town about 30 miles northwest of Little Rock.

I don't know why that particular memory popped into my mind upon hearing of Powell's death. I guess the news has dredged up some long-forgotten memories from that time in my life.

According to reports, Powell had an appointment with his cardiologist earlier this week, but he didn't make it. Rescue crews apparently responded to an emergency call from Powell early this morning but were unable to save him.

Powell started as a roadie with Lynyrd Skynyrd. Those who are familiar with Lynyrd Skynyrd's song "Free Bird" surely are familiar with the keyboard intro for that song. Powell was the one who composed it, and upon hearing Powell play it, lead singer Ronnie Van Zant invited him to join the band.

Van Zant was among those who were killed in the plane crash. The band's current singer, Van Zant's brother Johnny, said, "You know, they say they've got one hell of a band up in heaven. My brother Ronnie up in heaven is probably saying, 'Billy, what took you so long?' I'm sure they're catching up on things in heaven."

And another piece of my youth is gone.