As any aficionado of classic rock can tell you, the late Billy Powell probably had more of an appreciation for a good keyboard case than most professional piano players did. Prior to him becoming the pianist for Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1972, Billy Powell was a member of their road crew. For about two years, Powell was the one who helped the band with their load ins and strikes.
William Norris Powell helped to define the sound of Southern rock music throughout his years as the pianist for one of the most important bands that ever came out of Florida. The son of a United States Navy sailor, he met Leon Wilkeson, future bassist for Lynyrd Skynyrd, in elementary school. After high school, Powell began attending community college and studied music theory.
From Haulin’ Keyboard Cases to Playing Keyboards
It wasn’t until 1972 when the band discovered their roadie’s natural piano playing abilities during a rehearsal for a high school and hired him. His musical gifts were prominently featured on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 1973 debut album Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd. Powell’s abilities ensured that he would not be the one hauling drum and keyboard cases anymore, as his star continued to rise with successive hits.
Now-classic songs like Freebird, Gimme Three Steps, Simple Man, Tuesday’s Gone, and Sweet Home Alabama helped to cement the band’s legacy as one of the most talented bands of all time. Although most Southern rock bands relied heavily on powerful guitar solos, Powell’s rich piano melodies drove songs like Freebird and Sweet Home Alabama.
The 1977 plane crash that killed Lynyrd Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, vocalist Cassie Gaines, and three others temporarily stopped the music. Powell survived with minor injuries and would join up with fellow Southern rockers .38 Special for a time. After a brief stint in a band consisting of himself, Leon Wilkeson, and other local musicians, he would rejoin fellow surviving band members Gary Rossington, Allen Collins, and Leon Wilkeson as part of the Rossington-Collins band. Powell would play steadily up until the year that he died, with a widely varied resume that included stints with a Christian rock band, the reunited Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Kid Rock.
Billy Powell passed away in 2009, at the age of 56, from heart complications. His musical career spanned nearly forty years, beginning as a roadie and reaching its pinnacle as a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Powell’s contributions to American rock music continue to resonate today with the lush piano solos.