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Six Years Ago: Lynyrd Skynyrd Pianist Billy Powell Dies

MCA Records

Lynyrd Skynyrd lost yet another seminal member when longtime keyboard player Billy Powell passed away suddenly on Jan. 28, 2009 at his home in Orange Park, Fla. His death, decades after an awful plane crash decimated the group, inspired a moving tribute from Skynyrd named ‘Gifted Hands.’

Born into a military family on June 3, 1952, in Corpus Christi, Texas, Powell moved to Skynyrd’s home base of Jacksonville after his father’s death and was soon attending elementary school with future Lynyrd Skynyrd bassist Leon Wilkinson. Powell also began taking piano lessons at an early age and was deemed “a natural” by his instructors.

He later majored in music theory at a local community college, and then took on work as a roadie for the fledgling Skynyrd in the early ’70s. As the story goes, Powell had been working with the band for more than a year before they even learned about his remarkable keyboard skills. They then immediately asked him to join the band — just in time to play on their classic 1973 debut ‘Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd.’

On Oct. 20, 1977, Billy Powell was among those who miraculously escaped the crash that claimed the lives of Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and Cassie Gaines. Like his fellow survivors, Powell eventually gravitated back to performing as Lynyrd Skynyrd after several years spent in the musical wilderness — not to mention in physical and emotional recovery.

Powell would remain a Lynyrd Skynyrd mainstay throughout their renaissance over the next few decades and, right up until the end, continually thrilling longtime fans and earning new admirers along the way with his immortal piano contributions to classics like ‘Free Bird,’ ‘What’s Your Name,’ ‘Tuesday’s Gone’ and ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’

It was during a break from Skynyrd’s touring schedule in 2009 that Powell suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 56. His passing inspired countless tributes, in and out of the southern-rock community and extending across the country-music world, where he had many friends and admirers.

Peter Keys was eventually tabbed to fill in for Billy Powell with Lynyrd Skynyrd. But the band will never be the same without him.

See the Yearbook Photos of Ronnie Van Zant and Other Rock Stars

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