Monday, February 02, 2009

Billy Powell

Billy Powell, Lynyrd Skynyrd pianist and one of the last surviving members of the original group, passed away Thursday at age 56. Powell had a history of heart problems and was planning to see his heart specialist in the upcoming week, but never made it.

Powell, a school friend of Skynyrd bassist Leon Wilkeson, originally was a roadie for the group. One day, the band was rehearsing before a gig at a high school prom when Powell sat down at the piano and played an elaborate introduction to their future anthem "Free Bird". Bandleader Ronnie Van Zant was so impressed he offered Powell a job on the spot. Powell's bluesy, boogieing piano style helped lay the foundation for Skynyrd's vaunted triple-guitar attack. In addition to "Free Bird", some of Powell's other classic moments are his solos on "Call Me The Breeze" and "T For Texas".

Powell was severly injured in the 1977 plane crash that took the lives of Van Zant and guitarist Steve Gaines. He almost had his nose knocked off, and suffered a number of facial lacerations. After the crash, he became a born-again Christian and spent time in a Christian rock band, Vision. He joined the reformed Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1987 and carried on for the rest of his career in helping keep the band's legacy alive.

Country music founding father Jimmie Rodgers wrote and recorded "T For Texas" as "Blue Yodel #1" in 1928. It became a sizable national hit, a rarity in those times when the popularity of country music was confined mostly to the South. Lynyrd Skynyrd's rocking version is far different from the original, as one might expect. Here, Powell's piano solo provides the exclamation point to some hot guitar interplay between Allen Collins and Steve Gaines. Sit back and get into this music, as I have no idea what the people filming this clip were thinking. Like damn near everyone else in 1976, they were probably stoned out of their heads.