Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Keyboardobit: Billy Powell

Billy Powell, the keyboardist who survived the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash, has died at the age of 56.

The son of a US navy man, Powell spent much of his childhood in Italy. The early death of his father saw the family move back to the US, where Powell took up the piano, an instrument for which he had a natural talent.

His lucky break came while working as part of the Skynyrd road crew; during time off he was mucking about playing the Freebird piano parts, when the Hollywoodesque "hey, we need a keyboard player" moment happened.

He spent five years with the band, until the 1977 plane crash which killed Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and Cassie Gaines, along with the band's assistant road manager and both the pilot and co-pilot. Powell's nose was nearly pulled from his face, but he was the first survivor to be released from hospital. In later years he gave a lurid account of the deaths of his band mates to VH1, accounts which were contradicted when the autopsy reports were eventually published.

After the accident, Powell spent some time moving through a number of guest roles and short-lived bands - including his own, Alias - before falling on the stumbling blocks of many musicians: alcohol and unpaid taxes.

As the tenth anniversary of the Skynyrd aircrash loomed, and aware that there would be a slew of 'tribute' bands cashing-in, Powell organised a reunion of the band's surviving members. Although some were reluctant, a mixture of sensitively chosen replacements for their fallen colleagues and the pressing demands of the pocket book secured a reactivation of the group. The band returned to the studio in 1991, and were still touring; they completed a tour last summer.

The cause of Powell's death wasn't revealed in initial reports; he apparently called emergency services to his home and was pronounced dead after CPR failed.


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