The Untold Truth Of Lynyrd Skynyrd's Billy Powell

The southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd is most famous for their catchy (and sometimes controversial, per Country Living) hit song "Sweet Home Alabama." The 1974 song was their claim to fame and helped skyrocket the band to notoriety. Formed in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1964, the southern rock music band was originally composed of guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins, bassist Larry Junstrom, drummer Bob Burns, and vocalist Ronnie Van Zant. Its name was inspired by the band's high school gym teacher, named Coach Leonard Skinner (via CNN). They made a play on his name by removing the vowels and came up with: Lynyrd Skynyrd. But a decade into the band, Leon Wilkeson joined the group to replace Junstrom, and a new member and keyboardist named Billy Powell was also part of the new lineup. The band would have several more changes with members departing and some new additions for a few years, including the departure of Burns and addition of drummer Artimus Pyle (via Oldies). Wilkeson left and was replaced with Ed King, who would later be replaced, too, with Steve Gaines.

Shortly after, though, tragedy struck the band in 1977 when a plane crash claimed the lives of three members — Van Zant, Gaines, and his sister Cassie, who sang backup, says History. Three other people died in the crash and the surviving members suffered injuries. It was a devastating loss for the band on the rise, and it changed them forever. But they managed to remain a relevant band in music and later became Rock & Roll Hall of Famers.

Billy Powell was not an original member

Of the several surviving bandmates, one of them was Billy Powell. The famed keyboardist was one of the band's most recognized members, but he was not an original member, despite what some might think. Powell joined Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1972 — almost 10 years after it was founded and just two years before their smash hit song came out. Powell initially started out as a road technician for the band and later became the main keyboard player (via Al). During his time with the band, one day Van Zant heard Powell play the piano version of the group's song "Free Bird" and decided to hire him (via Boston).

Powell wasn't a founding member and also wasn't a native of Florida. Though Jacksonville is famed for being the birthplace of Lynyrd Skynyrd, only four members were from the city. Powell was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, on June 3, 1952. However, the Sunshine State did eventually become Powell's home when he attended high school and college there. In later life, Jacksonville was his home and where he died.

Didn't go to Lee High

Since he wasn't part of the founding lineup, Powell also didn't go to the famous Lee High School (now Riverside High School) — the Jacksonville school that played a significant role in what came to be Lynyrd Skynyrd. It was here that several of the original band members met and became friends. All the founding bandmates save for Junstrom and Collins went to the school. Whereas, Powell attended a parochial school, Bishop Kenny, several minutes away (via Boston).

As the story goes, the name of the band was inspired by Lee High gym teacher, Coach Skinner. The physical education instructor was not a fan of the long hair trend the then-teen boys were sporting. But long hair was part of their look. The band had several names before they decided on Lynyrd Skynyrd (via Oldies), and the intention behind it was to mock the coach that despised their locks.

Though it likely wasn't a requirement to join the band, nearly every member that played for Lynyrd Skynyrd had long hair. So when Powell officially joined, despite not ever facing the ire of Coach Skinner, he too had long hair and fit right in.

The fatal crash left Powell to grieve alone

The plane crash that changed the band forever happened on October 20, 1977. Rock band Aerosmith had intended to fly on the very plane that permanently transformed Lynyrd Skynyrd. They declined to fly a week earlier (via Vintage News). But it would be the same plane that members of the Lynyrd Skynyrd flew in. In the aftermath of the crash, almost everyone on the plane that survived sustained several injuries. Powell was one of them and his nose was almost severed from the accident, and he had a knee injury, per Ultimate Classic Rock. Despite Artimus Pyle being the survivor to actually walk away from the site of the crash to get help in the nearby town, only Powell was able to personally attend the sendoffs for the band's frontman.

Powell was treated for his injuries and was the only one of the surviving band members to be in good position to attend the memorial and funeral services for Van Zant, says Orlando Sentinel.

Was on tour at time of his death

Billy Powell died at the age of 56 on January 28, 2009 (via CMT). Per his obituary, an autopsy was not performed, but it is believed that he died of a heart attack. For years, Powell suffered with mostly heart issues and complications.

Powell along with the newest lineup of Lynyrd Skynyrd had been on tour since late 2008. They had just performed in Connecticut in January, per Set List. At the time, only Powell and Rossington were the remaining surviving members of the plane crash that were still with the group. Just two days after he died, the group was supposed to perform in Louisiana and the next day in Mississippi. That spring they were also set to perform in several other cities and overseas in Germany and Finland (via Jam Base). But as a result of Powell's death, the band canceled several dates. They wouldn't resume the tour until April 2009.

Powell was a devout Christian

It's probably not common to use the words rocker and religion in the same sentence, but that's what Powell was. Of course, a man who attended a Catholic high school during his formative years would have some type of allegiance to faith.

The deadly crash changed the band forever. With its lead singer dead, along with other members, many knew Lynyrd Skynyrd was done for good. But the band would reunite a decade after the accident for their tribute tour in 1987 (per Country Rebel). A year before that, Powell would turn to Christianity after a run-in with the law sent him to prison. He then joined a band called Vision and played Christian rock music, says My Faith Radio. During that time, he also regularly attended church (Belief Net). His stint with the band was brief, however, and Powell rejoined Lynyrd Skynyrd when the band reformed and remained a member until his death.