Love and the goodness of the human spirit are themes that recur throughout my interview with Ellen Powell as she reminiscences about her husband Billy Powell, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s sadly-departed pianist.
For Skynyrd fans, there are abiding images of Billy, perched on his piano stool, grinning, his back arched, finger pointed heavenwards, tearing through his piano solo during ‘Call Me The Breeze’. And his opening bars to ‘Freebird’, lighting the touch paper on one of rock’s greatest anthems.
But there was another side to Billy Powell, the side the fans did not see. What were his loves, his ambitions? There is no better person to answer those questions than Ellen. As she explains, it all began in Texas or Billy. He was born in Corpus Christi on 3 June, 1952:
“His father passed away when Billy was six or seven. His mother relocated the family to Jacksonville, a navy town. His father had been a pilot so she wanted to stick close to her navy roots and bring her children up in a navy town.”
The history of Billy’s tenure with Skynyrd is well documented. He was the band’s roadie who morphed into the band’s piano player. And boy, could he play! His keyboard wizardry was the flint that sparked the Skynyrd sound and there is no question that he made an enormous contribution to the band’s success. Ellen agrees:
“Billy was such an incredible pianist. He wrote all his own parts for the Skynyrd songs, which were quite wonderful, but I’m a little biased! He was classically trained, starting his studies at a young age. He learned technique, which he told me was the most important. He played with a very heavy action, no lightweight stuff. When he played he really slayed that piano, there was no mercy with his fingers! It made him exceedingly happy to make his mother proud, when she saw him doing well, she felt proud.”
Above: Ellen and Billy
In November 1974, Billy and his bandmates travelled to Europe for the first time and quickly attracted a passionate fan base. As Ellen recalls Billy loved his European adventure: “Oh, the stories I’ve heard! Especially in the UK, he always spoke very fondly. They were wined and dined like they had never been before. I guess there were all sorts of shenanigans going on.”
Two years later, at the Knebworth Festival on a hot English day, Skynyrd were at the top of their game. Years later, on the back of a tour bus, Billy regaled Ellen with stories about that special day he spent with the Rolling Stones and, backstage, a famous Beatle:
“Talk about white hot, like a comet they came burning through the sky, here they are on stage tearing it up. They were magic. We all know that took years and years of diligent practice. Having luminaries such as Paul McCartney there, that was just so incredible for them. What gave Billy such a kick was that McCartney knew who they were! Can you believe that?”
There were darker times for Billy. The death of Ronnie Van Zant, Steve and Cassie Gaines and Dean Kilpatrick delivered a life-changing blow to Billy. His friends dead, his professional career and unfulfilled dreams turned to dust. One can only wonder at the heartache and profound despair he must have felt standing at that graveside watching Ronnie Van Zant’s coffin being lowered into the ground. Physically and psychologically, recovery for Billy would prove slow as he attempted to re-calibrate his life. “It haunted him forever”, according to Ellen.
In the 80s Billy played with the Rossington Collins Band, which folded after two albums. A phoenix rising from the ashes, but that band too was stalked by tragedy. As Ellen remembers, the death of Allen Collin’s wife was a distressing episode from which the band could not recover:
“The musicianship in the band was extraordinary, but unfortunately it was an emotionally taxing time, particularly for Allen Collins. He had very difficult issues that some people are unable to get over. There was so much sadness, seeing someone you care for so much just spiralling. He was still very raw from the plane crash. I know that when you lose your spouse so suddenly, your entire world changes.”
For Billy, a stint with the Allen Collins Band followed resulting in one album, Here, There and Back in 1983. Record company changes led to that band’s demise. Billy and Leon Wilkeson would go on to join a Christian band, Vision, in 1985. Ellen and Billy married in 1987.
Ellen recalls that reuniting all the crash survivors proved a daunting task. Billy and Leon began considering reforming the band, but nothing materialised until Gary signed on to the project:
“It was not a given that this was going to work. There was trepidation. The most important thing was that they honoured bandmates that were no longer with them. Things happened in such quick succession in 1987. Billy, Leon and I drove up to Atlanta; the Rossington Band was opening up for Kansas at the Fox Theatre. Billy wanted to discuss with Gary doing something for the 10th anniversary of the plane crash. Gary was not immediately for it. But it worked out, the phone calls were made.
“Charlie Brusco was on board, he was managing Gary at the time and he became the band manager for the Tribute Tour and he was wonderful at that. He was there from the get go. That first night was in Nashville at the Starwood Amphitheatre with Charlie Daniels. Charlie was always rooting for these guys. He is one of their dearest friends and biggest fan.
“When the band took the stage for the first time as the reformed Lynyrd Skynyrd the audience wept. I did too. The people in the audience, they loved it. Let me tell you, people wept when they came back out for Freebird. If anybody wasn’t crying, they were not in my eye range. It was an evening that I will never, ever forget. When they hit the stage, the lights go up and that first note is struck, it is magic. Live, they were just so incredible. I know they were nervous, this was a big step of faith they were taking.
“They had very good players. Randall Hall was incredible and a wonderful, wonderful human being. He is as down to earth as you can get. And of course with Ed King, he knows his way around a guitar a little bit! He is awfully, awfully talented.
“They kept getting calls for more and more. More cities wanted to see them. Ten gigs turned into a tour and it just kept going. The fans kept coming, clapping, cheering and lighting their lighters.”
Ellen heaps lavish praise on former Tribute Tour road manager Paul Abraham: “I love him! Paul was such an integral part of the guys being on the road. A more salt-of-the-earth person, would, I think, be difficult to find. Paul is so fair. He had a lot on his plate looking after these guys! Without a complaint or a whimper he was always, with a smile, doing all that he could do and had people’s best interests at heart. They were so fortunate to have Paul.”
Ellen points out that following the Tribute Tours, Billy was comfortable continuing with the band and recording new material: “Billy was, yes. Billy knew how to do one thing particularly well and that is playing the piano. He enjoyed being with the guys, he enjoyed making music. He enjoyed the camaraderie most of all.”
Throughout his life, Billy maintained a close relationship with Leon Wilkeson. Ellen describes their bond as being like two brothers:
“He and Leon grew up from cub scouts. They lived in the same neighbourhood and always had a grand time together. They were lifelong friends; they had their share of ‘getting in trouble things’ in their younger days. They were able to finish each other’s sentences. Billy also had an almost a big brother relationship with Leon.
“Leon was the sweetest, kindness person. I don’t think he knew how to despise or hate, I think Leon was just made up of one big ball of love, I really do. He was so pure in his intentions I think he expected that from other people. Billy loved him so much. These guys were genuinely gentlemen. They genuinely had manners and a set of social skills.”
“I don’t think they realised, how gracious they were. They were such incredible gentlemen. They genuinely cared about the people around them. Billy never turned away anyone for an autograph, even if it was an inopportune time. For Billy it wasn’t just the two hours on stage, when he was on the road that was his job 24/7.
Latterly, Billy suffered health issues that made playing live challenging. Ellen says that Billy did not want to let the fans down and played through the pain barrier on many occasions:
“Life on the road took its toll on Billy over the years. He was in a lot of pain a lot of the time. He had two double hip replacements. When he finally played Madison Square Garden the orthopaedic surgeons had to fit him with a hip brace and he played the whole show in extraordinary pain. He had his hip replaced two days after that show. There was no way he was going to miss playing Madison Square Gardens because that was apparently Ronnie’s dream, they were going to play there and Billy wanted to do that to fulfil that for Ronnie.”
In 2006, Skynyrd were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Despite crippling pain from an ongoing hip problem, Billy met up with his old band mates on what proved to be a joyous occasion. It was a special time for Billy says Ellen:
“Oh my heavens, that was phenomenal! It was getting to be a joke with them. They were up for nomination to be inducted for several years. And it was marvellous. He so enjoyed the night prior to the award ceremony, they played together the Nokia Theatre in New York City. Ed King was there and played with him, he very much enjoyed playing with Ed again. Artimus was there, everyone got along wonderfully that night. Artimus and Bob both played drums. It was lovely, lovely weekend event. We had our four children there.
“On the day of the induction ceremony, Billy spent it in the emergency room of Mount Sinai hospital. His hip had gone out of its socket while staying at the Waldorf where the ceremony was taking place. He was in unbelievable pain. The doctors said he had to use crutches. He absolutely refused. To have all these people playing together, he was thrilled. These people know pain on the deepest physical and emotional level.”
Billy Powell passed away on January 29, 2009. Ellen’s love for her partner and soulmate remains undimmed: “He never understood how many people had pure joy when they saw him or heard him play. He genuinely loved what he did; he loved those two hours on stage. He enjoyed bringing smiles to people’s faces.
“I am so, so thankful that in this big world we shared it with each other. I hit the lottery with that heart of his.” He adored his children. He loved being a daddy. Billy and I had such a wonderful, deep, intense love affair. We worked very well as a team.”
To those that knew and loved him, Billy Powell was humble, kind and courteous. Star qualities in any man.
Photos courtesy of Ellen Powell.