Lynyrd Skynyrd keyboardist dies at Florida home

ORANGE PARK, Fla. (AP) -- Lynyrd Skynyrd keyboard player Billy Powell, who played on such hits as "Sweet Home Alabama" and survived the 1977 plane crash that killed three band members, died Wednesday. He was 56.

Powell called 911 in this Jacksonville suburb saying he was having trouble breathing. Rescue crews performed CPR, but he was pronounced dead about an hour later, Orange Park Police Lt. Mark Cornett said.

Powell, who had a history of heart problems, missed a Tuesday appointment with his doctor for a cardiac evaluation, and a heart attack is suspected as the cause of death.

The Jacksonville-based band was formed in 1966 by a group of high school students - famously, it took its name from a physical education teacher they disliked, Leonard Skinner. Powell joined the group in 1970 and became its keyboardist in 1972, the year before they released their first album, "Pronounced leh-nerd skin-nerd."

It became one of the South's most popular rock groups, and gained national fame with such hits as "Free Bird," "What's Your Name" and especially "Sweet Home Alabama," which reached the top 10 on the charts in 1974. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.

The band was decimated on Oct. 20, 1977, when their chartered plane crashed in a swamp near McComb, Miss.

Six people were killed - lead singer Ronnie Van Zant; guitarist Steve Gaines; Gaines' sister, vocalist Cassie Gaines; as well as an assistant road manager, the pilot and co-pilot.

Powell received facial injuries in the crash, but eventually recovered. He was the only band member well enough to attend the funerals of those killed in the crash.

Two years after the accident, Powell and fellow members Allen Collins, Gary Rossington and Leon Wilkeson formed the Rossington-Collins Band. It broke up in 1982.

In 1987 Johnny Van Zant - Ronnie's brother - and a new Lynyrd Skynyrd Band went on a tribute tour, and Powell was on hand again in 1991 when the revived version of the band put out a new album, "Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991" and started a tour in Baton Rouge, La., where the band was headed in 1977 when the plane crashed.

Fans who kept their tickets from the canceled 1977 concert were admitted free.

The band's last album, "Vicious Cycle," was released in 2003.

Johnny Van Zant was devastated by Powell's death. Hearkening back to the deaths of other members of the band, he said: "Maybe it is just the destiny of Lynyrd Skynyrd. We've played before millions and millions of people and it's been a wonderful ride and a bumpy one too."

Van Zant said Powell had been a roadie for the band when his brother heard him playing the keyboard.

"Nobody knew he could play the keyboard," Van Zant said.

Earlier this year, Powell and the band took a four-day cruise on a ship out of Miami with "4,000 crazy Skynyrd fans," said Van Zant.

The band had recorded several songs for a new album and had upcoming gigs, which will be canceled, Van Zant said.

Howard Kramer, curatorial director at the Rock and Roll Hall, said Powell "was a phenomenal piano player. The band may be able to get another piano player, but they will never replace Billy Powell."

"He was one of the best piano keyboardists, rock 'n' roll keyboardists, of our lifetime," said Ross Schilling, the band's manager.

Hank Williams Jr. said: "I will truly miss Billy. We have all lost one of our best rowdy friends."

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