"What song is it you want to hear?"

The keyboard player on "Freebird" dies of heart failure. An homage to his tears

By Andrew Leonard

Published January 29, 2009 6:16PM (EST)

In the spring of 1980, I attended a concert by The Rossington-Collins Band at the Great Southern Musical Hall in Gainesville, Fla. Formed by the remaining members of the Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, whose lead singer and primal motive force, Ronnie Van Zant, died in an airplane crash in 1977, Rossington-Collins will forever remain a minor footnote in the annals of rock history.

But as a seventeen-year-old in Gainesville you didn't get a whole lot of choices about what shows to attend. You saw what came through. Judas Priest one week, Rossington-Collins the next. It was all good. And even though ironic mock-requests for the Skynyrd paean to southern rock excess, "Freebird," were already at that time a staple of the bar band scene throughout the South, there was still something moving about watching Rossington-Collins play the song as an instrumental. Just before the vocals were supposed to begin, the two lead guitarists bowed their heads and stepped back from their microphones. It was loopy southern gothic overkill, but irony wasn't in the audience.

Or if it was, it departed soon after witnessing the tears streaming down the face of the keyboard player, Billy Powell, as he launched into the lyrical piano solo that is, to my mind, the highlight of "Freebird."

Powell died yesterday, aged 56, of heart failure at his home in Orange Park, Florida, a suburb of Jacksonville, the town where Lynyrd Skynyrd got its start. I did not learn until today that he had originally been a roadie for the band until, while setting up for a performance at Jacksonville's Bolles High School prom in 1972, he started playing his own version of "Freebird" on a piano that happened to be in the room. Van Zant hired him as the band's keyboard player on the spot. I'm thinking now that when I saw Powell play in 1980, he might himself have been flashing back to that prom night eight years earlier. To have my own memories take on that extra shading, almost 30 years later, is a marvelous thing.

For an existentially confused young man like myself, who to this day has never quite resolved in his own head the politics of enjoying both Neil Young's "Southern Man" put-down and Skynyrd's written-in-response redneck anthem "Sweet Home Alabama," the position played by Skynyrd in the culture wars was always troubling. No doubt, if I had gone to high school in Berkeley, Calif. instead of Gainesville, I probably would never have conceived an affection for a band hailing from up the road in Jacksonville. (As for Molly Hatchet -- let's not even go there.)

But the tears on Billy Powell's face as he played his solo will always cut through all that crap. I'm guessing North Florida will miss him.

UPDATE: Two of my awesome readers have recommended the double-album "Southern Rock Opera" by The Drive-by Truckers for its exploration of the meaning of Skynyrd (including Neil Young). A little googling led me to a fascinating long review of the album, and I am sensing a new non-DRM iTunes purchase in my not-too-distant future. Thanks to all!

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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