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Lynyrd Skynyrd Keyboardist Billy Powell Dead at 56

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A keyboardist for the southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd has died at his northeast Florida home.

Keyboard player Billy Powell called 911 about 12:55 a.m. Wednesday saying he was having trouble breathing. Rescue crews performed CPR, but he was pronounced dead at 1:52 a.m., said Orange Park Police Lt. Mark Cornett.

Powell, 56, who has a history of heart problems, missed a Tuesday appointment with his doctor for a cardiac evaluation. A heart attack is suspected. No autopsy will be performed because Powell's cardiologist will sign the death certificate, Cornett said.

The Jacksonville-based band was formed in 1966 by a group of high school students — famously, it took its name from a P.E. teacher they disliked, Leonard Skinner. Powell joined the group around 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 national charts in 1974.

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; and his sister, vocalist Cassie Gaines; as well as an assistant road manager, the pilot and co-pilot.

Powell was one of the survivors.

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.

Powell was on hand again in 1991 when a revived version of the band put out a new album, "Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991" and launched 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 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.

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