Born in Corpus Christi, Texas, Powell grew up in a military family (his father was in the U.S. Navy) and spent several years of his childhood living in Italy where his father was stationed. After his father died of cancer in 1960, he moved with his family back to the United States and settled inJacksonville, Florida. He met his lifelong friend, Leon Wilkeson in elementary school. Billy's interest in piano began to grow and he began taking pianolessons from a local teacher named Madalyn Brown. She swore he did not need her, claiming that Billy was a natural and picked things up well on his own. When it was time for high school, his mother enrolled Billy and his brother, Ricky at Sanford Naval Academy in Sanford, FL.
Billy returned to Jacksonville where he enrolled at Bishop Kenny High School. When he graduated in 1970, he enrolled briefly in a community college, majoring in Music Theory. Around this time he found work as a roadie for Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Billy remained a member of the Skynyrd crew for two years (which included, amongst the grittier shows, highlights such as Skynyrd landing a support slot for Leslie West's "Mountain") In his second year with them, 1972, Skynyrd played one particular gig, a show at the Bolles school prom. After his usual routine working with Kevin Elson, Billy had time to rest for a short while. In the corner he spotted a piano, so Billy went over and sat down with it. Just fooling around, Billy launches into his piano based version of Freebird for the boys in the band to listen to. Ronnie, astonished at his roadies hitherto secret ability said 'You mean to tell me, you've been playing the piano like that and you've been workin' for us for a year....'. Billy replied, "Well, you know, I've been classically trained most of my life.' He was then told Skynyrd were looking for a keyboard man, and Billy was in!
In 1973, Lynyrd Skynyrd was signed to MCA Records and received national exposure with the release of their first album, (pronounced 'l?h-'nérd 'skin-'nérd). The band's popularity soared in 1974 with their follow-up album, Second Helping, which featured their highest-charting single, "Sweet Home Alabama". The band enjoyed great popularity over the next three years, culminating in the 1977 release of Street Survivors, which many considered to be their strongest effort to date.
However, three days after the release of Street Survivors, Skynyrd's chartered plane crashed into a forest near McComb, Mississippi. The crash took the lives of singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitaristSteve Gaines, his sister and backing vocalist Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, and both pilots. The remainder of the band suffered injuries ranging from mild to severe. Powell suffered severe facial lacerations, almost completely losing his nose but was otherwise relatively uninjured. He was the first to be released from the hospital, and the only member able to attend the funerals of his fallen band-mates.
During the time between the plane crash and the Lynyrd Skynyrd reunion in 1987, Powell joined a Christian rock band named Vision in 1984..during this time he recorded 3 albums and toured extensively.."Mountain in The Sky"/self titled "Vision" and soon to be released(previously unreleased).."Streetfighter" His keyboard playing was spotlighted in Vision concerts. Powell also spoke during the concerts about his newfound Christianity...as is featured on 2 bonus tracks..("Mountain in The Sky") where Skynyrd/Vision bandmate Leon Wilkeson and he give testimony of their conversions.
Powell rejoined Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1987 for a tribute tour, and remained with the band until his death. Guitarist Gary Rossington is the only member from the classic lineup who continues to record and perform with the band today.
In 2007, two years before his death, Powell played piano on Kid Rock's summer anthem "All Summer Long" (which samples "Sweet Home Alabama").
On January 28, 2009, the keyboardist died at the age of 56 at his home in Orange Park, Florida. Powell called 911 at 12:55 a.m., complaining of shortness of breath. He missed his appointment with the doctor on the day before his death; the appointment was for a checkup on his heart. The EMS responders found Powell unconscious and unresponsive, with the telephone still in his hand. Rescue crews performed CPR, but he was pronounced dead at 1:52 am. A heart attack was the suspected cause of death, but an autopsy was not performed. A private memorial service for Billy Powell was held on Saturday, January 31 with Billy's friend, Dr. Bob Winstead officiating. The music he had recorded with Vision was played exclusively and Kid Rock sang a tribute song to Billy at the service. Many southern rock musicians were in attendance, including the Skynyrd and Vision bandmates, their families, Hank Williams Jr. and others. He leaves behind his family; wife, Ellen, sons Brandon and Joel, daughters Layla, Ashley, and Maggie, brother, Rick, and sister, Donna.
The song 'Gifted Hands' was later written and recorded by Lynyrd Skynyrd as a tribute to Powell