The Counting Crows have this song called If I Could Give All My Love -or- Richard Manuel Is Dead. In talking to a group of us industry people once in a Charlotte hotel, Duritz explained that the song was inspired by the day he found out about the death of the acclaimed pianist/multi-instrumentalist from The Band. He said it affected him greatly and he pretty much spent that day on a “walkabout” of sorts around the city of San Francisco.
Today, I understand both Duritz and that song a little better. Today, I heard the news that Billy Powell, keyboardist from Lynyrd Skynyrd, is dead.
Both Powell and Manuel, along with E-Streeter Roy Bittan form my triumvirate of stellar rock band pianists from the 1970’s. Oh, I know that both Sir Elton and Billy Joel are awesome, but their roles were much different than these three. Where John and Joel had the luxury of their instrument being the show-piece for their act, band players like Powell had to thread their way through the much more competitive instrumentation of a band. Their melodies had to fight their way through the egotistical centricities of guitarists, for example, where John and Joel did not. But I digress. That is a technical reality that probably only rock band keyboardists can appreciate.
When I was like 14, a redneck friend of mine dropped by and he was blaring Skynyrd from his Pontiac Le Mans. I was enamored. I became a huge Skynyrd fan thereafter, bordering on senseless obsession. I remember trying to figure out the piano solo in the live version of Freebird, an added 32 bars of beauty that only the live recording from the Fox Theatre in 1976 holds. I thought I understood music then, but I was playing single notes. Through repetition, the notes started to marry their relationships with other notes, and suddenly, in the middle of a skipping school afternoon, I understood chord structure. It was like the cryptography of music theory revealed itself to me, through the meandering emulation of Billy Powell.
Years passed and my musical tastes expanded and matured. I never could get my piano playing to the point where I could properly play like Powell. He was too dexterous for me, like feathers on the keys. But what I learned from him, from copying him, forever changed me.
We all have those bands and artists who we outgrow. Skynyrd is mine. But perhaps today I will go on a walkabout of sorts, remembering the player and the great times and melodies he played for me as a 14 year old. And perhaps I’ll catch a bit of that Jacksonville swamp rock dopplering out of some car rolling down the road, and I’ll smile.