Did a Sanford piano teacher influence Lynyrd Skynyrd ?

It was 42 years ago yesterday when Lynyrd Skynyrd released their debut album, “(Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd).”

The album featured classic hits “Gimme Three Steps,” “Simple Man” and “Free Bird.” It went double platinum and established Skynyrd as one of the standardbearers of the Southern rock genre.

Jacksonville is Lynyrd Skynyrd’s hometown. But did you know the city of Sanford has a strong connection to the legendary band? In fact, the intro to Skynyrd’s epic southern rock anthem “Free Bird” might be credited in part to a Sanford piano teacher.

It is well known that the band took it’s name from a high school gym teacher, Leonard Skinner, who harassed band members about their long hair. Could the band have been named Madeline Brown? Very doubtful, but …

The story begins when Billy Powell was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, on June 3, 1952. His father was a naval aviator who was reassigned to a Navy base in Italy shortly after Billy was born. His father died of cancer in 1960, and the family moved back to the United States where his mother, Marie, took a civilian job at Naval Air Station Jacksonville.

Billy Powell’s freshman class photo (top right) at the Sanford Naval Academy. The photo is part of the academy’s 1967 yearbook..

In the fall of 1966, Marie enrolled Billy into the Sanford Naval Academy (Website), which was located in the former Hotel Forest Lake/Mayfair Inn overlooking Lake Monroe. It was while Billy was attending the academy he developed an interest in music and began taking piano lessons from a lady named Madeline Brown. Supposedly Billy’s talents soon surpassed anything Ms. Brown could teach him.

Billy completed his freshman and sophomore years at the Sanford Naval Academy before returning to Jacksonville and enrolling in Bishop Kenny High School, where he graduated in 1970.

After high school he enrolled in community college and began taking classes in music theory. He also began working for a local band that was making the scene in Jacksonville – Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Billy Powell's sophomore class photo at the Sanford Naval Academy. The photo is part of the academy's 1968 yearbook, which can be found http://www.sanfordnavalacademy.com/cgi-bin/sna?I.
Billy Powell’s sophomore class photo (far left) at the Sanford Naval Academy. The photo is part of the academy’s 1968 yearbook.
Sanford Naval Academy yearbooks, “The Islander,” can be found HERE.

But he wasn’t playing in the band. He was a roadie responsible for loading and unloading all of the band’s gear at gigs. It wasn’t until 1972 when Skynyrd was hired to play the prom at the Bolles School, a private prep school in Jacksonville that – like the Sanford Naval Academy – sits on the bank of the St Johns River, when Billy got a chance to showcase his talents. After the equipment had been set up and before the show had started, Billy sat down at a piano and began playing his own version of “Free Bird.”

Legend has it that band leader Ronnie Van Zandt came up to Billy and said, “You mean to tell me you’ve been playing the piano like that, and you’ve been working for us for a year?” To which Billy allegedly responded, “Well, you know, I’ve been classically trained.” That was the only audition Van Zandt needed to hear, and he hired Billy on the spot to play piano.

The cover to Lynyrd Skynyrd's debut album. Billy Powell is second from the left, with substantially longer hair than his Sanford Naval Academy days.
The cover to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s debut album. Billy Powell is second from the left, with substantially longer hair than his Sanford Naval Academy days.

One year later Lynyrd Skynyrd exploded onto the national music scene with their debut album, and Powell’s piano playing contibuted to the “Skynyrd sound” that earned the band critical praise. Imagine how different “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Call Me the Breeze” and “Free Bird” would sound without Powell’s keyboard contributions.

I wish I could tell you that Madeline Brown became a celebrity in Sanford, but the truth is I can’t find any trace of her. She is not listed as a faculty member in any of the yearbooks from the Sanford Naval Academy. She is also not listed in any of the city directories from the time. I have talked with several folks who grew up in Sanford in the 1960s, and no one remembers a piano teacher named Madeline Brown.

Who knows, maybe she lived in Lake Mary or Longwood. Or maybe there never was a Madeline Brown who taught piano in Sanford. While it is a fact that Billy Powell attended the Sanford Naval Academy, the Madeline Brown story is less provable. I’m relying on information provided by the Free Bird Foundation (Website), a 2001 article in the Orlando Sentinel by Jim Robinson, and other Lynyrd Skynyrd fan websites.

So if anyone knows of Madeline Brown, or her family, please contact me at BokeyNews@gmail.com or on (Facebook).

I want to know the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey used to say.

– by Dan Ping