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



  1. Dan, I think I can solve your mystery. You have her name wrong. She was Madeline Milam, I took piano lessons from her in the 50’s. When I first started lessons she lived on East First Street, first block past Palmheo, on the south side of First Street. There are a set of wide stairs leading to the second floor, dark and spooky! I will never forget. She lived in an apartment there along with her mother and a brother. Her brother was mentally challenged. He would walk back and forth on that block, then make an about face and walk to the other end of the block. If there was a car in sight he would not cross the street. Seems he was engaged to be married and lost his fiance just before the wedding.

    She, her mother and brother then had a house built on the corner of 12th and Park across from Randy and David. The side street entrance was into a small waiting room and restroom for students. I remember so well, my mom parking her 1950 powder blue two door Plymouth on the side street there waiting for my hour lesson.

    Madeline held annual recitals at the Sanford Womans Club. I remember sitting there waiting so nervous, my knees shaking as I walked up those steps to the stage and sat at that big grand piano to play my piece. We had to memorize them, no chore allowed!

    Probably more than you wanted to know, but what a flash from the past!


  2. My brother and I also took lessons from Madeline Mallem(spelling?) there on 12th and Park in 64/65. But that is all I really know about her.


  3. Madeline Mallen was a resident of Sanford, Florida and lived off 12th street most of her adult life. She was the second cousin of my father, Thomas W. George and her parents owned a small family run market on first street for many years. They were members of All Souls Catholic Church and she played the piano there for Sunday morning service for over fifty years!…..She had received a full scholarship to Juilliard Institute in New York and attended there for several years. She returned to her home and began teaching private piano lessons….she did, indeed, conduct recitals every spring in the Sanford Woman’s Club building on Oak Avenue. She was the only piano teacher in the area and the superintendent of schools in Seminole County wanted to start a music program at Oviedo High School. Madeline did not drive, so the principal would send a car to pick her up, drive all the way to Oviedo, via back roads, by the way, and then take her home after the fourth period. Her employment as a teacher lasted approximately three years.

    Madeline’s family was from Beirut, Lebanon….Her mother, Jamillee lived almost 20 years after the death of her father, Antoine….Antoine was of French decent and was raised in a Catholic orphanage in a small Christian section of the city. My father’s mother, Mushlee (Julia) was his niece. He wrote to her after she was married and asked her to come to Sanford to join his family. This was the turn of events that brought my own father here to Sanford, Fl.

    Madeline lived alone after the death of her brother, William Mallem….William had attended college, received his law degree, opened a practice briefly, again, back in Sanford, Florida. Madeline told me the story of her brother’s fall into depression. During that time period in Sanford, The Klu Klux Klan was quite active. William was Lebanese, and his first client was a young man who the ‘Klan’ obviously did not want to have legal representation. William awoke the day after his client’s first appearance in court to a burning cross on the corner of his residence. He never practiced law again, took ill, and was unable to work, becoming almost a recluse in his home. Madeline cared for him, taught piano, played for her church community and lived until the age of 93! She was a dedicated teacher, reverent Christian, and beautiful lady!…………….thanks for allowing me this opportunity to share some information about her!………………………..mary stokes

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks Mary, I am so happy to hear this complete story. How fortunate I was to have know Ms Mallen, and certainly to study music and learn to play piano from such a talented woman. I remember her and my lessons as well as if they were yesterday. I remember her mother and William, but never knew the horrific story causing his illness, very sad.


  5. Cousin Madeline, as we called her in the Stokes/George family. Reading this article takes me back to my summer childhood days when my mother, Mary Stokes, would leave me with Madeline to help her clean her old Sanford home. Little did I know, I would be learning much more than proper techniques from the frail 90 year old woman. Cousin Madeline was a brilliant, maticulous, and graceful woman. We would sit for hours talking about the importance of spirituality and self discipline. She was a holy woman, devoting hours of recited Catholic prayer a day. And somehow, despite the over abundance of structure that solidified every area of her life, she was undoubtedly the most humble and nonjudgmental person I have ever known………So, who woulda thought my little old cousin Madeline would have profound influence for one of the most renowned bands of all time? Well, I woulda. 😉


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