Today in Sanford History (TSH), Billy Powell, the roadie-turned-piano player for Southern rock mainstay Lynyrd Skynyrd, was born in Corpus Christi, Texas. It was June 3, 1952.
Lynyrd Skynyrd is most closely associated with Jacksonville. However, Powell lived in Sanford for two years while attending the Sanford Naval Academy, which was located in the old Mayfair Hotel overlooking Lake Monroe.
More importantly, though, Sanford is where, according to legend, Powell learned to play piano.
Multiple Skynyrd fan sites, including the Free Bird Foundation, tell the backstory of how Powell joined the band as a roadie and took his first piano lessons from a lady named “Madeline Brown” while living in Sanford. There is no mention of her in the school’s yearbooks, and city directories do not list a piano teacher by that name.
Most likely “Madeline Brown” was Madeline Mallem.
When I wrote about Powell’s connection to Sanford previously and asked if anyone knew Madeline Brown, several people told me about Ms. Mallem, including Mary Stokes. Mary’s father, Thomas W. George, was Ms. Mallem’s second cousin.
According to Mary, Ms. Mallem’s mother, Jamillee, and father, Antoine, were from Beirut, Lebanon. She said Antoine was of French decent and was raised in a Catholic orphanage in a small Christian section of Beirut.
The family owned a small market on 1st Street, and were members of All Souls Catholic Church. In fact Ms. Mallem played piano for the Sunday morning services for more than 50 years.
Ms. Mallem received a full scholarship to The Juilliard School and lived in New York City for several years. She returned to Sanford and began teaching piano.
Sanford naive Sarah Miller was a student of Ms. Mallem’s and remembers piano recitals at the Sanford Woman’s Club.
“I took lessons from her in the 50s,” Sarah said. “When I first started lessons she lived on the south side of East 1st Street, between Palmetto and Sanford avenues. There are a set of wide stairs leading to the second floor. As a kid it was dark and spooky! I will never forget.”
Sarah said Ms. Mallam lived in the apartment with her mother and a brother. she remembers the brother would walk to one end of the 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.”
Mary Stokes said the brother was named William Mallem. He earned a law degree and briefly practiced law in Sanford before having a nervous breakdown.
“During that time period in Sanford, the Klu Klux Klan was quite active,” Mary said. “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.”
Ms. Mallem had her brother move into her apartment and took care of him until he died.
Sarah remembers Ms. Mallam moved with her mother and brother to the house at the northwest corner of 11th Street and Park Avenue. The 1-story, cement-block home faces Park Avenue, but students would enter the home for their lessons on the 11th Street side.
“The side street entrance was into a small waiting room and restroom for students,” Sarah said. “I remember so well, my mom parking her 1950, powder-blue, two-door Plymouth on the side street and waiting there for my hour lesson.”
For a time Ms. Mallem also taught for Seminole County Public Schools. The superintendent wanted to start a music program at Oviedo High School, Mary said.
“Madeline did not drive, so the principal would send a car to pick her up, drive all the way to Oviedo via the back roads (State Road 417 did not exist) and then take her home after the fourth period,” Mary said. “Her employment as a school teacher lasted approximately three years.”
Mary said Ms. Mallem lived to be 93 years old. Her son, Jeremiah Stokes, remembers summer days spent with “Cousin Madeline,” as the Stokes and George families referred to her.
“My mother would leave me with Madeline to help her clean. Little did I know, I would be learning much more than proper techniques from the frail, 90-year-old woman,” Jeremiah said. “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 every day reciting Catholic prayers.
“She was undoubtedly the most humble and nonjudgmental person I have ever known,” Jeremiah added. “Who woulda thought my little old cousin Madeline would have a profound influence on one of the most renowned bands of all time? Well, I woulda.”
So the next time you hear Billy Powell’s piano instrumental during “Tuesday’s Gone” or “Call Me The Breeze,” think about Cousin Madeline, the God-fearing, Juilliard-trained, church pianist of Lebanese dissent from Sanford, Fla., who first taught Billy the skills that put him in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.