JO JO BILLINGSLEY of LYNYRD SKYNYRD
by Michael Buffalo Smith
As one of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Honkettes, Jo Jo Billingsley enjoyed world wide fame, playing stages from Japan to England to all of the best venues in the good ol’ USA. In an exclusive interview, Deborah Jo talks about her days with Lynyrd Skynyrd, her friends, and how she came to become a born again Christian with a musical ministry.
Tell us about how you first came to join Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Bob O’Neil was doing their lights, and he was a friend of mine from back in Memphis. He told me that they were going to be hiring some singers, you know. I had just seen them perform with Eric Clapton, and I thought they were really good. At first I thought he was saying they were going to hire the three black chicks that were on the album. Lo and behold they called me! (Laughs) I was just so thrilled to get to go up there and everything. That’s how it happened, Bob gave them my name and they called me and I went to Nashville where I met them.
Did you have to audition?
No, I just walked in and Ronnie saw me and said “she’ll do just fine.” (Laughs) Hired me on the spot. And I knew Cassie (Gaines) because we worked at a restaurant called Panchos in Memphis together. I knew she was a singer and she knew I was a singer but we never sang together. I thought she was real cool, and I had seen her sing in a play and I knew she had done some Broadway stuff. So after they hired me, they asked me if I could help them find another girl singer. I had tried to be friends with those other girl singers in Memphis but they wouldn’t give me the time of day, so the first one I thought of was Cassie. I called her, and she had already moved back to Oklahoma, where she was living in a Victorian house on this farm for $45 a month, and working at a country club. I told her about Skynyrd and everything and she literally had to go and buy the album because she had never heard of them. She listened to the album and she called me back and said, “hey they’re pretty good.” I said yeah they are. I asked her to go with us, and she said “should I?” and I said “Yeah, let’s go, let’s do it!” We both had two weeks to pack and move to Jacksonville. We had a few rehearsals there in their studio in Jacksonville, and then we were in London, England on tour. We were rehearsing there in the theatre owned by Emerson, Lake and Palmer. It was a big theatre with no seats in it. It had a huge stage, and upstairs was all of Keith Emerson’s keyboards and equipment. It was really a cool place.
You kicked things off in style, huh?
Yeah. Then we went to the British Isles and then over to Glasgow, Scotland, all those places in Europe. It was cool.
What was life like as a member of one of the hottest rock bands of the day?
It was fantastic. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. They were really my favorite band anyway. But getting to literally be with them on stage was amazing. They’re such awesome musicians and great guys. They treated us so good. Ronnie was such a gentleman, he wouldn’t let anybody mess with us. And every show was sold out, and the energy was just awesome. The fans just loved it so much, so the energy was outstanding.
The Freebird movie was based around that Knebworth concert, which was huge. How was that for you?
There were 250,000 people there that had paid. And there were another 150,000 people around who had not paid, that had just gathered. They had a flea market set up there. People came in on every mode of transportation, from bicycles to Harley's, planes, cars parked all the way back to London on the side of the road. No kidding. And the stage was huge- we were playing with the Stones! (Excited) We were playing with The Rolling Stones! They had that stage built all up, and you had to have a special pass to get anywhere near the stage. It was really cool, ‘cause me and Cassie were coming up the platform, and who other than Paul McCartney was coming up at the same time. We stuck out our paper for him to give us an autograph and he snubbed us. I thought- uh! We were both heartbroken. I thought, the nerve! I’ve loved him all my life. We were all backstage- there were so many entertainers there, because it was Hot Tuna, 10cc, Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, us and The Rolling Stones. They had hired entertainers to entertain the entertainers. There were jugglers and clowns.
Was that the show Jack Nicholson was at that Gary was telling me about?
Yeah! He had this cane that opened up and he could sit down on it. He was already a star, but that was before he really hit it big. Later on backstage, they had this tent for just the artists, the people that were performing. There was a champagne fountain. We were in there, and then Paul McCartney wanted to come over and talk to us. So we snubbed him! (Laughing) Cassie did, I promise she did. But we had a ball.
I bought the dress that I wore at the flea market that morning. I went out there and found that dress and grabbed some scissors and split it down the front, because I had that leotard. Allen and I were close, and I remember him trying to decide what to wear. He didn’t even want to take a bath. I said Allen, there are 250,000 women out there who paid to see you. So they all got cleaned up, and he had that red shirt and red pants, and I said wear that! It was perfect for the day because they had those big red Stones lips everywhere.
One time we were doing a show with Peter Frampton and Bill Graham was the promoter. It was when Frampton had the big live album with “Show Me The Way.” Bill Graham was the promoter. We were up on this high rise stage, and we were looking down at about fifty black limousines and one white Rolls Royce. And I asked Mr. Graham, I said “Mr. Graham, who’s so special to get that white Rolls Royce?” And he just kind of smiled at me. When we got done and were ready to leave that white Rolls Royce pulled up to pick me up, alone. And inside he had a bottle of champagne and some roses just for me. That was so special to me. All the promoters just took such good care of me. Alex Cooley, and my friend Bob Kelly from Memphis. Later on they said he committed suicide but I know he didn’t. He would have never done that. He would never harm himself. And there was Tom Dowd, the producer. The first time we recorded, I had never recorded before in my life, never been in a studio. He pulled me aside, and I didn’t know who he was. He said, “Jo, you’re a natural. Just go with it.” He made me relax. Later on when I found out who he was I just said “Man...” And then later on when we saw him in Atlanta for the world premier of the movie, we ran up to each other and got pictures and all, and I said “What are you doin’ here?” And he said “I produced the movie.” And I “okay...” (Laughing) I really put my foot in my mouth. He was just so precious.
Tell us a little about Ronnie Van Zant, from your perspective.
Ronnie was awesome. He was just such a gentleman. He was brilliant and very quiet, at least to us, the girls. Until he got high and then he got pretty rowdy. But he was a gentleman He would never mess with anybody, unless they messed with him. And he’d always try to warn them. He’d warn them two times, and the third time he’d just hit ‘em. He called it cold-cocking. He was a Golden Gloves champion in Florida. He gave his dad Lacy a black eye when he was like three years old. Lacy would get down on his knees and box with him. Ronnie was in good shape, he really was. He was strong. And he was so creative. He was a great man. I really, truly believe that he was a prophet of God. And early on Satan got his focus off track. He was proud too. I remember one time they told us that we could no longer continue to ride in limousines because it wasn’t in the budget. Ronnie said “We will always ride in limousines. I will ride in limousines ‘til I ride in the back of one with flowers on top.” It was a very prophetic moment. Everything he ever said came true and that’s the sign of a true prophet. I knew then that there was greatness in Ronnie. He was just so charismatic, people were just drawn to him. I was praying one day, and the Lord told me, “Ronnie’s with me.” That blessed me. I thought, “thank God.”
Let’s talk about the plane crash. You had a prophetic dream about that before it happened, right?
They had played those four shows without me. They let all of us girls go in Las Vegas. That was my last time to sing with them. That was August of ‘77. I had a stomach virus, so I went home to my mom’s in Mississippi. I was under a doctor’s care, and just wanted to rest because we had 286 days that year that we were booked. We had about 55 days off, and about 30 of them were traveling. Leslie went first and asked for her job back so Ronnie hired her back. Then Cassie asked for hers back. Then they did those four shows without me, and then Ronnie called me. It was the night before Greenville. My brother and I had made plans to go over and meet them in Little Rock a couple of nights later to party with them. He called and told me he wanted me to join them in Greenville and come back into the band. I thought, well, that’s music to my ears. I said “yes, of course.” While I was talking to him I felt this strange feeling and I heard this word, “Wait.” My spirit was talking to me. I said, “Well, we were planning to come to Little Rock anyway. Why don’t I just meet you there?” And he said “Good, bring all your stuff.” I went back to sleep there at my mom’s, and that night I had the most vivid dream. I saw the plane smack the ground. I saw them screaming and crying, and I saw fire. I woke up screaming, and my mom came running in going “Honey what is it?” I said “Mama I dreamed the plane crashed!” And she said, “No honey, it’s just a dream. “ And I said “No mom, it’s too real!”
They had already sent me the itinerary, so the next day I called Greenville, S.C. I called everybody on the list. Finally, late that afternoon Allen called me back. He said “Jo what in the world is it? I’ve got messages all over Greenville from you.” I said “Allen, it’s that airplane.” and I told him about my dream. He and I always sat in two seats up front, facing each other. We always sat there. I said “Allen, please don’t get on that plane.” He said, “Jo, it’s funny you’d mention that, because I was looking out the window yesterday and I saw fire come out of the wing.” I asked him if Les Long had checked it out. Les had flown that plane for years, and knew it like the back of his hand. But he had been training these two new pilots. When he told me who the pilots were, I thought “oh no,” because they had been on tour with us and I thought they were unprofessional. Instead of sleeping while we were getting ready and playing and all, I’d see them down at the bar and such. One of them asked me one night if he could come up to my room with me. I said no! Don’t talk to me. But when he told me it was those two guys, it really scared me. I said “Please, please don’t get on that plane!” Well, when they left Greenville they took a vote that it was going to be their last time to fly on that airplane. They were going to start flying commercial. They were gonna fly from Greenville to Baton Rouge and then to Little Rock. And of course it crashed in Mississippi, my home state. Ronnie always called himself The Mississippi Kid, we never knew why. And then he died in Mississippi. I was completely devastated. I was up celebrating with my band from Memphis because I was going back on the road with Skynyrd. We were all upstairs at my drummer’s house, and she came upstairs and said I had a phone call. It was my mother, and she said, “Honey, I don’t know how to tell you this.” She just started crying, and she put my brother on the phone. He said, “Honey, the plane has crashed and Ronnie is dead.” My heart just sank. About that same time a news bulletin flashed across the screen, and I thought- oh my God. I drove home in the rain and nearly had a wreck I was so upset. We made arrangements and flew down to Jackson, and we were some of the first to see Allen and them. The first thing I thought was, God saved my life. The Lord gave me that dream to warn me, and I did the only thing I could do and warned them. It was so weird because some of them thought that maybe I had something to do with it, but I had nothing to do with it. At the funeral, Ronnie’s daughter Tammy was hanging around me, and I told her she needed to tell her daddy goodbye, so I took a rose off of his casket and gave it to her. I was standing there beside Robert Nix(of Atlanta Rhythm Section) , and I’ll never forget it, Lacy came up and reached down and scooped up a handful of the dirt and wiped it across my mouth and said “kiss this ground you’re walking on.” And walked off. I thought, my God. And Robert is a big guy, I guess 290 pounds and six foot five. He just picked me up and put me in the limosine and took me to his and Susie’s house in Atlanta and I stayed there for about two weeks. It really disturbed me that I wasn’t on the plane and was saved from it, but somehow got the blame for it, it’s just weird. But Robert took me into his studio in Doraville, and played me a new song. He told me if I felt moved to sing along, to go for it. He dimmed the lights and gave me a glass of wine and played “I’m Not Gonna Let It Bother Me Tonight.” Pretty soon, I copped the attitude, and decided I wasn’t gonna let it bother me neither. I started singing, and I looked up and Robert and Rodney were dancing in the control room, and he said “baby it’s a smash hit!” We finished it. But he made the mistake of calling someone to tell them, and the next morning when we went in, the musicians had changed everything. They turned me way, way down in the mix. Robert was one of their songwriters and their drummer, and he had played for Roy Orbison. Later he found out a lot of things that had been going on he didn’t know about and he quit the group. But they had it out for me after that, they thought I caused that too. One of their roadies tried to kill me backstage in Savannah, Georgia at a show my band Alias did with them. I was nearly killed, and I quit singing for a long time after that. Seven years. I thought if this is what music is all about I don’t want no part of it.
My husband and I were married in 1981, and he knew I had sang but he had never heard me, until I started singing again in 1986.
What singing did you do between Skynyrd and the night you quit singing?
I did that Atlanta Rhythm Section Stuff, and I sang some with Molly Hatchet at the beach. I did a Billy Joe Royal project, Leslie and I and this other girl. We were the “vicious voices.” Robert produced it. Then Alias recorded Contraband, and we had some of the Skynyrd guys on it. They could never really acknowledge the Skynyrd guys for playing on it. Who knows, if they had done that, Mercury may have given us a better shot, more promotion. But at that time it was us and John Cougar Mellencamp, and they put their money into him.
What happened to cause you to return to singing in 1986?
A friend of mine came to my house and saw all my gold and platinum albums, and she asked me “what are you, a movie star or something?” (Laughs) I said no, I used to be a rock and roll singer and now I’m a born again Christian. She said “I am too.” We talked for a long time, and she called me the next day and asked if I would come and sing at her church. I said “I don’t have a way.” My husband and I only had one car at the time and he was working at night. She said “I’ll come get you.” I was making excuses like I couldn’t read music, and couldn’t play an instrument. She said “You go to the Christian bookstore and charge some taped soundtracks to me.” She came to pick me up for a Valentines banquet, and I had on a red dress and red shoes and she had on a red dress and red shoes. I went into a room and prayed and I came out and sang three songs and gave my testimony. God has blessed me so since then, I have sung at probably thousands of churches. It just blesses me so much. I had been searching for that my whole life. I have been writing songs, and I hope to get in the studio soon to do some of them.