EXPIRED: 06/24/10 – Deborah Jo “JoJo” Billingsley, 58, was born Deborah Jo White was in Memphis, Tennessee, and started singing three years later, having learned the songs of the cattle workers who sang while they toiled on her daddy’s farm.
By the time she was 12 she was soloing in Church and became a star in her High School Glee Club.
Pretty innocent training for a girl who, upon graduation, was going to see an entirely different way of life.
When Billingsley was 17, her father died, and it became necessary for her to find a job to support the family. She auditioned for a local band called Oil Can Harry, who ended up touring the world: 15 countries in 11 weeks. Pretty crazy stuff for a kid from Tennessee.
After little more than a year with the band she was asked to audition for Lynyrd Skynyrd who were looking for female backup singers. The audition went something like this. Skynyrd leader, Ronnie Van Zant, was sitting in a chair, backstage after a show wearing his standard black Stetson over his eyes. He pushed the hat up, looked at Billingsley and said, “She’ll do just fine.”
She joined the group on that night in 1975.
Two weeks later she, along with Cassie Gaines and Leslie Hawkins – affectionately known as the Honkettes – were onstage with the band performing in London, England.
She last sang with the original Skynyrd in Las Vegas during August of 1977, having left the band because of the crazy schedule (they were playing over 200 dates a year and rehearsing on days when a paid gig wasn’t booked).
But on October 18, 1977 Van Zant called her up to ask her to return to the band, asking her fly to Greenville, South Carolina and rejoin the band. Their tour had Skynyrd playing Greenville followed by Baton Rouge and then Little Rock, and since Billingsley was within driving distance of Little Rock, she decided to wait until then to reunite with the tour.
That night Billingsley dreamt that Lynyrd Skynyrd’s tour plane would crash. When she awoke she made desperate phone calls to everyone in the band. She finally reached guitarist Allen Collins, who mentioned that he had seen sparks shoot out of the engines on an earlier flight and the band was planning to fly commercial after the Little Rock Show.
And we all know how that turned out. On October 20, 1977 Lynyrd Skynyrd’s airplane went down, killing several members of the band and road crew. Billingsley was the only band member not on the flight.
The event, which she feels was a sign from above, turned Billingsley into a “born-again Christian” and until her death of cancer this week, she was a practicing evangelist in Alabama.
She didn’t retire from music altogether though. In 1979 a reconstituted Skynyrd played at Charlie Daniels’ Volunteer Jam. In 1995, the band got back together again at the opening of Freebird The Movie at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre. In 2005, Billingsley performed several times with “The Honkettes” in an alternative version of Lynyrd Skynyrd called “The Saturday Night Special Band” that also included former Skynyrd members Ed King, Artimus Pyle and Leslie Hawkins that helped to raise money for Hurricane Katrina victims.
And in 2006, Hawkins and Billingsley performed with Skynyrd singing “Sweet Home Alabama” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony at which Lynyrd Skynyrd was honored.