JoJo Billingsley was my favorite Honkette. Watching video clips of the original Lynyrd Skynyrd she immediately stands out among the backing vocalists. She has that look in her eye of being a real character, someone who eats life. Reading about Skynyrd she came across as a tough chick who could drink the boys under the table and didn't take shit off anybody. Listening close to the backing vocals she sang closely with Ronnie Van Zant, often doubling his parts on songs such as TUESDAY'S GONE.
In 2008 Darren Howells, at the time editor for Blues Matters magazine, asked me to write an article on Skynyrd. Wanting to avoid the usual cliches (mention of the plane crash was taboo for my article) I wanted to detail how this group combined the Blues, Country and Gospel of their southern backgrounds with the current sounds of the time they grew up in (most notably the British Invasion) to create a body of work that has become as much an American icon as Chevy, football and apple pie. I had had a couple e-mail exchanges with JoJo via MySpace and she seemed very approachable. We discussed doing an interview over Skype but then each got busy with other things and it fell by the wayside.
A year later I scanned an interview with Skynyrd for a Japanese music magazine Music Life (March '77, Ted Nugent cover) and tagged her in the photos when they were uploaded to MySpace. Talks about the interview resumed. This modern-day technology was a bit baffling to her but she was eager to learn more about it. Having recently bought a new laptop with webcam she liked the idea of doing the interview over Skype as opposed to the phone, almost like talking face to face. Sadly, she became sick just as it was getting underway. A few months later I heard she'd had cancer surgery and recovery was slow. Then on the morning of this writing (July 3rd, 2010) I heard from Tammy Michelle Van Zant, Ronnie's eldest daughter whom I had also become acquainted with via MySpace, that JoJo had died on June 24th after suffering quite a bit towards the end.
While going through old e-mails and messages for this article I found that most of the e-mails from her were gone. Usually these are saved in a separate folder and I'm at a loss to explain what happened. So I'm forced to recount from memory something she told me that was intended for the article; Ronnie Van Zant was a gentleman who kept his word. JoJo was a co-writer on THAT SMELL, which Gene Odom (roadie and childhood friend of Van Zant) confirmed when someone interviewed him. The Honkettes were on salary and somehow the legal end of things prevented her from receiving her writer's credit on the album. Van Zant intended to fix that but the album was only out three days when he died.
But a few messages remain in my Inbox and include a few things that I believe she would want shared at this time. Reminiscing on playing Japan with Skynyrd, "Those were the days. Too much saki!!! 'Saki to me' I used to say and it did. That promoter over there was wonderful; Mr. Udo."
After uploading the Music Life article she wrote, "Thanks so much and I am so grateful you offered to share with me! It is bad enough they never paid me for singing on any of those projects, so it would be nice to have a few photos, etc. for my children to see. I am a part of rock and roll history regardless and they can never take that away from me!" Hunter S. Thompson's famous quote comes irresistibly to mind. It's infuriating to think of how musicians who played or sang on landmark recordings get shuffled off to the side. When Skynyrd reformed in '87 for the Tribute Tour the surviving Honkettes (Leslie Hawkins survived the crash and JoJo was the only one not on the plane) were never called. When Skynyrd was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame a private individual flew the Honkettes out on his own tab. Without that person, who wishes to remain anonymous, they wouldn't be in the video clips from that night.
JoJo was always gracious whenever we e-mailed. A gregarious personality whose authenticity easily translated to the written word, something not easily done in e-mails. The tone of her writing was exactly the same as any video interviews I've seen. She was who she was, plain and simple, and that has always been one of the most admirable qualities of many Southern Rock musicians.
One of the accounts that sums her up best is from somebody who saw her with Skynyrd. Journalist Nishie Takehiro saw Skynyrd at Nakano Sun Plaza on January 15th, their 2nd of three nights in Tokyo. In the March 2006 issue of Beatleg, another Japanese music magazine, he reminisced, "Between the 12th and 13th row at Sun Plaza was a walkway, I looked back and JoJo Billingsley had come out to watch FREE BIRD. She was hanging out with the crowd and I was surprised when she shook my hand." Sitting right there with the rest of the audience, enjoying the show...