Deborah Billingsley: 'Sweet Home Up in Heaven'
By Aaron Little, Shannon Woodland, Scott Ross
The 700 Club
No soundtrack from the 1970s is complete without Lynyrd Skynyrd Classics, Sweet Home Alabama, Freebird, and Tuesday’s Gone. But the cast of characters that made the sound so memorable was bigger than most people realize. Deborah Jo Billingsley was one of Skynyrd’s three back-up singers known as the Honkettes. They recorded and toured with the band from 1975 through 1977.
The 700 Club’s Scott Ross talked with Deborah Jo Billingsley about her experience:
Deb Billingsley: My name is Deborah Jo, and when I went on the road with Lynyrd Skynyrd, there were two “Joe’s” in our entourage. Every time somebody would say, “Joe,” we’d both turn our heads. So, Ronnie Van Zant, the lead singer, said, “From now on, you’re Jo-Jo.” I went, “OK.”
Deborah Jo, the youngest of seven children, was born and raised in a Christian family from rural Mississippi. She had a passion for music, sang in her church choir and studied music and voice at the University of Mississippi. Then her father died of a heart attack at age 51.
Scott Ross: How’d that affect you?
Deb: Traumatic. I mean, I loved him so much.
Deborah always blamed God for taking him too soon. She didn’t go back to school and struggled to get her life back together. But she found comfort and acceptance working as a back-up singer. Her fortunes changed one night at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. Word was out that the band was looking for touring back-up singers, and Deborah made her way backstage.
Deb: I went into this room, and there was Ronnie Van Zant, the lead singer for Skynyrd. So I walked through the door and Ronnie looked at me and he tipped his hat and he smiled and he tipped his hat back and he said, “She’ll do just fine.” He hired me on the spot. I never had to sing for him, never had to sing for him.
Scott: Why did that happen?
Deb: Because I think I was just destined to - it was destined to be.
Scott: Now you’re with Lynyrd Skynyrd, a big time deal; I mean, you guys played for thousands of people!
Deb: 350,000 was the biggest gig I ever played with them.
Scott: Good grief.
Scott: How did you feel about all of this?
Deborah sighs and laughs.
Scott: Really? I mean, did you buy into the whole lifestyle? I mean, the sex, drugs and rock n’roll - to use the phrase?
Deb: Yeah - yes.
Scott: Around the world?
Deb: Three times.
Scott: Three times around the world? Very successful?
Deb: Very successful. Every show I ever played was sold out.
Scott: Really? Did you get into the whole drug thing too?
Scott: What did this do to your life?
Deb: Disintegrated it. After my dad died, I got mad at God. So I shut the door on God, and that opened the door to the devil wide open.
For a short time, the band decided to tour without back-up singers; but by the fall of 1977 they had reconsidered and requested that Deborah rejoin them on their current tour. Ronnie asked her to meet them immediately in Greenville, South Carolina.
Deb: While I was talking to him on the phone I heard this one word. That word was, “wait.”
Scott: You heard that inside of you?
Deb: Yeah, wait.
She agreed to meet them a few days later at the Little Rock show. Then that night…
Scott: You had a dream. What was the dream?
Deb: I saw the plane crash.
Scott: Did you know it was the Lord at that time? You just had the dream of the plane crashing?
Deb: It was like the most vivid dream I’ve ever had; it was like in Technicolor. And I saw the plane (shake) and then, you know, I saw it smack the ground. And I was like, “Oooh.” I woke up screaming and my mom ran in there and was like, “Honey, what in the world is wrong?” And I said, “Momma, I dreamed the plane crashed.” She said, “It’s just a dream; go back to sleep.” And I thought, “I can’t.”
The next evening the plane carrying 26 people: Lynyrd Skynryd and their entourage - crashed in Mississippi. Six people, including lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, fellow back-up singer Cassie Gaines, were killed. Deborah remembers getting a hysterical call from her brother.
Deb: “The plane has crashed and Ronnie is dead.” I was like, “Oh, my God!” You know, it was horrible. And right then, I looked on the news, the special bulletin, “Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crashed.” I was like, “Oh my God.” I mean, I had been drinking and I sobered up like, boom.
Scott: How did you reflect on your own personal life at that point?
Deb: I just thought, “Why have I been spared?”
Deborah’s survivor guilt was fueled by drugs and alcohol. She stopped singing altogether. She married in 1981, but the relationship turned abusive and her depression intensified. She gave birth to a son in 1983 and decided there had to be a better life for her family.
Deb: One day, I just got up and I said, “I’m going to church.” So I got my son ready, he’s just a little thing - got him ready and put him in the nursery; and went and sat in the back row of that church that day. I didn’t know anybody. I thought, “God, if you don’t help me, there’s no hope for me.” Because you know, I had everything seemingly, but I was the most miserable person on the face of the earth. And that little preacher, he got up there and I don’t remember anything he said. I don’t remember anything the choir sang. I just know that all through that service, the Lord was speaking to me, saying, “Child, I love you. I will forgive you. Come home to me child. Come home to me. My yoke is easy, my burden is light. I died for you. Let me, let me help you. Come to me child.” All during that service. So during the invitation that day, I didn’t walk, I ran.
Scott: In front of the whole church?
Deb: In front of the whole church. I could care less. I had a divine encounter with the King of the universe. And I said, “Lord, please forgive me because I made the biggest mess of my life.” And you know the good thing about it? He forgave me.
Scott: You could tell right away?
Deb: Right away. And not only did He forgive me, but He forgot the whole dirty mess.
Deborah finally found in Christ the peace and love she’d been chasing in the world of rock n’ roll. It’s been over 20 years and today she lives with her husband and teenage daughter in Alabama. She says God has even restored her music career with her latest release, I Will Obey. Deborah is eternally grateful for one persistent church lady from Alabama that convinced her to sing again after becoming a Christian.
Scott: Did you go to the church and sing?
Deb: Yes. She wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Scott: You didn’t sing Sweet Home Alabama, did you?
Deb: No, but I sang Sweet Home Up in Heaven (laughs). I sanctified it a little bit - amazing.
Scott: What a life, and it ain’t over.
Deb: That’s right. And the Lord gave me a chorus about that: (singing) “It ain’t over, ‘til it’s over. Don’t give up, don’t give in; press on my friend. It’s not your battle, just believe what is promised. God is good; He will keep you ‘til the end.”
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