Header image  
Original Lynyrd Skynyrd Honkette  

Rest In Peace, Jo Jo!!


How did ‘The Honkettes” form?

Lynyrd Skynyrd had hired Leslie Hawkins because she had sung with the Wet Willie Band.  They had already known Leslie because she lived down there in Jacksonville, Fl.  And my friend, Bob O’Neil, did the lights for Lynyrd Skynyrd, Fleetwood Mac and others.  He turned my name into them.  I got a call to meet them up in Nashville.  I went up to Nashville and Ronnie Van Zant hired me on the spot.  The first time I met Ronnie, I walked through the door, backstage in the dressing room; he and Peter Rudge (manager) were in the dressing room.  Ronnie had his feet propped up on the table and he had his hat on.  I walked through the door and Ronnie tipped his hat back and smiled at me and said “She’ll do just fine” and he hired me on the spot.  They asked me if I knew another girl singer.  I thought, no… because all those girls in Memphis were so hateful to me when I was coming up singing and they wouldn’t even speak to me.  I thought that I certainly was not going to give their names to them.  Then I remembered Cassie Gaines.  She and I worked together in Memphis at this little place called Pancho’s Mexican Restaurant.  That was my first job.  We were both waitresses there.  I knew she was a singer and she knew I was a singer but we had never sung together before Skynyrd.  She was going to Memphis State at the time in the art and drama department.  So I called Cassie and asked her if she would like to come on the road with us.  I told her it was with the Lynyrd Skynyrd band and she said…”Who??”  She had never heard of them.  I told her that they had albums out, go buy them, listen to them and call me back!  So she did and she called me and said “well, their pretty good.”  I said “Cassie, we can travel and sing so let’s do it” and she agreed.  So that’s how we got together.  The three of us had never sung together before.

Your real name is Deborah Jo Billingsley (White).  How did you get your nickname of JoJo?

I used the name Jo as a stage name with another group that I sang with in Memphis.  Lynyrd Skynyrd had a guitar roadie named Joe Osborne.  So there were two of us on the road named Jo.  It was confusing.  When ever anyone said Jo, both of us turned our heads or answered.  So one day, Ronnie came up to me and said, From now on, you’re ‘JoJo’.  And it stuck!    

When did you discover your voice and when did you pursue a singing career?

I started singing when I was three years old.  I have just always wanted to sing.  I was created to sing.  I started singing in public at three and took dance lessons.  I sang at recitals, in church, I was a soloist all through junior high and high school and I just always loved to sing.  My daddy died when I was seventeen and I had never worked before so I started singing for a living. 

When did you first hear your voice on the radio?  When was it and where were you?

The first time I heard myself on the radio, I had already moved to Jacksonville to sing with Skynyrd, and I was driving down the road minding my own business, I was by myself when I heard myself on the radio.  I started shouting AHHH!  It was awesome!  I pulled up to a red light next to another car and I wanted so bad to yell to them ‘That’s ME’!  I can’t really remember what song it was but I think it was ‘Cry For The Bad Man’.  I joined the band during the ‘Gimme Back My Bullet’s Tour’ The album had already been recorded and some other girls sang in the studio for the album but we played all the live shows during that tour.

You introduced Cassie Gaines into the band which ultimately led to the addition of her brother, Steve Gaines, as the third guitarist in the band.  Can you tell me how that happened?

I loved Cassie.  I had gone to visit with her in Oklahoma, where she was from, and we went to go see Steve play with his band, Crawdaddy.  Cassie and I were able to jam with them that night.  Cassie knew the songs but I had never heard them before but he was wonderful.  We did a song called ‘Give it to get it; to get it you've got to give it!’  I had never heard anything like that before.  Steve was just picking away and he was awesome.  I met his wife, Teresa, and stayed at Cassie’s house with their parents, Bud and Larue and her other brother Bob.  We just had a big time.  And that’s how we all met.  When I joined the band, there were only two guitarists, Allen Collins and Gary Rossington.  So Ronnie was looking for another guitar player.  We all went to Tulsa, Ok and we tried out several guitarists including Jeff Beck and several others.  About fifteen to twenty guitarists tried out for the band and none of them seemed to gel with the band.  But when we were up there, Steve came up to see us and Cassie told Ronnie that her brother was there and asked him if he could play and of course all of our concerts were sold out and Ronnie was reluctant.  Cassie promised him that he was really good and Ronnie said ‘ok’.  We played ‘T for Texas’.  When Steve started up on that slide guitar, we knew that he was the third guitar player.  It was just a phenomenal moment.  I am not sure if there is any recording of that performance but it was awesome.  Cassie and I were standing behind Allen’s amplifier when Steve first slid into the song.  We looked at each other and just said WOW.  Ronnie turned and looked back at us and we both yelled at him “That’s number three!”  So Ronnie asked him that night and told him that he wanted him to come on the road with us and he did. 

What was it like to be a part of a band that shaped music history and formed southern rock as a genre of music?

It was an honor and a pleasure and a privilege.  I truly believe that it was God ordained that I sang with the Lynyrd Skynyrd Band.  They are great musicians and great people.  All the concerts that I sang with them were sold out shows and of all those times I only heard them mess up twice.  I mean they hit it every night!  Ronnie forgot his words one time and once Allen was sick and he messed up on one of his riffs when we were in Boston.  After his performance that night, he took his guitar and held it up by the bottom and threw it down on the ground breaking the neck off the guitar then ran out and admitted himself into the hospital.  That was the only two times that their performances were not perfect.  And that time that Ronnie forgot his lyrics I just wanted to go out there and help him but I didn’t want him to hit me either!  I didn’t know what to do so I just sat on the side and prayed.  Ronnie also forgot what song we were playing on the live album.  It was ‘Whiskey Rock A Roller’ that we were going to play and that’s where I laugh on the album and say ‘It’s a whiskey rock a roller baby!’ and they left it on the album. 

In death, Lynyrd Skynyrd became an icon.  What do you think would have happened if history took a different path and the fateful plane crash didn’t happen?  Where do you think Skynyrd would be today?

I think that we would still be recording today and I think that Leslie, Cassie and I would have done solo projects and probably a project together as the Honkettes.  I also think that Ronnie would have done a solo project as well.  Ronnie was a song writer.  He wrote a song nearly every day.  He would get a hook and write it on a napkin or something and call Allen to come down with his guitar and the song was there.  It’s just like when we wrote the song ‘That Smell’.  I was there the night that was written.  Allen and I got to practice early and Ronnie was there.  Ronnie, Allen and I wrote that song.  Not many people know that.  By the time everyone else got there the song was ready.  Everyone just showed up and learned their parts.  It was written about when Gary hit that tree.  The three of us just sat there and wrote that song.  Ronnie and I had a handshake agreement that he was going to give me a percentage of all the album sales of that song.  Of course, I was never paid for that song because we didn’t have it on paper.  I’d be a very rich woman today if we had just put it on paper and I know that Ronnie would have because he was a gentleman.  I do know that Skynyrd would still be going strong because I had gone through my wild moments and I was straightening up and Ronnie was too.  It was beginning to focus on the music not the ‘life’.  It’s hard being a rock n roll star!

What ever happened to the other Honkette, Leslie?

She’s living in Florida.  She suffered severely in the plane crash.  She broke her neck amongst other injuries and her neck has been fused together several times.  She has undergone plastic surgeries and has fought hepatitis C from tainted blood.  She has had it hard.  She has had to bite and claw for every bill to be paid.  She hasn’t been treated right.  She lives in Florida like I said before, and she rescues animals.  She’s married to another musician and they have grandbabies and they are happy except for her health issues.  She and I did a tour together with the Saturday Night Special band but she has to take it real easy because of her health. 

You were not on the plane the night that it tragically crashed.  Where were you and tell me about the dream that you had just day’s before that fateful night.

The last show that I played with Skynyrd was in August of 1977 at the Aladdin Theatre in Las Vegas.  From what I understand, Ronnie wanted to get it back to just the guys in the group.  Well, I had been ill anyway, I was an alcoholic and a drug addict by that time and I had been physically sick.  I had flown home after that to stay with my mother in Mississippi.  Cassie had lived there in Florida at that time, and Ronnie hired Leslie and Cassie back.  People were calling me telling me that they had them both back and I just said that was great, I’m happy for them.  I was just at the point where I didn’t care because I had to get my health back.  I thought to myself that Ronnie knows where I am at if he wants me he can call me and that’s exactly what happened.  They did four shows without me in Florida then before they went to Greenville, SC, Ronnie called me.  He said that I had to come back.  He needed me.  On a lot of songs, including ‘Tuesday’s Gone’, I sing harmony with Ronnie while the others sing backup.  I guess that he thought there was a hole without me.  But he called me and asked me to come back.  He wanted me to meet them up in Greenville and bring all my stuff.  You see, I took home economics in school and I sew and cook and I used to sew for the band.  I would take my sewing kit and patch up his pants or whatever.  So while I was talking to him I heard one word in my head.  It said ‘Wait’.  So I told him that I have to get my stuff together so why don’t I meet you two day’s later in Little Rock because my brother and I had planned on going there anyway to see them since it’s only 150 miles from where my mom lived.  So he agreed and I was to meet them in Little Rock.  So it was that night that I went to sleep at my moms and had the most vivid dream that I have ever had in my life.  In my dream, I saw the plane crash.  I saw it smack the ground and it was horrible.  I woke up screaming and my mom came in and woke me and said what in the world is going on?  I said ‘Mom, I dreamed the plane crashed’.  She told me that it was just a dream and I thought no, it was too real.  I already had the schedule of where they were staying so the next day I called up there and left messages all over for them to call me.  Well, finally Allen called me and asked what was wrong?  I told him my dream and he replied that it was funny that you mentioned that because I was sitting on it yesterday and I saw fire come out of one of the engines.  That just reaffirmed for me that they shouldn’t get back on that plane.  From what I understand, they took a vote when they left Greenville and that was going to be their last time on that plane and of course, it was.  That was two day’s before the plane crash that I had that dream.  God just saved me from being on that plane.  It is my understanding that Cassie was sitting in my seat on the plane.  Allen and I always sat up front.  There were two seats that faced each other in the front of the plane.  I rode on that plane many, many times and I always sat up front in one of those seats.

What was your favorite performance with the Lynyrd Skynyrd Band and what was your favorite song to perform?

My favorite song to perform was ‘Tuesday’s Gone’.  My favorite performance was probably at Knebworth.  It was just awesome because of all the people.  I had never seen so many people in all my life.  I am glad they captured it on camera!  Also, anytime we played for Bill Graham was a memorable time too.  I remember playing a show in California with Peter Frampton when Peter’s song ‘Show Me The Way’ came out.  We were the opening act for Peter.  Bill Graham was the promoter for the concert.  It was an outdoor show so they built this big stage with scaffolding.  I was sitting on the stage looking at probably 80 or 90 black limousines down there and one white Rolls Royce.  Bill and I were up there talking and I asked him who the white Rolls was for and he looked at me so sweetly and said ‘for you of course, Jo’. And it certainly was.  At the end of the night that white Rolls Royce pulled up for me alone.  I got in there and there were roses in there and it was wonderful.  He treated me very special.  The next day in the local paper there was an article that read ‘Lynyrd Skynyrd shows Peter Frampton the way’. 

Today, you run a ministry.  How did you get involved with that and what else do you have going on?

Well, I have always loved Jesus and after the plane crash, I knew that he had saved me from being in that plane crash by giving me that dream.  I hadn’t served him for a very long time and when my son was born, in Texas, I knew that I had to get control of my life because I had someone to take care of.  I didn’t go to church for years because when I went, I felt rejected because of what I wore.  I wore my best but I guess my best wasn’t good enough.  But that is all that I had.  I had to ride the bus everyday to work when I lived in Dallas and along the way; one little church caught my attention.  So one Sunday morning I took my son to the nursery and I went to that little church and sat in the back row and I thought to myself.  I thought God if you don’t help me then there is no hope for me.  I had everything but I was still miserable.  The word of God says that the wages of sin is death.  But it also says that the free gift of God is eternal life with Christ Jesus Our Lord.  So, I had everything but my wages were being beaten and left for dead, car wrecks, boat wrecks and motorcycle wrecks.  I had it bad; I had a rough life.  I really had a target on my back that satan was trying to kill me.  Anyway, the Lord spoke to me so sweetly that day and told me that he loved me and he would forgive me if I came back to him.  And that is exactly what I did that day and I never looked back.  When I moved with my husband to Alabama, I hadn’t sung in about seven years.  Someone encouraged me to come and sing at their church.  Each time, I would say no but they stayed persistent and I finally agreed.  I went and sang three songs and shared my testimony and the ministry was born that night.  It was in February of 1987.  It’s exciting because I love all those people that I used to sing for and today I am just singing a different message.  Actually, the message has always been the same.  Ronnie I really believe was called from God to be a prophet and satan hooked Ronnie by his traps early on.  There are only 5 traps and they are: lust of flesh, lust of eyes, the pride of life, deceitfulness of riches, and lust of other things entering in.  Ronnie got his link with fame, glory, money and women.  I really think that Ronnie had a spiritual link with The Lord because he referenced him in so many songs and just the purity of his writing. 

You have a new CD available called ‘I Will Obey’.  What is your favorite track and where is it available?

My favorite song is called ‘Under Arrest’.  When I helped Ronnie write ‘That Smell’, of course everybody knows that song… ooh that smell, the smell of death’s around you.  Well, death has been my worse enemy my whole life because my first memory is from two years old of my grandfather dying.  And I have lost more friends to death over the years.  I hate death.  One evening after a church service, my husband and I were following behind our good friends, Preston and Lisa.  Well, a car pulled out in front of Preston and he T boned that car without ever being able to hit the brakes.  My husband ran into a nearby house to call 911 and I went to the accident.  As I approached the car I heard the Lord speak to me.  He said ‘Arrest the spirit of death’ and so I did.  I said ‘I arrest you, sprit of death’.  And you know death does have a smell about it.  Preston and Lisa were both dead.  Then the Lord told me to lay my hand on Preston and I heard the Lord say ‘call forth the resurrection power of the Lord Jesus Christ to come back into his body’.  Well, nothing happened for a minute or two, but then God brought Preston back from the dead and he spoke to his wife and God brought her back too right in front of my eyes.  That changed my life forever.  That is how I got that song.  It’s a gospel, rock song but it kicks!  I’ve always told God that I wanted to write songs that would be like sermons because most of the people that I want to minister to would never step foot in a church.  But if they could hear the songs, and they could do what the song tells them to do, they can have the results that they need. 

Are you planning on taking this on the road?

If I get invited, YES!  I travel mostly to churches that invite me to come.  Jimmy Van Zant invited me up to Nashville for the Fan Fare and I have had another band ask me to do some stuff with them.  Also, most of the bands on my ‘myspace’ page have asked me to sing with them as well even a band from England asked me to come on stage and sing with them when they come to America.  I am also doing a live interview with some guys in Muscle Shoals where we recorded ‘First and Last’ and we’re going to do a Skynyrd medley.