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From Southern rock to the Solid Rock

The story of Jo Jo Billingsley White

By James E.Cossey

Deborah Jo Billingsley, born in Memphis and reared in Mississippi, is the youngest of seven children. She began singing in church at age 3; and by the time she turned 12, she was a soloist in the choir at First Baptist Church in Senatobia. She began singing in a local band during her high school years; and in 1972, she joined a band called “Oil Can Harry,” traveling to 15 countries in just a matter of weeks.

After a year and a half with the band, she was introduced by a friend to the sound engineer for the popular Southern rock group Lynyrd Skynyrd, which was putting together an entourage of female backup singers. Her friend introduced her to Ronnie Van Zant, the leader of the group, who, without an audition, said to the others, “She’ll do just fine!” Deborah Jo was given the stage name Jo Jo Billingsley and went on the road with the group almost immediately. Two weeks after she was hired, she was on stage in London, England.

This was Deborah Jo’s introduction to the wide world of rock and roll — and with it, the wilder world of drugs, alcohol and party life. For three and a half years she traveled with Lynyrd Skynyrd to major cities around the world. The band carried a schedule of some 200 bookings a year, with rehearsals on their days off. It was a 24/7 lifestyle!

Deborah Jo last sang with Lynyrd Skynyrd in August 1977. The band had decided to eliminate the female backup singers and return to their original sound with all male voices. In October, after only a short hiatus for the girls, the group decided to reinstate the female singers. Ronnie Van Zant called Jo Jo, asking her to rejoin the group for a concert in Greenville, S.C., after which they would fly to Baton Rouge and then to Little Rock. Since she was at her mother’s house in Mississippi, only a few hours from Little Rock, Jo Jo persuaded him to allow her to sit out the Greenville and Baton Rouge concerts and join them in Little Rock.

The same night she had agreed to rejoin the band, Jo Jo had a horrible dream — so horrific that she sat up in bed screaming. Her mother ran from an adjoining room and sought to calm her. “It’s only a dream; go back to sleep,” her mother told her. But, Jo Jo explains, it was so real it was as if it were a divine warning.

The next morning she attempted to phone the band and warn them of her dream. Finally reaching Allen Collins, a guitarist for the group, she related her nightmare from a few hours before. Fire had recently been seen coming from one of the engines on their leased Convair 240, he confided. She later learned that on that very morning, the band had discussed their concerns about the plane and had decided that after this particular tour, they would relinquish their lease and fly commercial airlines instead.

But that was not to be. On Oct. 20, 1977, en route from Greenville, S.C., to Baton Rouge, La., the Convair crashed in a forest near McComb, Miss., killing singer/songwriter and band leader Ronnie Van Zant, along with vocalist/guitarist Steve Gaines, vocalist Cassie Gaines (Steve Gaines’ sister), and assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick. Also killed were the pilot, Walter McCreary, and copilot, William Gray. Most of the others on board were seriously injured, some critically.

Jo Jo continued in the music industry until 1980, and in a lifestyle that she best describes as “running from God.” During those years she was severely beaten three times, once left for dead.

The most obvious scars in Jo Jo’s life, however, were emotional, not physical. Though they were deep, the most painful wounds were not those acquired during her time away from God, but those inflicted by church people once she sought to make her way back to Christ. After her marriage and the birth of her son, Jo Jo wanted to return to church, but because of her past lifestyle she was rejected in one church after another. But in February 1985, she ventured into a little church in Oak Cliff, Texas, where she found love, acceptance and forgiveness. It was in this church that Jo Jo was genuinely saved and delivered, in her words, “from alcohol, drugs and myself.” Jo Jo Billingsley White had made a complete turnaround — from Southern rock to the Solid Rock!

Shortly after moving to “Sweet Home Alabama” (Cullman, to be exact), Jo Jo was met by a Spirit-filled “Welcome Wagon” lady who introduced her to Pentecost by asking, “Has anyone ever told you about the Holy Spirit?” Her reply, reminiscent of the Ephesians’ response in Acts 19, was, “I have never even heard of the Holy Spirit!” By simple faith, Deborah Jo was baptized in the Holy Spirit with the initial evidence of speaking in other tongues. Her testimony is, “I prayed with someone at the altar and received the Holy Ghost baptism, not knowing what I had.”

Even though she had run from God for years, Jo Jo had known from her teens that God had placed a call on her life. She had felt she was called to be a preacher, but the church she grew up in had discouraged her because of her gender. A few weeks after her baptism in the Holy Spirit, however, a friend took her to Spirit Life Church of God in Cullman, Ala., where, she says, “I found the type of worship I had always longed for — Spirit-filled and lively.” At Spirit Life, Pastor Andrew Ball and his wife, Ginger, accepted Jo Jo and her family, embraced her call, and began to disciple them.

Today, Deborah Jo Billingsley White is a wife, the mother of a grown son and a teenage daughter, and an exhorter in the Church of God. She and her husband, also a member at Spirit Life, are currently preparing for Deborah Jo’s advancement to ordained minister. Although employed as a secretary at Spirit Life Church, Deborah Jo also frequently travels, ministering through the Word and song. In April 2007, she released her first solo CD of original songs. Though she is extremely talented and has developed a dynamic stage presence, her ministry in song is best described as anointed.

On March 13, 2006, at the induction of the Lynyrd Skynyrd band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, current leader Johnny Van Zant (younger brother of founder Ronnie Van Zant) invited Deborah Jo to appear with the group. As she was introduced to the crowd, they were instructed, “Watch what you say — Rev. Jo Jo is here!”

From Church of God Evangel, June 2007. Excerpted with permission.


Dr. JAMES E. COSSEY is editor in chief of the Church of God Evangel.

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