As a child Powell joined the Boy Scouts where he became interested in the drums after being asked to join the band on a Sunday morning parade. After Etheridge Secondary Modern School he studied Metallurgy at Wednesbury Technical College. Powell then worked as a metallurgist in a small foundry before turning professional as a drummer. He was athletic and a keen amateur boxer, although an easy going personality, and apparently had his nose broken three times. It was he who was sent around with the hat money collection amongst early audiences.
Powell became a member of The Vendors, a band that guitarist Dave Hill later joined. The Vendors became the N'Betweens and bass guitarist / keyboard player / violinist / guitarist Jim Lea got in at an audition. Powell then spotted Noddy Holder playing with Steve Brett & The Mavericks and he and Hill got Holder to join the N'Betweens. They regrouped as Ambrose Slade, changed the name to Slade and the success began. It always amused them that they played their first rehearsal on 1 April.
He co-wrote a number of Slade's earlier songs, mainly with Lea. Many of them can be found on the 1970 Slade album Play it Loud. He also co-wrote one of Slade's Top 10 hits "Look Wot You Dun" with Holder and Lea in 1972, and made the breathing noises in the background of the song.
Powell started drumming on a borrowed Olympic kit as a youngster. He moved up to a deep blue Hayman set for his work with Slade until the early 1970s. From there he changed to Ludwig, but in the mid-2000s he switched to Pearl as the original Ludwig firm had changed ownership. Currently he states he likes a four-piece kit with a shallow snare drum.
On 4 July 1973, when Slade were popular in Europe and number one in the UK Singles Chart with "Skweeze Me Pleeze Me", Powell was badly injured in a serious car crash in Wolverhampton, in which his 20-year-old girlfriend/fiancee Angela Morris was killed. He broke both of his ankles and five of his ribs. Surgeons had to drill into his skull to ease the internal pressure and he was unconscious for six days but he came round and eventually pulled through, finding the best therapy to be work. By mid-August Powell was back recording with the group. When the Top 5 hit "My Friend Stan" was recorded, Powell was still walking with the aid of a stick and had to be lifted onto his drum-kit. The accident left Powell with no senses of taste and smell, and to this day he has severe problems with his short-term memory, whilst his long-term memory has remained unaffected.
When Slade split up in 1991 Don Powell owned and operated an antique import/export company before he reconvened the band as Slade II in 1993 with Dave Hill. He has remained active with various line-ups to this day and has released the albums Keep on Rockin' and Cum on Let's Party!. The name of the band was shortened back to Slade in 1997. In 2000 Powell had a small cameo role in the BBC TV version of Lorna Doone.
Powell has been married twice and for a number of years he lived in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, England. In 2004 he moved to Silkeborg, Denmark where he now lives with his Danish wife Hanna.
In December 2005, Powell appeared in the Channel 4 TV documentary Bring Back...The Christmas Number One.
A long-time fan of Ringo Starr, Powell contributed the foreword to the 2016 book "Ringo Starr And The Beatles Beat" by Alex Cain and Terry McCusker. As the drummer with Colonel Bagshot, McCusker toured with Slade in the 1970s and the two have remained firm friends.
Powell collaborated with Lise Lyng Falkenberg on his biography since 2006, in part using the notebooks and diaries he kept due to his problems with short term memory following his 1973 accident. The biography, titled Look Wot I Dun - My Life in Slade was released via the publisher Music Sales Ltd on 14 October 2013. It looks in detail at Slade's long career and Powell's life, which included booze-ups with Ozzy Osbourne. Additionally in 2013, Powell published his own official website, and in early 2014 he wrote up his diary entries for 1977 and 1978.