Tribute For William Pursell, Musician of the Nashville Sound, Dies at 94


This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

William Pursell, a composer and Nashville studio pianist with a grounding in the conservatory whose version of “Our Winter Love” was propelled onto the singles charts in 1963 and became a Christmas playlist favorite, died on Sept. 3 in Nashville. He was 94.

His daughter Laura Pursell said he had contracted the novel coronavirus and developed pneumonia.

Mr. Pursell was touring as a jazz and R&B musician in 1960 when the country singer Eddy Arnold heard him play and suggested that he seek work in Nashville, the country music capital. Columbia Records signed him, and two years later his piano performance of “Our Winter Love,” by Johnny Cowell, accompanied by massed strings and a chorus of oohs and ahhs, hit No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100.

A full-length album, “Our Winter Love,” released in 1963, reached No. 15 on the Billboard 200.

By one account Mr. Pursell and a colleague, the saxophonist Bill Justis, were captivated by the song after hearing it played on a demonstration record at the wrong speed.

But in “Crooked River City: The Musical Life of Nashville’s William Pursell” (2018), by Terry Wait Klefstad, he was quoted as saying that he had never made money from the recording despite its success.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Mr. Pursell worked as a recording session pianist for stars like Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Johnny Paycheck.

He earned two Grammy nominations. One was for his performance on Ken Medema’s 1974 album, “Listen.” The second was for his 1978 arrangement of “We Three Kings” for a National Geographic album.

Whitney William Pursell was born on June 9, 1926, in Oakland, Calif., to Arthur and Delia (Peterson) Pursell. His mother was a nurse; his father was a high school principal and an amateur astronomer and clarinetist.

Raised in Tulare in California’s Central Valley, Mr. Pursell studied composition at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, interrupting his education during World War II to serve as an arranger for the Army Air Forces Band. He entered the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., in 1949 and graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in composition. He earned a doctor of musical arts degree there in 1991.

Mr. Pursell began teaching composition at the Belmont University School of Music in Nashville in 1980 and retired in 2017.

In addition to his daughter Laura, an actress and singer, his survivors include two other daughters, Ellen Spicer and Margaret Pursell; his sons Bill and Arthur Pursell; and four grandchildren. Another daughter, Sharon, died in 2012. His first two marriages ended in divorce. His wife, Julie (Crow) Pursell, died in 2018.

Mr. Pursell’s recording studio tenure coincided with a nuanced transition from the honky-tonk country music popularized by the Grand Ole Opry to the smoother so-called Nashville Sound. According to “Crooked River City,” Mr. Pursell played an important role in that transformation without getting credit for it.

Dr. Klefstad suggested that Mr. Pursell’s contributions may have been discounted because he had come from California, not from the South, and because, unlike many of his country music colleagues, he had been trained as a classical musician and “was not savvy enough, at least at first, to conceal his abilities.”

“To Nashville musicians,” Dr. Klefstad wrote, “his ability to read music and play Rachmaninoff was just one more sign that the traditional Nashville country sound was fading.”



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