Belmont University professor William “Bill” Pursell was known for his Music Row session work, his pop instrumental hits and his classical works as a pianist/composer.
He passed away at age 94 last Thursday, Sept. 3. Pursell’s death was due to COVID-19-related pneumonia, according to the Associated Press.
Pursell was raised in Tulare, California, in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley. He began playing piano at age 3 and was trained to be a concert pianist. At age 15, he was sent to Berkeley to continue his music studies.
After high-school graduation, he was awarded a scholarship to study at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. Pursell’s education was interrupted by World War II, during which he was the arranger for the U.S. Air Force Band.
In 1949, he began attending the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. While earning his B.A. and M.A., he studied under renowned classical composer Howard Hanson.
He toured as a jazz and R&B musician until Eddy Arnold suggested he move to Nashville in 1960. In the studios of Music Row, Pursell soon emerged as a key sideman in the new country style known as The Nashville Sound.
He played keyboards on records by Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Chet Atkins, Joan Baez, Marty Robbins, Dan Fogelberg, Johnny Paycheck and more. During this period, he also began teaching music history and theory at Vanderbilt University.
Bill Pursell’s easy-listening piano performance of “Our Winter Love” became a pop hit in 1963. It was followed by “Loved” and “Stranger.” All three tunes appeared on his debut LP for Columbia Records. It was followed by two other Columbia collections, 1964’s Chasing a Dream and 1965’s A Remembered Love. He next recorded Bill Pursell at the Piano: The “In” Sound of Country and Western Music for Spar Records in Nashville.
During this period, Bill Pursell increasingly emphasized his classical training. He became a regular soloist with The Nashville Symphony. He composed piano sonatas, overtures, symphonies, preludes, concertos, tone poems and operas.
He also composed theme music for Six Flags Over Georgia, Cypress Gardens and Circus World, as well as ad jingles and incidental music for films and television productions. His work as an arranger led to Grammy Award nominations in 1974 and 1978.
Pursell reemerged on disc with the 1976 pop LP Bill Pursell and The Nashville Sweat Band. It spawned a British disco hit titled “Now.”
He joined the faculty of Belmont University’s new music school in 1980. Among his students over the years to come were Brad Paisley and Trisha Yearwood. Belmont premiered his opera, Crooked River City, in 2016. He retired the following year at age 91.
The University Press of Mississippi published Crooked River City: The Musical Life of Nashville’s William Pursell in 2018. Written by Terry Wait Klefstad, it profiled one of Nashville’s most eclectic musical personalities.
Bill Pursell is survived by his daughter, Laura Pursell, son Bill Pursell and stepdaughters Ellen Spicer and Margaret Pursell. He was preceded in death by daughter Sharon Pursell in 2012 and wife Julie Pursell in 2018. Donations to the William Whitney Pursell Scholarship in Composition can be made to the Belmont University School of Music.
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