Arranger / Conductor Bill Walker Passes
Noted as one of the most prominent musical arrangers in the history of Nashville music, Bill Walker passed away at age 95 on May 26.
The musician was famed for his elegant written arrangements that gave extra polish to the Nashville Sound in the late 1960s. He was also the musical director of the Johnny Cash Show on ABC-TV (1969-71), led orchestras for the annual CMA Awards Show, provided charts for dozens of Nashville television specials and was the music director of The Statler Brothers Show on TNN (1991-98).
Born William Alfred Walker, he was born in Sydney, Australia. The keyboardist trained at the Sydney Conservatory. Walker went to work for RCA Records in South Africa in 1959. While working for the label, he produced some recording sessions for country superstar Jim Reeves (1923-1964) in Johannesburg. He also composed the score for the star’s South African movie Kimberly Jim. Reeves invited Walker to come to Nashville, promising him a job.
But the weekend Walker arrived in Music City was when Jim Reeves perished in a 1964 plane crash. So instead, Bill Walker went to work for Chet Atkins (1924-2001). Atkins hired him to write string arrangements for superstar Eddy Arnold (1918-2008).
These helped to fashion the uptown, tuxedo-clad style that revived Arnold’s career. Walker’s handiwork can be notably heard on the lush arrangement of Arnold’s huge 1965 hit “Make the World Go Away.” Walker also wrote orchestral arrangements for Arnold’s concert tours.
By the late 1960s, Bill Walker was the busiest arranger-conductor in Music City. Johnny Cash (1932-2003) hired him for his network TV series and closed each episode by shouting “Goodnight, Bill Walker!” Walker also worked on many of Cash’s subsequent TV specials, including his annual Christmas extravaganzas.
Walker’s other TV credits include Ann-Margret: Rhinestone Cowgirl, Music Hall America, Nashville Remembers Elvis on His Birthday, Perry Como and His Nashville Friends, Lynn Anderson & Tina Turner in Nashville, Conway Twitty on the Mississippi, Opryland in Russia, Crystal Gayle in Sweden, George Burns in Nashville and the Music City News Awards. He was retained by the CMA for 15 of its awards telecasts throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Hits featuring Bill Walker’s string arrangements include Johnny Cash’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (1970), Marty Robbins’ “My Woman My Woman My Wife” (1970), Eddy Arnold’s “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” (1968), Roy Clark’s “Come Live With Me” (1973), Sammi Smith’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” (1971) and George Jones’ epic “He Stopped Loving Her Today” (1980). Walker also worked as a session musician, providing piano, harpsichord, vibraphone or organ accompaniment.
As either an arranger or a sideman, Bill Walker worked on records by Claude King, Carl Perkins, Slim Whitman, Connie Smith, Al Hirt, Floyd Cramer, Merle Haggard, Jerry Wallace, Bobby Bare, Skeeter Davis, Bobby Vinton, Hank Locklin, Jerry Reed, the Rev. Billy Graham, Grandpa Jones, Hank Snow, Boots Randolph, Dolly Parton and many more.
His studio work led to romance. Beginning in 1968, singer Jeanine Ogletree worked as a member of The Anita Kerr Singers in Nashville, often on Eddy Arnold recording sessions. She and Bill Walker married in 1971.
In addition to working as an arranger and studio musician, Walker was a record producer. He was contracted by Capitol Records in 1971-73 to work with Wanda Jackson, Roy Rogers, Billy Walker, Ferlin Husky and others. Bill Walker also produced Donna Fargo’s award-winning 1972 hits “Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.” and “Funny Face.”
Bill Walker and his son Jeff Walker (1950-2015) formed Con Brio Records, one of the most successful independent country labels of the 1970s. Its artists, many of whom he produced, included Jan Howard, Reg Lindsay, Dale McBride, Don King, Terri Hollowell (who married Jeff Walker), Lori Parker, Sheila Tilton, Chester Lester and Scott Summer. Con Brio operated from 1975 to 1979.
During the 1980s, he branched out into film soundtrack composing. His instrumental work backed such actors as Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Gregory Peck.
Between 1991 and 1998. Bill Walker was the musical director of The Statler Brothers Show. The TV series was the top-rated show on TNN throughout its seven-year existence.
In 2015, Bill Walker was saluted by the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum in its “Nashville Cats: A Celebration of Music City Musicians” program. Also that year, the Nashville Musicians Union honored him for 50 years of service.
In recent years, Bill and Jeanine Walker frequently collaborated on musical projects. They have recorded four gospel albums together and performed at various venues both in the U.S. and abroad. She has also taught voice at Belmont University.
Son Jeff Walker founded the Aristo Media publicity and promotions firm on Music Row in 1980. Since his sudden death at age 65, that business has been run by his daughter, Christy Walker Watkins. Son Jon Walker. Is a Music Row technology professional with the associated AristoDigital firm.
Walker is survived by his wife, singer Jeanine (Ogletree) Walker, daughter Beth Walker, son Colin Walker, sister Julianne Smith, brother Robert Walker, 13 grandchildren, and 21 great-grandchildren. Walker was predeceased by his son, Music Row leader and AristoMedia Group Founder, Jeff Walker, son Peter Walker, and daughter Lisa Gibson.
Details surrounding the service will be released at a later date.