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Grammy-nominated composer William Pursell dies from COVID-19

William Purcell at the piano
William Purcell at the piano in 2017.
(Pursell Family Archives)

William “Bill” Pursell, a Grammy-nominated composer and studio musician who accompanied such artists as Patsy Cline and Bob Dylan, died Thursday in Nashville at the age of 94.

Pursell’s death came after a “very fast, tough battle with COVID pneumonia,” his daughter and recording artist, Laura Pursell, said in a statement.

Pursell’s song, “Our Winter Love,” became a big seller in 1963. He was twice nominated for a Grammy, the first for inspirational performance (non-classical) on the album “Listen” for Ken Medema in 1974. His second Grammy nomination was for his 1978 arrangement of “We Three Kings” for National Geographic.

Born June 9, 1926 in Oakland, Calif., Pursell was raised in the Central Valley town of Tulare. He studied composition at the Peabody Institute, a music conservatory in Baltimore and, during military service in World War II, he arranged for the U.S. Air Force Band, according to the family. He later studied classical composition at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., earning a master’s degree in composition. In 1953, his arrangement “Christ Looking Over Jerusalem” for the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra was awarded a prize.

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William Pursell in a publicity photo from the 1960s
William Pursell in a publicity photo from the 1960s.
(Pursell Family Archives)

Pursell arrived in Nashville in 1960 at the invitation of legendary country artist Eddy Arnold. Two years later, Pursell was signed as a solo artist with Columbia Records. His hit, “Our Winter Love,” was released the following year. A career highlight, according to his family, was playing with noted guitarist Chet Atkins at a press corps dinner at the White House for President John F. Kennedy.

Through the ’60s and ’70s, Pursell worked as a session pianist for industry greats, including Johnny Cash, Boots Randolph, Marty Robbins, Jim Reeves, Johnny Paycheck, Joan Baez, Willie Nelson, Dan Fogelberg and Dylan, among others. In 1980, Pursell switched gears, joining the faculty at the Belmont University School of Music in Nashville as a composition professor.

In 1985, he was honored as Composer of the Year by the Tennessee Music Teachers Association. His symphony, “Heritage,” which was commissioned by the Nashville Symphony and Victor Johnson, debuted in 1989. Two years later, he earned his doctor of musical arts degree, with distinction, at the Eastman School of Music.

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In 2017, Pursell retired from Belmont University after 37 years. Over the years, he taught such country artists as Trisha Yearwood and Brad Paisley.

It was not clear when he contracted COVID-19, but he entered the hospital approximately a week ago, according to publicist Harlan Boll.

“While in the hospital, my father became a Catholic … He said his entire life now made sense,” his daughter wrote in the statement distributed by Boll. “This gives us some measure of peace. We know how many lives he touched, and he knew how much he was loved.”

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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