My dad was a native of California, raised in the dusty San Joaquín Valley. He left how at 15 to study composition at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore and arranged for the U.S. Air Force Band during World War II. Bill Pursell studied classical composition under Howard Hanson at the Eastman School of Music and earned a master’s in composition in the mid-fifties. His symphonic poem “Christ Looking Over Jerusalem” (the first movement of “Three Biblical Scenes for Orchestra”) was the inaugural recipient of the Edward B. Benjamin Prize in 1953.
In 1960, Dad moved to Nashville at the invitation of Eddy Arnold. By 1962 he signed as a solo artist with Columbia Records, which released the album "Our Winter Love" the following year. The instrumental single "Our Winter Love" became one of the biggest selling recordings of 1963 and has carved out a small but meaningful niche for itself in the annals of pop history. He later recorded for Epic, Decca, Word, Henry Stone’s Alston, Dot, and many other labels. A highlight of his career was playing with Chet Atkins for the press corps dinner at the White House for President John F. Kennedy.
Later that decade, he worked with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and taught at Tennessee State and Vanderbilt University. Through the 1960s and 1970s, he continued to work as a session pianist to some of the most recognized names in the industry including Johnny Cash, Boots Randolph, Chet Atkins, Marty Robbins, Patsy Cline, Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves, Johnny Paycheck, Hoover, Joan Baez, Eric Andersen, Scotty Moore, J.J. Cale, Willie Nelson, Dan Fogelberg, Bob Dylan and others.
He earned two Grammy nominations, one for his work on "Listen” for Ken Medema in 1974 and the second for his arrangement of "We Three Kings” for National Geographic in 1978.
In 1980, Dad began a long career as a composition professor at Belmont University, He was named Composer of the Year in 1985 by the Tennessee Music Teachers Association. His Symphony no. 2, "Heritage," was commissioned by Victor Johnson and the Nashville Symphony and premiered in 1989. As a composition mentor, he shared his knowledge with talents such as Trisha Yearwood and Brad Paisley (to name a few) and in 1991 completed his Doctor of Musical Arts degree (DMA) with distinction at Eastman School of Music.
Dad was so proud when he was named Professor Emeritus of Music. He retired from Belmont University School of Music in 2017 after 37 years of service, at the age of 90.
My father was a musical genius, an educator, a bohemian, and a storyteller with a gallows sense of Irish humor. A man of many moods, he expressed himself best through music. The world is a duller place without him.