Successful arranger, music director, and "Nashville Cat" Bill Walker passed away yesterday, May 26, 2022, at 95 years old.
Throughout his prolific career, Walker worked with some of Country music's most iconic artists, including Johnny Cash, Eddy Arnold, the Statler Brothers, Chet Atkins, Ray Charles, Loretta Lynn, Crystal Gayle, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Ann-Margret, and many more
He was widely known for his role as the musical director on the Johnny Cash Show on ABC. Throughout the '70s and '80s, Walker concentrated primarily on writing, arranging, and conducting music for network and syndicated television. Among his credits are 15 years of the CMA Awards Show for CBS-TV, Perry Como And His Nashville Friends, Nashville Remembers Elvis On His Birthday, The Grand Ole Opry At 50, Lynn Anderson & Tina Turner In Nashville, Ann-Margret’s Rhinestone Cowgirl, Opryland In Russia, That Great American Gospel Sound (with Tennessee Ernie Ford and Della Reese), Conway Twitty: On the Mississippi, The Tenth Anniversary Of The Reopening of Ford’s Theater, The Music City News Cover Awards Show (also for 15 years), A Celebration Of Country Music At Ford’s Theater (a two-hour special for President Jimmy Carter), Crystal [Gayle] In Sweden and George Burns In Nashville.
Walker is credited for having arranged and conducted music for shows attended by three American presidents.
As a record producer, arranger and/or conductor, he earned gold records for Eddy Arnold's "Make the World Go Away," "Turn The World Around," "Misty Blue," and "What's He Doing In My World"; Bobby Vinton's "Roses Are Red (My Love)" and "My Elusive Dreams"; Roy Clark's "Come Live With Me," Jim Reeves' "From a Jack to a King"; Sammi Smith's "Help Me Make It Through the Night"; Marty Robbins' "My Woman, My Woman, My Wife"; Johnny Cash's "Sunday Morning Coming Down"; Bob Dylan's "Copper Kettle" and Nashville Skyline; and Donna Fargo's "The Happiest Girl In The Whole U.S.A." and "Funny Face."
Born April 28, 1927, in Sydney, Australia, William Alfred Walker (Bill Walker) grew up in a musical home. His mother sang, and his father played harmonica. By the time he was five, Walker could play the family piano. After earning his degree at the Sydney University's Conservatorium of Music, Walker took a job with RCA Records at its office in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he arranged cover versions of songs that had already become popular in America.
During his stay in Africa, Walker recorded an impressive 23 albums, including the popular collections Walker' Round The World and Walker' Round The Shows.
Walker's career direction changed dramatically when the mighty Eddy Arnold, one of RCA's loftiest talents, asked him to write arrangements for an album of "uptown country songs." One of those songs was "Make The World Go Away." The song was recorded and released seven times before Arnold cut it. But buoyed by Walker's fresh arrangement, the song vaulted to No. 1 on the country charts and became a Top 10 pop hit. It earned Walker his first gold record and made him a hot commodity on Music Row.
Walker came to Nashville in 1964 to work with Jim Reeves. When Reeves died in a plane crash, Eddy Arnold enlisted Walker's services, and the two worked together through 1968. The following year, Walker joined The Johnny Cash Show as musical director. Cash would end each show by saying "Goodnight, Bill Walker!" The show lasted 58 episodes.
The Cash show was shot in Nashville at the iconic Ryman Auditorium with the Carter Family, Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers and the Tennessee Three (Bob Wooten, W. S. Holland, and Marshall Grant) serving as Cash’s backup corps. Somehow the resourceful Walker was able to transcend the Ryman’s primitive recording facilities. When Cash debuted Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” Walker’s arrangement captured all its spellbinding emotion in that live performance. The record, released in 1970, was a direct transcription from the television show, and yielded Cash a No. 1 country hit.
After Cash's show ended, Walker worked as an independent producer for Capitol Records, masterminding sessions for Roy Rogers, Billy Walker, Ferlin Husky, and Wanda Jackson, among others.
During this time, Walker began working with Donna Fargo. Walker's productions of "The Happiest Girl In The Whole U. S. A." and "Funny Face" took Fargo to #1 and launched her career.
Walker also found time to guest-conduct some of America’s best symphony orchestras, including those in Dallas, Atlanta, Nashville, Memphis, Hartford, Phoenix, Tampa, and Boston. He became friends with John Williams, the great movie-theme maestro, when Williams conducted the Boston Pops Orchestra. Walker frequently wrote arrangements for artists performing with the Pops, and sometimes sat in with them as a pianist.
From the late ‘70s, Walker ran his own independent label, Con Brio Records, serving as its talent scout, arranger, and producer. Under his leadership, Con Brio racked up a total of 47 nationally charted singles for such artists as Don King, Dale McBride and Terri Hollowell.
The then-flourishing Nashville Network, with its abundance of musical programming, kept Walker occupied throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. For seven years he served as music director of The Statler Brothers Show, TNN’s highest-rated series during that period. (Somewhat reminiscent of the Johnny Cash glory days, the Statlers put Walker on camera each week during the gospel segment that closed the show.)
Always eager to explore the new artistic territory, Walker then branched into composing music for movies, which led to him scoring films featuring such respected actors as Kirk Douglas, Tony Franciosa, Robert Mitchum, George Kennedy, and Gregory Peck.
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.
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