NASHVILLE — Bill Walker, a bandleader and arranger who became a musical force in Nashville, scoring popular recordings for country stars like Marty Robbins and Connie Smith and serving as musical director for the television variety show at primetime Johnny Cash, died May 26 at a rehabilitation center near here. He was 95 years old.
His death was confirmed by his stepdaughter Terri Walker, who said she developed pneumonia after recent knee replacement surgery.
A classically trained pianist, Mr. Walker orchestrated such hits as Eddy Arnold’s “Make the World Go Away” (1965) and Sammi Smith’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” (1970). Both records reached No. 1 in the country chart and moved into the Pop Top 10.
He was also arranger and bandleader for, among many other recordings, Donna Fargo’s “The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA”, a chart-topping country single that stalled just outside the Pop Top 10 in 1972. .
In the process, he helped shape both the lush, sophisticated Nashville Sound of the 1960s and the soulful “countrypolitan” sensibility that followed.
Empathy and elegance were his calling cards, along with a knack for probing the emotional heart of a song, a gift that was nowhere more evident than in his work on “Help Me Make It Through the Night”.
‘Take the ribbon out of my hair,’ pleads Mrs. Smith to her lover as Mr. Walker’s gauze arrangement strokes the pain in his voice.
Its sympathetic strings also lent pathos to George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” a No. 1 country hit in 1980.
“You’re there to make the artist sound good, not to show off how smart you can be,” Walker said of his recording philosophy in a 2015 interview at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. .
“That’s how I was doing,” he continued. “It didn’t matter if the artist was a mountain singer somewhere in the woods or Perry Como. You give them the same attention no matter what.
William Alfred Walker was born on April 28, 1927 in Sydney, Australia, the oldest of three children born to Alfred and Beryl (Gabb) Walker. His father was a dairy farmer, his mother a housewife.
William started playing the piano at age 5 and soon began taking private lessons. In high school and college, he performed in clubs and learned the basics of arranging by listening to popular recordings on the radio. He received his formal training at the University of Sydney Conservatory of Music, where he graduated in 1955.
In 1957 he moved to South Africa to become the musical director of the Johannesburg division of RCA Records, where he released 23 largely instrumental albums of pop and Latin music which featured him on the piano backed by large and small ensembles.
He also produced sessions for country superstar Jim Reeves, who encouraged him to move to Nashville; Mr. Walker arrived at the weekend. Mr Reeves died aged 39 in a fatal plane crash in July 1964.
He began working with Mr. Arnold and helped revive the singer’s career at a time when ballad singers were eclipsed on the country charts by artists like Buck Owens and Roger Miller, who were more tuned into the up-tempo rock ‘n’ roll.
Mr. Walker then turned down a chance to succeed Chet Atkins as head of RCA’s Nashville bureau before becoming musical director of “The Johnny Cash Show” on ABC-TV in 1969. There he helped bring the Southern culture in living rooms and dens across the country collaborating with Mahalia Jackson, Roy Acuff, Louis Armstrong and an array of other guests.
He also wrote and conducted the arrangement of Mr. Cash’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, a live recording of the show which went to No. 1 on the country chart in 1970. Mr. Cash generally signed each episode of his program with the greeting, “Good night, Mr. Walker!”
After The Johnny Cash Show ended in 1971, Mr. Walker spent the next two decades working as a freelance producer for singers like Ferlin Husky and Wanda Jackson and running his own label, Con Brio Records. In the early 70’s he worked with Ray Charles and Loretta Lynn for an NBC special.
From 1991 to 1998, he was the musical director of “The Statler Brothers Show”, a popular musical variety show on the Nashville Network. He remained active as a producer and arranger into the 2000s, writing scores for television specials and films in an era when session musicians relied primarily on improvised or “headshot” arrangements.
Mr. Walker is survived by his wife of 51 years, Jeanine (Ogletree) Walker, a former session singer from Nashville; one daughter, Beth Walker; a son, Colin, from a previous marriage; his sister, Julianne Smith; her brother, Robert; and 13 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren. Two sons, Jeff and Peter, and a daughter, Lisa Gibson, all from previous marriages, have died.
Mr. Walker has worked with ensembles on at least four continents, including studio professionals on the east and west coasts of the United States. For the arrangements he composed, however, he preferred the intuitive, less is more approach of the session musicians he first encountered in Nashville in the 1960s.
“That’s the thing with Nashville players,” he said in his Country Music Hall of Fame interview. “They all listen to each other and join in the licks. That’s the thing you can’t write. You can only give them the idea and let them do it.