Bill Walker

billwalker.jpg

In an industry too often blinded by stars, Bill Walker has succeeded in focusing the spotlight on the vital role of the music arranger.  This job has enabled him to put his own distinctive mark on American popular music for the past 42 years.  He is the man Johnny Cash, Eddy Arnold, the Statler Brothers, Chet Atkins, Ray Charles, Loretta Lynn, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Ann-Margaret and dozens of other show business luminaries relied on to make them sound their best on stage and on record.

 Walker is still at it, writing, arranging, conducting and performing music—often in league with his singing wife, Jeanine—at every venue from small churches to multimillion-dollar trade shows.

 William Alfred Walker was born in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.  His grandfather was an Oxford University educated gentleman who, instead of entering into the service of the church, as second sons routinely did, decided to leave England and chase the horizon in Australia.

“I’ll never forget the first time I stood on the stage at Carnegie Hall,” says Walker, a sense of wonder still lingering in his voice.  “I grew up on a dairy farm in Australia. I had to milk 20 cows each morning and each afternoon.  Now here I was at Carnegie Hall working as Eddy Arnold’s music director and pianist and conducting members of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.  To top it off, the place was filled with all these big names.  How did I get here?”

Well, he started the journey by listening to his parents make music at home.  His mother was a gifted singer, and his father played the harmonica, enthusiastically if not always well.  Thus, by the time Walker was five, he loved nothing more than picking out tunes on the family piano.  For a while, it appeared he might have to take over the farm, but he had a different dream.  Working a variety of jobs, he scraped together the tuition to enroll in Sydney University’s Conservatorium of Music.  “I played in night clubs and wrote arrangements for dance bands,” he says, “whatever I could get to pay my way through.”

Soon after he earned his degree, RCA Records offered Walker a position at its office in Johannesburg, South Africa.  Being young, hungry and adventurous, he took it.  “Part of my work there,” he explains, “was to put the RCA studio orchestra with visiting RCA artists from America.  I did that for Jim Reeves, Floyd Cramer, Duane Eddy, John D. Loudermilk and a lot of others who toured Africa.”

 

Another of Walker’s tasks was to arrange, conduct and record cover versions of songs that had already become popular in America or looked as if they were about to.  “For example, if CBS had a big hit record, RCA in New York would send it to me.  I would go into the studio and record it in maybe five or six different languages.  Then I’d release it all through Europe—in Athens, Rome, Geneva, Barcelona, Holland, Belgium and France.”

During his stay in Africa, Walker recorded an impressive 23 albums himself, including the popular collections Walker ‘Round The World and Walker ‘Round The Shows.

By the time Walker went to work for RCA, Jim Reeves was already a star in South Africa.  “African tribes used to play his records on these little wind-up phonographs in their kraals [villages].”  After a sellout tour in 1962, Reeves returned to South Africa the next year to film the movie Kimberly Jim.   Walker was hired to write the score - a connection that would soon transform his life.

“When Jim came in one morning, New York had sent me a copy of Ned Miller’s ‘From A Jack To A King.’  So I said to Jim, ‘Why don’t we go in and record this?  I’ll release it, and you can beat out the Ned Miller record.  What do you say?’  He said, ‘Let’s go in and do it.’  Well, we did beat the Miller record out.  And I think within 10 days, Jim had a gold record in Europe, Africa and England.”

In 1963, NBC-TV proposed to Reeves that he host a variety show the following season to compete with Jimmy Dean’s ABC-TV series.  Reeves accepted.  There was one hitch, though, the network said.  He would need to find a music director skillful enough to work with the show’s producers and with guest artists who were accustomed to using formal musical arrangements rather than the on-the-spot charts Nashville musicians favored.  Impressed by what he had seen, Reeves asked Walker to take the post.

 Walker arrived in New York in late July of 1964, just in time to learn that the private plane, which Reeves was piloting to Nashville, had crashed.  “When I got to Nashville,” says Walker, “the first thing I did was go to Jim’s memorial service.”

Although RCA assured Walker it would welcome him back to South Africa, he decided to stay on in the U. S. and apply for citizenship.  In time, his sons Jeff and Colin joined him in Nashville.  Jeff is now a major player in country and gospel music as owner of Aristomedia, a complex of publicity, promotion and publishing companies.  Colin eventually returned to Australia where he is now a successful businessman.

In spite of his distinct accent and international background, his ability to adapt to all styles of music, along with his love for Country Music, allowed him to be easily assimilated into the Nashville music scene.  “What happened, though, during my first six or seven months in Nashville, was that I had to ‘job’ around.  I played for bands at the country clubs, such as, Hillwood, Brentwood and Belle Meade—wherever they needed a piano player.  And I worked a lot down in Printers’ Alley [then Nashville’s rowdy nightclub district].”

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 had been 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 went on to become a Top 10 pop hit.  It earned Walker his first gold record and made him a very hot property on Music Row.

Because of the popularity of “Make The World Go Away,” Arnold toured steadily and became a regular guest on network television shows.  “I went with him and did every television show on the West Coast and in New York,” Walker recounts.  “It got to where they would hire me to write arrangements for whatever show he was doing.  Johnny Carson [of the Tonight Show] used to get Eddy to fill in for him the weeks he went away.  His bandleader, Doc Severinsen, would go away then, too, and I’d take over the orchestra.  I got to know the producers and directors of all those television shows—the ones starring Danny Kaye, Glen Campbell, Andy Williams, Red Skelton, Dean Martin—all the big ones.  I had a great four years with Eddy.”

It was on an Arnold show in Brockton, Massachusetts, that Walker first met Jeanine Ogletree, a lead singer with the popular “Kids Next Door,” who would soon become the lead singer with the former Anita Kerr singers, and in 1971, Mrs. Bill Walker.

Thanks to his association with Eddy Arnold, Walker earned a reputation among network television producers and directors just as he was establishing solid credentials with the top country stars. “The producers would hire me to do their shows because I understood country artists,” he says, “and the country artists trusted me.  In those days when they did network television, the country singers didn’t bring their road bands,  they sang with the house orchestra.  They knew I wouldn’t “citify” them, but that I would honor their country feel and country sound.”

Because of this sensitivity, a parade of artists—from Bob Dylan to Tammy Wynette—were soon profiting musically from Walker’s imagination and eye for details. “We worked three and four sessions a day back then—every day,” he recalls. “Nashville really was Music City.  Those were golden days for me.”  In more ways than one.  Besides being a prominent figure in recording and television studios, Walker also found himself on the golf course, alongside some very big names.  Often, he played in a foursome with Chet Atkins, pianist Floyd Cramer and comedian Archie Campbell.  Occasionally, singing idol Perry Como would fly the four down to Florida in his private plane to play in one of his charity tournaments.

“In 1968 or ’69—I can’t remember which,” says Walker, “ABC-TV in Los Angeles called me and said they were going to do at least a three-year series with Johnny Cash.  They asked if I would be music director for it.  I said ‘Let me think about it.’”  The reason Walker needed time to mull over the proposition was that Atkins was urging him to take over his A&R duties at RCA to free him to play guitar, travel and function as a full-time artist.

“I came close to taking the job,” Walker says.  “But Chet had huge shoes to fill, and I was excited by the thought of being involved with bringing network television to Nashville.  So I decided to take the ABC offer.”

It was an exceedingly wise choice.  Working with Cash gave Walker more fame than he could have ever imagined.  To begin with, Cash attracted some of the most famous names in the world as his guest stars, people like Dylan, Hope, Louis Armstrong, Linda Ronstadt, Eric Clapton and Ray Charles.  Better still, Cash soon fell into the habit of closing his shows by shouting, “Good night, Bill Walker!”  That was the best.  “The camera would pan over and there I’d be conducting the orchestra,” Walker beams.  “I suddenly became a celebrity—and it got me into all the golf tournaments.”

The Cash show was shot in Nashville at the ancient 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.

Cash also involved Walker in recording his albums.  Occasionally the two had musical disagreements.  Once Cash decided he wanted to do a Christmas album backed by a full orchestra instead of by his regular band.  Walker suggested that even if the singer did use and orchestra, he should include his band to add that signature bass line to his sound.  But the Man in Black would have none of it.  “So we did it his way,” Walker sighs, “and it turned out to be a very good record.”

Recently, Walker did an extensive interview for a new DVD edition of the Cash show.

After a two-year run, when it finally seemed that Cash’s show was secure, the Federal Communications Commissions ruled that the networks must allot an extra hour each evening to local stations.  As a result, the networks cancelled more than 20 prime-time programs in a single sweep, including all the musical variety shows – even the venerable Ed Sullivan Show—and Cash’s.  Once again, Walker was back to freelancing.  Over the next 10 years, however, Cash would do an average of five specials a year, and always with Walker at the musical helm.

From 1971-73, Walker worked as an independent producer for Capitol Records, masterminding sessions for Roy Rogers, Billy Walker, Ferlin Husky and Wanda Jackson, among several others.

It was during this period that he found himself strapped to a rocket called “The Happiest Girl In The Whole U. S. A.”   Donna Fargo’s manager called Walker from California and reported that the talented young singer was attracting a lot of local attention with her music.  He asked if Walker would consider producing an album on her and otherwise help get her a record deal.  Walker invited them to meet with him at his home in Nashville.

“Donna and I went went through all the songs she’d written.  I picked out ‘Happiest Girl’ and ‘Funny Face’ and whatever else it was that finally came out on her first two albums.  When we went told her manager, ‘Here are the songs I think we ought to do,’ he said, ‘But you don’t want to do ‘Happiest Girl.’  That’s a novelty.’”  I said, “It’s the best novelty I’ve heard in 20 years.”

Walker was right on target.  His productions of “Happiest Girl” and “Funny Face” both took Fargo to No. 1 and launched her career.

Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, Walker concentrated primarily on writing, arranging and conducting music for network and syndicated television.   Among his literally dozens of 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-Margaret’s Rhinestone Cowgirl, Opryland In Russia, That Great American Gospel Sound (with Tennessee Ernie and Della Reese), Conway Twitty On The Mississippi, The Tenth Anniversary 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.  To date, he has arranged and conducted music for shows attended by three American presidents.

Music Hall America, a syndicated series for which Walker served as music director, was another gem in his crown.  Debuting in the mid-‘70s, the variety show featured a stable of prominent rotating hosts, among them Arthur Godfrey, Roy Rogers, Pat Boone and Tennessee Ernie Ford.  Each of them came to rely on Walker’s impeccable musical taste and originality.

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 that gentleman was still conducting the Boston Pops, did many arrangements for artists performing with the Pops, and sometimes sat in with them as a pianist.

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 The Other Way,” “Misty Blue” and “What’s He Doing In My World”; Bobby Vinton’s “Roses Are Red” 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 Fargo’s “The Happiest Girl In The Whole U. S. A.” and “Funny Face.”

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 (who is now Mrs. Jeff Walker).

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 new artistic territory, Walker then branched into composing music for movies.  A prominent production company hired him to score films for such respected actors as Kirk Douglas, Tony Franciosa, Robert Mitchum, George Kennedy and Gregory Peck.

Upon remembering his many fun experiences with celebrities, Walker recalls having to “wing it” on the piano for George Burns’ appearance at the Grand Ole Opry, simply because the ancient raconteur couldn’t decide in advance which song he was going to sing.  Then there was the time Walker watched helplessly as the exacting Ann-Margaret elbowed Perry Como black and blue—during a TV special—because Como hadn’t bothered to learn the routines that Walker had arranged for their duet.

As often as not, Walker is the butt of his own stories—like the one about the hit that got away.  “We were doing a guitar album with Chet.  We were going to do 12 songs, and we still had one to go.  These were all popular, middle-of-the-road type songs.  So we had to select something that would fit in just right.  Chet called me and said,  ‘Bill, I’ve just heard a record of a thing called ‘Hey Jude.’  The Beatles have just released it.  I’m going to send it over for you to listen to and tell me what you think.’   So I got it and played it.  I must have been in a bad mood.  Or maybe I was writing and didn’t really want to listen to it then.  Anyway, I called him back and said, ‘Chet, this is the worst thing the Beatles have ever done.’  So we didn’t cut it.  We cut something else.  Two weeks later, ‘Hey Jude’ became a No. 1 record and stayed there for weeks and weeks.  Chet never let me forget it.  Sometimes, I’d walk into his office and he’d look up and say, ‘Hey, Jude!’  Of course, I could always remind him that he’d let Bobby Gentry’s ‘Ode To Billy Joe’ go.  He didn’t think it was very good.”

Regrets?  He’s had a few.  But none as disappointing as missing out on playing with Luciano Pavarotti, whose every vocal inflection Walker admires.  Still, he came close.  “I was booked to do a show at Disney World with Pavarotti and Mikhail Baryshnikov,” he explains.  “Baryshnikov was going to do Swan Lake with Big Bird of Sesame Street.   Pavarotti dictated what was to be in the orchestra, and he OKed me as music director.  He’d checked out to see what television specials I’d done.  We went down there [to Florida] and worked everything out, and I came back to Nashville and started writing.  But then NBC and Disney got into a big fight, and they cancelled everything.  They sent me a check for the work I’d done, but what I really wanted was to arrange and conduct for Pavarotti.”

Even as he undertakes new projects and improves his golf game, Walker is putting his papers in order.  Not for any morbid reason, mind you, but just to make them available to students of country and pop music.  He’s already donated his 30 years of Johnny Cash-related arrangements to the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, his wife’s alma mater.  And he’s considering a request from the University of Southern Mississippi for his Tennessee Ernie arrangements to go into the school’s Tennessee Ernie Ford Collection.

Walker continues to record.  He and Jeanine have made four gospel albums to meet the demands of fans they encounter at their church performances around the world.

“It’s been a very nice sojourn in the music business,” Walker reflects.  That’s like Lance Armstrong saying he’s taken some “very nice bike rides.”

 

Albums From Bill Walker


Tribute To The Statler Brothers

iTunes
Amazon

Holy Night

iTunes
Amazon