Pursell was born on June 9, 1926 in Oakland, California, and grew up in Tulare. He studied composition at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore and later studied classical composition under Howard Hanson at the Eastman School of Music, earning a master's in composition in the mid-1950s. Pursell's symphonic poem "Christ Looking Over Jerusalem" was the inaugural recipient of the Edward B. Benjamin Prize in 1953. While serving in World War II, Pursell arranged for the U.S. Air Force Band.
In 1960, he moved to Nashville and within two years signed as a solo artist with Columbia Records. Pursell released "Our Winter Love" in 1963, which became one of the biggest-selling recordings that year and has been played by easy listening and adult contemporary radio stations as a Christmas tune.
In the year of its release, the track reached No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100, No. 4 on the middle-road singles chart and No. 20 on the hot R&B singles chart. Arrangements for the album were made by Bill Justis and Pursell, and the orchestra was conducted by Grady Martin.
Pursell later recorded for Epic, Decca, Word, Alston, Dot and other labels. He also worked with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and taught at Tennessee State and Vanderbilt University.
Through the 1960s and 1970s, Pursell continued to work as a session pianist with noteworthy musicians and singers including Johnny Cash, Boots Randolph, Chet Atkins, Marty Robbins, Patsy Cline, Eddy Arnold, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and others. A highlight of his career was playing with Atkins for the press corps dinner at the White House for President John F. Kennedy.
Pursell 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, Pursell began teaching as a composition professor at Belmont University and was named Composer of the Year in 1985 by the Tennessee Music Teachers Association. In 1991, he completed his Doctor of Musical Arts degree (DMA) with distinction at Eastman School of Music. He was named Professor Emeritus of Music when he retired from Belmont University School of Music in 2017 after 37 years of service.
He is survived by stepdaughters Ellen Spicer and Margaret Pursell, and his children Laura and Bill Pursell.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to The Belmont University School of Music William Whitney Pursell Scholarship in Composition.
This article originally appeared on The Hollywood Reporter.