Song of the Day: Bill Pursell’s “Our Winter Love”

by M.C. Antil on November 9, 2010

M.C. Antil’s Song of the Day — November 10, 2010
A daily snapshot of songs you might not know…but should.

Bill Pursell was not supposed to be in Nashville.  If his life had gone according to plan, after graduating from the Eastman School of Music he would have become a world famous composer and concert pianist and lived in some urban mecca like New York or San Francisco.

But instead, fate intervened and following World War II and a stint in the Air Force, he found himself in Nashville playing jazz by night with guys like Boots Randolph and Chet Atkins, and making ends meet during the day by doing session work for a number of the reigning kings and queens of country; people like Marty Robbins, Patsy Cline, Eddy Arnold and Jim Reeves.  

Bill Pursell

Among the literally hundreds of songs Pursell played keyboards on were “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash, “Sweet Dreams” by Cline, and “Yakety Sax” by his old jazz buddy, Randolph (a tune which would later be adopted by British comedian Benny Hill as his show’s opening theme).

Eventually signed to a contract by Columbia, Pursell began collaborating with another young sax player named Bill Justis, a guy who just a few years prior had released the very first instrumental hit in the history of the pop charts.  In 1957, his “Raunchy,” a song he co-wrote while living in Memphis and working out of Sun Studios, climbed all the way up to #2.

(“Raunchy” would go on to gain particular prominence in music history because, while riding on the upper deck of a bus a year later and a half a world away, George Harrison played a note-for-note version for John Lennon that so blew him away that he invited Harrison to join his new band, the Quarrymen, on the spot.)

One day, while sifting through some demos, Pursell and Justis came upon an acetate mailed to one of the local publishing companies by a Canadian songwriter named Johnny Cowell.  It was called “Long Island Sound.”

Thinking it was a 45, the company’s co-owner, Grady Martin, played the disc at that speed.  But as it turned out the acetate was a 78, and so what was intended to be an uptempo trumpet instrumental, with a brief piano intro, became a mid-tempo number with a haunting little piano hook for an opening. 

Hearing the melodic piano at the slower tempo, Pursell and Justis both sensed immediately that Martin was onto something.

Justis began working on an arrangement, while Pursell began slightly re-writing the melody into one complete verse, which he then simply repeated three times to form a full song.

To replicate the echo effect that the piano achieved when the “Long Island Sound” demo was played at the slower speed, Pursell found that if he played the opening chords with very stiff fingers and then repeated the chords by playing them again a fraction of a beat later, only much softer, he could virtually duplicate the haunting echo effect of the demo.

The technique gave the melody what Pursell would later claim was an “icy” sound, and it was soon suggested by someone that the song be renamed “Our Winter Love.”

Bill Justis

Meanwhile, Justis determined that if the song’s one verse was to repeat three times, he wanted to add something to the two subsequent verses that would make each different from the one prior.  For the second verse he made a daring decision. 

The studio in which Pursell and Justis were working, Columbia B, was for years known as the Owen Bradley Studio, a small Quonset hut just off 16th Street in Nashville.  The studio, which had been the place the legendary Bradley produced all those incredible Patsy Cline classics, had just installed a new stereo board a few months prior.  Unfortunately, the new board had a short in one of the channels, which caused any audio fed through the channel to become severely distorted. 

Martin, a session guitarist extraordinaire, and the guy who would eventually publish “Our Winter Love,” had been working with Marty Robbins a few days after the board was installed, laying down a track called “Don’t Worry.”  Martin was the one who discovered the faulty channel, because it was his guitar that came out all distorted during playback.  Try as they may, the engineers simply couldn’t fix the channel.  So even though Robbins and his producer, Don Law, wanted to scrap the session, Martin convinced them otherwise.  He told them he actually liked the sound and urged them to leave the distorted guitar as is. So they did, and “Don’t Worry” was released as a single, distortion and all.

What Bill Justis did, however, was something entirely different. Unlike “Don’t Worry,” in which the distortion was something of a fortunate accident, Justis actually wrote distortion into his arrangement for “Our Winter Love.” 

He had Pursell’s piano and Boots Randolph’s tenor sax play a melody (with Randolph’s being half an octave higher), while having Harold Bradley (Owen’s brother) play the exact same melody on his bass, which then got fed through the faulty channel. 

The net effect — two clean audio feeds playing the exact same melody as one dominant and harmonically distorted one — was jarring at first, but eventually Pursell and the others agreed that the brittle, almost fragmented effect it produced gave the second verse an unmistakable character that somehow worked in the context of the song’s icy winter mood. 

The third verse was a much easier decision, as Justis called in the Anita Kerr singers to provide the instrumental some choral texture.  Their voices, combined with Justis’ angelic orchestration, propelled the verse, the melody, and in fact, the entire song, into some chilly, snow-covered netherworld.

When it was released under Pursell’s name, appropriately enough, in January of 1963, “Our Winter Love” became something of a minor phenomenon.  It stuck a chord with people, who found themselves caught up in the simplicity and emotional solitude of its haunting melody. 

The song climbed to #9 on the pop charts, and to #4 on the adult contemporary charts. It even climbed to #20 on the R&B charts.  Meanwhile the album, which took its name from the hit single, reached #28.

Ironically, to this day Pursell has never met “Our Winter Love’s” composer, Johnny Cowell, has never spoken to him, nor until a month ago, did he even know what he looked like.  Many years ago, he simply reworked a demo Cowell had sent with a form letter in a brown envelope and transformed it into a timeless classic, earning for Cowell (in theory anyway) a whole bunch of money as the song’s sole composer. 

In exchange, Pursell never asked for a single dime — which is, as one might expect, exactly what he got. 

That doesn’t change the fact that “Our Winter Love” has carved out a small but meaningful niche for itself in the annals of pop history, and has become for many a song for the ages; a remarkable little melody that can be evocative, wistful, romantic and slightly melancholy, all at the same time. 

And while the song has never achieved one of those Hollywood-fueled moments of rediscovery, such as the ones enjoyed by other long-lost instrumentals like Link Wray’s “Rumble” or Dick Dale’s“Miserlou,” it remains a song near and dear to countless people’s hearts.

And given its haunting, lilting and ethereal piano, and the extraordinary success that Windham Hill Records would go on to achieve a few decades later with virtually the same sound, I suppose it’s not a stretch to call “Our Winter Love,” the world’s very first New Age hit.

Similarly, it would not but much of a stretch to call the one-time Nashville sideman who performed it, Bill Pursell — and not some bigger name like George Winston or Yanni — the Moses of the New Age movement.

So with that, please sit back, turn up the volume and enjoy M.C. Antil’s Song of the Day for Wednesday, November 10;  Bill Pursell’s 1963 classic of mood, atmosphere and fireside romance, “Our Winter Love.”

Song:  Our Winter Love
Artist:  Bill Pursell
Composer:  Johnny Cowell
Year released:  1963

  • Pingback: Desert Island Jukebox: My Favorite 300 45s of the 1960s (Part 6 of 10)()

  • 4dr orphan

    Simply put, This is one of THE greatest ‘Tummy Rubbers’ of all time.

    • http://mcantil.com M.C. Antil

      Great way to describe the song. Sorry I had not responded sooner, but I’ve had my hands full with some cancer treatments and I’ve been a little under the weather. Feeling better now though, and hope to be posting regularly again real soon.

  • scotty

    this song is a gem! the best version though that I have is by felix slatkin and I think it was recorded on epic records. this version improves upon the bill pursell one in my opinion.give it a listen and you will agree!

  • Tony Douglas

    Thank you for a most informative and detailed history. This haunting melody has been a favorite of mine since it’s release back in the sixties. I remember the name “Bill Purcell”,and only associated it with this song, but had no idea of the influence this artist has had on the music industry. Excellent!

    • http://mcantil.com M.C. Antil

      Much appreciated, Tony. I cannot tell you how many people have commented both off and online about their love of this song, and the background of how it got made.

      Hope you’ll share it with anyone you feel might also appreciate the backstory of “Our Winter Love.”

    • Anonymous

      Thank you, Tony. A timeless little piece of music, isn’t it? Not to mention one of the most underrated songs of all time.

  • http://www.facebook.com/terry.bowen.184 Terry Bowen

    Wow! What a great write up of the back story. I loved this song from the first time I heard it in the early 70’s. Forgot about it till I just saw Bill Pursell’s name on the computer game “Song Pop”. So glad I got to read about Bill’s history. Thanks!

    • http://mcantil.com M.C. Antil

      Thanks, Terry. Even more than blog posts I’ve done on groups like, say, the Beatles, I don’t think I’ve never written about any song that has received more comments — all of them positive, and all of them deeply personal — than “Our Winter Love.” Bill Pursell is a very warm and humble man who likes to downplay the impact of his song, but what created that day almost 50 years ago seems like it’s going to outlive us all. Thanks again for your comment, and feel free to share the post with anyone else who you feel might enjoy the song.

    • MC_Antil

      Thnx for the comment, Terry. And feel free to pass this along to others you think might enjoy this little gem of a tune (and its backstory).

  • Appkw

    I’ve always  considered this to be a gem of a tune. 

    • http://mcantil.com M.C. Antil

      I can’t tell you now many people have responded with much the same sentiment.

    • Anonymous

      It really is a gem, isn’t it?

  • Bill Bloxsom

    A wonderful, haunting melody for me. Always a treat to hear. Since I was 11 years old when I first heard this song it is and always will be my all time favorite instrumental. Thank you.

    • Anonymous

      It’s amazing how many people feel the same way.  Of all the songs I’ve written about, I’m not sure any has spurred as many positive comments as “Our Winter Love.”  Great song that touches people in ways many of them can’t even explain.  Thnx for the comment, Bill.

      • Wbloxsom

        You are welcome, I’m sure. Well said. Thanks, MC_Antil

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joe-Jankiewicz/100000475186134 Joe Jankiewicz

    Back in 1962 during the Cuban missile crises with the Russians, our ship, USS Valley Forge, was under much stress due to the severity of the times.
    Lo and behold, while standing watch in #2 Gun Fire Control director,” Our Winter Love” played on the radio uplifting the spirits of those sailors who heard it.
    That song has stayed with me all these years.

    • M C Antil

      Wow. Great story, Joe. It’s funny how after so many years certain songs still maintain their ability to send you back to a specific time and place. And “Our Winter Love” is certainly one of those. And then some.

      Thanks for sharing, and please feel free to share this post with anyone else who you think might appreciate some background on one of the most underrated songs of our time.

      • M. Cowell

        It’s interesting to read your story. I am the daughter of the composer of Our Winter Love, Johnny Cowell. My father is 87 years old and I don’t believe I will be showing him your article. However, I’m glad that everyone is still enjoying his song. The original release of this song was a trumpet solo performed by my dad which is on youtube -Johnny Cowell Our Winter Love and yes it is an amazing trumpet performance and is recorded at the “speed” that he intended. The melody is certainly a timeless classic and Mr. Pursell did a beautiful rendition of it on the piano as did my father performing his composition, Our Winter Love, which is one of several songs my dad wrote. He has retired now (although he would love nothing better than to be still composing and playing the trumpet in the T.S.O. as he did for 50 years
        ) but I’m extremely proud of his amazing talents which are songwriting and playing the trumpet, both of which he did extremely well.

  • Bettygennell

    One of the most beautiful songs/music I’ve ever heard.

    • M C Antil

      Thanks, Betty.  It’s amazing how many people feel the same way. 

  • Pingback: Our Winter Love « Songbook()

  • MIke

    Thanks for clearing up the second verse, and how it was done. As a guitar player I am familiar with modern forms of electronic elocution but I had always wondered exactly how they did this in ’63 – thought it was some forerunner of a modern synth.

    What a beautiful tune this is too. It is truly a haunting yet wistful and peacful ambience-one that is completely ageless in it’s melodic and musically poetic grace. We have cold and warm intermingling through simple yet sweet phrases in a way only a few other artists have been able to duplicate, or even emulate. Second on my iTunes most played list. Only Theme from a Summer Place has more play time. (Third, BTW, is Cast Your Fate to the Wind). Thanks for sharing and Merry Christmas!

    • http://mcantil.com M.C. Antil

      Mike: I happened to speak with Bill Pursell the night I got your comment and passed it along to him. He was very touched, and said it continues to confound him how that simple little record he made continues to speak to people. By the way, those are three great ones on top of your iTunes most played list. Thanks for your comment and keep reading, OK?

      • MIke

        Whoever that was (Grady Martin?) on the background guitar tell him he’s also one of my heroes. Such a simple and understated backbeat rhythm that is, and so perfectly fit for this song. Less truly can be more when speaking through an instrumental and all the pieces work so well together.

  • Mike Egan

    What a great sound! I didn’t know the song before this listen, but I know it’ll stick with me now. It had to be recorded in the early-mid Sixties along with with a bunch of others like A Summer Place, Summer Wind (what a song!!!)…

    • http://mcantil.com M.C. Antil

      Mike: Thnx for the comment. Our Winter Love is a real gem, isn’t it?

      And I couldn’t agree with you more about Summer Wind. That’s truly one of those handful of songs that just seem to get better with age. It’s almost like its greatness is so beyond us, it’s not that the song gets better with age, it’s that people our age have finally experienced enough of life to have caught up to its brilliance, its poetry and its inherent grace.

  • http://andy.fleming@davenportlawrence.com A. Fleming

    Listened and almost thought there was some white stuff comming down out there-but.. it’s 60 deg’s and the spirit flew away. Great song! Will add to the in-house Christmas classics.

    • http://mcantil.com M.C. Antil

      Andy: Certain songs have the ability to transport people to a certain time and place, and “Winter Love” is clearly one of those. I told Bill that I thought one of the beauties of his arrangement wasn’t so much the notes he played, as the ones he didn’t. There’s room in the song for personal interpretation. We hear it and are able to fill in the blanks with the particulars of our own life. He said he never really looked at it that way, but doesn’t doubt it given how many people have come up to him over the years and told him how much the song immediately calls to mind some person, moment or memory they still cherish and hold dear. Hope all is well, my friend.

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