Pine Bluff’s Jimmy McKissic was a world-renowned pianist who performed for three U.S. presidents and on stages across the globe, but in the end, he began longing for a return to the simplicity of his hometown — Pine Bluff.
On Wednesday, Feb. 13 — a little more than a year after fulfilling that desire — the story of his remarkable life’s journey came to an end when he died at the age of 72.
Hailed by critics worldwide for his musical genius, McKissic seemed most energized by his steady focus on God. His love of God and music resulted from the influence of his late parents, James and Rosa Belle Daniels McKissic. His father was pastor of a church here while his mother served as its pianist. The younger McKissic publicly credited much of his entertainment success to his mother because of her dedication to his musical “gift.”
In lieu of a funeral service, his family will be staging a memorial celebration on March 16, on what would have been McKissic’s 73rd birthday. His survivors include a brother, Thirland “Danny” McKissic of Pine Bluff.
Thirland McKissic remembers an older brother who emanated positivity no matter the circumstances.
“Jimmy was a man who was happy all the time,” McKissic said. “Many times even though not speaking words he would even wear his thoughts on his clothes referring to God. He would often make these statements. Even in his last two days; the last words I heard him say when I asked him how he was feeling were ‘couldn’t be better.’ ”
McKissic said that up until his passing Tuesday his brother looked forward to getting better.
“He still spoke of this hope and looked forward to being better and totally healed,” McKissic said. “One reason that we decided to have his memorial service on his birthday was that he had said that was the date he would be totally healed. He may have thought that would be here but God knows best.”
McKissic saidhis brother was at peace with the possibility of death but still optimistic that he had more time.
“A few days before he died he told me that he was going to Jesus and also said that he was going to stay around,” McKissic said. “I think he knew but he held on to the possibility.”
McKissic said that he and his wife were able to take several overseas trips to visit Jimmy.
“My wife and I got to go visit him in Cannes, France,” McKissic said. “We went there four times I believe. My sister and her husband also came over. We stayed in the Hotel Martinez in Cannes where Jimmy was living and got to see him play the piano in the pub there. We were able to stay there for a month.”
McKissic said Jimmy wowed his audiences with quick shifts from classical music to church hymns.
“It kind of got me,” McKissic said. “He would start playing a hymn and you could hear a pin hit the floor in that pub. The crowd loved it.”
Josephine Bell, professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and the former chair and professor of the UAPB Music Department, was a close friend of Jimmy McKissic’s.
“Jimmy and I went back a long way,” Bell said. “Dr. Grace Walley, former chair of the music department, introduced us back in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Jimmy was one of a kind; and in a good way. He had a big heart and he was always very cheerful. He had good things to say about everyone.”
Bell said McKissic loved Pine Bluff and was happy to move back in late 2011.
“He and I often spent time together over lunch,” Bell said. “He talked about how much his experiences overseas and at Carnegie Hall contributed to his life. He was a real friend. Not a phony. I will certainly miss him; his wisdom and his integrity as a man. He was a people person.”
Bell said she was able to see McKissic the day before he died and was grateful to have had the opportunity to say goodbye.
McKissic gave his music collection to Bell and she received his permission to donate it to the UAPB music department.
“He had accumulated it over 40 years and I asked him if he would mind me donating it to the department of music which he graduated from,” Bell said. “Dr. [Michael] Bates [chair of the UAPB music department] was very happy to receive it.”
“I donated it in his honor and that made it complete,” Bell said.
McKissic was a 1957 graduate of Merrill High School earned his music education degree at UAPB in 1962.
He left Arkansas in the late 1960s to embark upon what became a lucrative career as a piano bar entertainer.
“Everything I do is to God,” he said during a performance at a 2011 Merrill reunion at UAPB. As his concert progressed, he referenced his early church experiences and wound up offering a medley of several classic American hymns.
Noted for his rather eclectic clothing, he didn’t disappoint his hometown audience as he wore a red shoe on one foot, a yellow shoe on the other, yellow slacks and a short-sleeve, red T-shirt bordered with sparkling gold fabric. After relating personal tales while singing a number of hymns, McKissic began performing some old piano bar favorites and quipped, “When I play what I feel, you feel what I play. When I feel what I play, you feel what I play.”
He gave the crowd an additional treat with his rendition of the “Boogie Woogie,” done up in proper 1950s style.
“I decided I can play the Boogie Woogie to honor God because I imagine God sitting up there on His throne, wearing a pair of glasses and reading the newspaper,” McKissic said. “Jesus is at his feet working a crossword puzzle. Then I start playing the Boogie Woogie and God puts down his paper, leans over to Jesus and says, ‘That boy down there sure is playing it tonight!’”
McKissic’s piano skills were evident at an early age. He was playing hymns by ear when just 3 years old. His mother decided her young son needed some professional instruction. Later, he was rejected after applying to The Julliard School and Manhattan School of Music, but nevertheless succeeded.
Calling his rejections “a blessing,” McKissic later performed for a master piano professor who told him, “What you have, nobody can teach.”