Kurt Kaiser

Waco composer and pianist Kurt Kaiser was a pioneering figure in contemporary Christian music.

Waco composer and pianist Kurt Kaiser, writer of familiar Christian songs as “Pass It On” and “Oh How He Loves You and Me,” died Monday at his Waco home after a long illness. He was 83.

Kaiser had a six-decade-long career in composing, playing, arranging and producing Christian music. His songs, found in dozens of contemporary hymnals and songbooks, are sung by millions of Christians around the world.

With founder Jarrell McCracken, Kaiser was instrumental in the launch and growth of Waco-based Word Music, which became a powerhouse in the Christian music and publishing industries. Kaiser served as vice president and director of music during his years there.

The Chicago-born musician moved to Waco in 1959 with his wife Pat and family and lived here, becoming deeply involved with Baylor University, which their four children attended. He was also involved in the Waco Symphony Orchestra and in Seventh & James Baptist Church before helping to start Dayspring Baptist Church, where he and his wife Pat are members.

In the 1960s and 1970s, he and Ralph Carmichael pioneered Christian youth musicals such as “Tell It Like It Is” and “Natural High.” His music at Word, both the songs he wrote and the recordings he oversaw, planted seeds with young Christians that would shape much of today’s contemporary Christian worship music.

“He was a remarkable combination of musical excellence that could not be challenged, and heart and an ear for what the youth of American churches wanted to say,” said Terry York, professor of Christian ministry and church music in Baylor University’s Truett Seminary as well as a longtime member of Dayspring Baptist Church. “Kids would hear a song, have tears in their eyes and then whistle it for the rest of their lives.”

Kaiser’s piano playing was marked by his remarkable ability to improvise, a skill he put to use early as a teenager when he played live for radio programs in Chicago, then Billings, Montana. Colleagues also noted his large hands enabled rich, full chords that often showed up in his writing.

As record producer with Word and musician with the Billy Graham evangelical crusades, Kaiser worked with such renowned artists as Kathleen Battle, Christopher Parkening, George Beverly Shea, Ernie Ford, Jerome Hines, Ethel Waters, Burl Ives, Ken Medema, the duo Hale & Wilder, Joni Eareckson Tada and others. Kaiser’s relationship with Shea, a baritone who sang for years with the Billy Graham crusades, was close and extended more than 30 years.

Baylor professor and gospel music scholar Bob Darden, who covered gospel music for Billboard magazine during Word Music’s heyday, said Kaiser’s personal demeanor coupled with his musical talent attracted some of contemporary Christian music’s top names, such as Amy Grant, to Word and Waco.

“Kurt was the musical heart and soul of the whole operation. His musical chops, perfect pitch and gracious demeanor in the studio convinced many to sign with Word. He was such a nurturing guy,” Darden said.

Kaiser also mentored younger Christian musicians and composers, recalled Gary Rhodes, First Baptist Church Woodway worship pastor and a Dove Award-winning church music composer who started at Word Music. Christian composers such as John Purifoy, Don Cason, Mark Hayes, Deborah Harris and Rhodes learned from him and in many cases, he gave them a freedom to create. “He went to bat for us to have more creative opportunities,” he said.

Kaiser’s compositions number more than 300 copyrighted songs, many of which are regular fare in Sunday worship services, such as “The Lord Whom We Love,” “Pass It On,” “Oh How He Loves You And Me” and his popular arrangement of Doris Akers’ “Sweet, Sweet Spirit.” His writing and recording, with 16 solo albums to his credit, earned him a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers as well as election to the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.

He held degrees from the American Conservatory of Music and Northwestern University but was deeply involved with Baylor University, which all four Kaiser children attended. His support of the university led Baylor to award him its Pro Ecclesia Medal of Service in 2017.

It was always about music, Kaiser told writer Lane Murphy in a Baylor Magazine article last year. “All I’ve ever known is music. If I needed a Plan B, I’d probably be pumping gas or something like that,” he said with typical dry humor.

Kaiser’s background and love for classical music saw him active with the Waco Symphony Orchestra for many years, serving as a symphony board member for many years and symphony president for the 1999-2000 season.

WSO Music Director Stephen Heyde remembered Kaiser for his friendship and support as well as musical acumen. “He was a dear, dear friend. So sweet, such a good man,” he said. “He would write a note after every symphony concert to encourage me.”

Kaiser also used his considerable contacts to find artists and arrangements for WSO programs as well as sharing his critical observations. “No question, too — he had the best ears in town,” Heyde said.

Many in Waco remember the five concerts Kaiser played with Waco organist Joyce Jones, the longtime head of Baylor’s organ department, now retired. The concerts paired two stellar keyboardists with deep backgrounds in classical music and Christian hymns. She remembered him as a player with considerable ability, a self-deprecating sense of humor and a surprising nervousness that he wouldn’t play as well as she.

“He was a wonderful musician, wonderful Christian and a wonderful friend,” Jones said.

Kaiser’s lasting impact, however, was with the millions of listeners and singers united in their faith by his work. “His songs created community,” said York. “Especially in our day and time, that’s so important.”

Kaiser is survived by his wife Pat, as well as four children and their spouses: Kris Kaiser Olson and Charles Olson of Waco; Kelli and Kent Kaiser of Sugar Land; Janet and Craig Kaiser of Houston; and Gail and Tim Kaiser of Coppell. Other survivors include 10 grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, sister Sigrid Schultz and brothers Helmuth Kaiser, Martin Kaiser and Gerhard Kaiser.

The family will receive friends from 5-7 p.m. Thursday at 3800 Greenleaf Drive. A celebration of life service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday at First Baptist Church of Waco, 500 Webster Ave., officiated by The Rev. Eric Howell. A reception in the church parlor will follow the service.

Tribune-Herald entertainment editor