Percy Kelley making sweet organ music for First Presbyterian Church

Published 6:58 pm Monday, February 20, 2023

AMERICUS – If one were to walk inside the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church of Americus on South Jackson St. on an early weekday morning, one would hear the beautiful sounds of the organ being played by the church’s organist, Percy Kelley, who has been the organist since November of 2022.

Kelley grew up on a farm in Preston, MD, a town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He started taking piano lessons at the age of five under the direction of his music teacher, who was the organist at their church. “My public school music teacher was teaching in the area, plus, she was the organist at my church,” Kelley said. “We grew up African Methodist Episcopal. My uncle was the presiding elder and we had the largest church, so the presiding elder, if you have a large church, you always have high music,” Kelley continued.

While he started taking piano lessons at age five, he really didn’t like it at first. “I hated it at the age of five because I was being made to do it,” Kelley said. “I had all sisters, with the exception of one brother and all of them were older than I and I was the last to come on. I started band when I was probably 11 and I started liking it. Band really came easy for me, plus, that made me have more interest in the organ. I really liked the organ because it was a little more masculine.”

Kelley went on to say that he wasn’t able to go out and play ball much with his friends because he was practicing most of the time at the church’s organ and piano, along with the Clarinet. From there, his music career took off.

After high school, Kelley went on to Howard University, where he got his Bachelors of Music Education. From there, he went on to George Washington University, where he earned his Master of Arts in Education. Kelley would later enroll in Combs Conservatory to earn his doctorate, but wasn’t able to complete the work due to the conservatory closing.

Before coming to Americus, Kelley was working at Duke University as an administrator in the university’s music department, but his family, gong as far back as the 1800s, is from Forsyth, GA in Monroe County. Kelley’s mother, who had taught in the public school system for several years, was having health problems and he and his wife decided to move there to take care of her so she wouldn’t have to go into a nursing home. Kelley had just retired from his job at Duke when his mother became ill and the family stayed there for about six years. In addition to his musical talents, Kelley had a passion to restore old houses and decided to put that passion into practice while living in Forsyth. “During my breaks, we became interested n historic property,” Kelley said. “I grew up in a 150-year-old home that my parents had restored. We still have it and are maintaining it on the farm.” Kelley went on to say that when he came to Forsyth, WAL-MART was having a battle with the community over five houses on Indian Springs Dr. in Forsyth. “Because of my work in North Carolina, they asked my wife and I if we would consider purchasing those houses at a good deal,” Kelley said. “We restored all of those houses, of which two of them were on HGTV.” Kelley added that he and his wife were able to restore and refurnish these homes and sold them. He then went to Montezuma, found an old house there and restored that house before going to Macon. But before going there, Kelley restored an old bank building that he had bought and sold it.

When he arrived in Macon, Kelley was able to restore some apartment buildings in Downtown Macon called the Massey Apartments. “They were more like New York type, or loft type apartments,” Kelley said. Kelley and his family remained in Macon for three years before a retailer purchased them about a year ago. “We were stuck because we had purchased ours,” Kelley said. “People were paying anything to rent, so with that came another element. We couldn’t find anything in the Macon area to buy because housing just went crazy.”

Due to the situation in Macon, Kelley stated that he and his wife decided to look for housing in the Sumter/Macon County area because they had purchased an old plantation house in Montezuma. “We always liked this area. We were always drawn to this area,” Kelley aid. “We called the realtor and she started looking for us. We said that we didn’t want anything big. We wanted something with a little character, but not a lot of work. She found us something that we really liked on Highway 49 and it’s manageable and we really like it.”

At one time, Kelley was the organist at the First Baptist Church of Forsyth, but had stopped playing a few years ago when we moved here and was missing playing the organ. “I thought I was going to retire from it, but as it turns out, I came here and they (First Presbyterian Church) were looking for an organist,” Kelley said. “At the time, I wasn’t quite ready and didn’t know if I wanted to commit, but then, I came to church one Sunday, met the folks here and we were sold,” Kelley continued.

Kelley went on to say that the congregation is not a huge congregation, but the people understand and appreciate good organ music. “They have an appreciation for just all kinds of music,” Kelley said. “After meeting with them, I said, ‘I can see myself playing here’. That was back in November.” Kelley went on to say that one of the biggest challenges of a church organist is trying to match up with the congregation’s musical tastes. “We organists are a dying breed,” Kelley said. “The style of music has changed in a lot of the churches. They’re more contemporary.” Kelley added that organs are very difficult to maintain financially because the church has to be kept at a certain temperature, but he was glad that the church had purchased an Allen Renaissance Organ, which to Kelley, is a one of the better organs out there. “It does a good job with accompanying hymns, solo work when I do offertories. It’s not a gigantic organ, but it serves this congregation well.”

Kelley went on to reiterate that the congregation at First Presbyterian Church appreciates organ music, but also appreciates a variety of different types of music.

Kelley comes to the church every morning at 6:30 a.m. to practice and practices for about two and a half hours. “A lot of that is pedagogy because I had gotten away from it,” Kelley said. “I had to go back and get the fingers back together and get the legs back together. I’m still not where I want to be yet. I’ve still got a long ways to go. If you don’t do it all the time, you lose it. I practice about, I would say from 18-20 hours a week.” Kelley went on to say that most of that practicing is to prepare for Sunday services and a lot of it is pedagogy, working on scales and pedal exercises.

Christmas is 10 months away, but Kelley says he is already working on music for Christmas 2023. He has been playing the Alleluia Chorus, which to him is an organist’s nightmare. On Friday morning, February 17, he was playing the hymn, “Crown Him with Many Crowns” in preparation for Easter.

Kelley went on to say that because the congregation is familiar with organ literature, he tries to play so well that someone might say to him at the end of the service, ‘Oh my goodness! I enjoyed the Mendelssohn today’. “I told some friends of mine and they said ‘You’re getting that down in Americus?’ I said, ‘yes’,” Kelley said. “A lot of big cities, they’re not as sharp as these folks are. They’re up with their music, I mean, they really are,” Kelley said. “They’ve had good music for years. They’ve always had good music and that makes a difference.”

Kelley is married to his wife Veronica and the couple has two children: Percell Kelley Jr. and Ivey Kelley. Percell Kelley Jr. is the school principal of Edwards Middle School in Rocky Mount, NC and Ivey is a small business owner outside of Locust Grove, GA.

The couple also has three grandchildren: Percy, Payton and Anaya.