George Beverly Shea Dies at 104; Stirring Singer at Billy Graham Revivals
Billy Graham Evangelistic Association
By MARGALIT FOX
Published: April 17, 2013
George Beverly Shea, who escaped a life of toil in an insurance office to become a Grammy-winning gospel singer and a longtime associate of the Rev. Billy Graham, appearing before an estimated 200 million people at Graham revival meetings worldwide, died on Tuesday in Asheville, N.C. He was 104.
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Billy Graham Evangelistic Association
His death was announced by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, in Charlotte, N.C., of which Mr. Shea was the official singing voice for more than half a century. Canadian-born, he lived in Montreat, N.C. — for decades just a mile from the home of Mr. Graham, a close friend.
Through the Billy Graham crusades, as the stadium-size revival meetings begun by Mr. Graham are known, Mr. Shea was perhaps the most widely heard gospel artist in the world, singing before worshipers throughout the United States and around the globe.
He also appeared regularly on “The Hour of Decision,” Mr. Graham’s weekly radio broadcast, which began in 1950 and continues to this day.
On a more intimate scale he sang at the prayer breakfasts of a series of United States presidents, including Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson and the first George Bush.
Mr. Shea, who was still singing as he embarked on his second century, was fond of saying that Mr. Graham would not let him retire, since nowhere in Scripture is the concept of retirement overtly addressed.
“I’ve been listening to Bev Shea sing for more than 50 years,” Mr. Graham told The Charlotte Observer in 1997, “and I would still rather hear him sing than anyone else I know.”
When interviewers asked why Mr. Graham did not simply lead his flock in song himself, as many preachers do, Mr. Shea suggested that the status quo was better for all concerned: Mr. Graham, as Mr. Shea put it with true Christian charity, suffered from “the malady of no melody.”
Mr. Shea’s vocal style, by contrast, was characterized by a resonant bass-baritone, impeccable diction, sensitive musical phrasing and an unshowmanlike delivery that nonetheless conveyed his ardent religious conviction.
He recorded more than 70 albums, including “In Times Like These” (1962), “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” (1972) and “The Old Rugged Cross” (1978). In 1966 he won the Grammy Award for best gospel or other religious recording for his album “Southland Favorites,” recorded with the Anita Kerr Singers.
Mr. Shea received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy, which administers the Grammys, in 2011.
Of the hundreds of songs he sang, Mr. Shea was most closely identified with “How Great Thou Art,” a hymn that became the de facto anthem of Mr. Graham’s ministry. In 1957, at a crusade in New York City, Mr. Shea, by popular demand, sang it on 108 consecutive nights.
Other songs for which he was known include “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” for which he composed the music, and “The Wonder of It All,” for which he wrote words and music.
George Beverly Shea, known as Bev, was born on Feb. 1, 1909, in Winchester, Ontario. His father, the Rev. Adam J. Shea, was a Wesleyan Methodist minister; his mother, the former Maude Whitney, was the organist in her husband’s church.
Growing up, Bev dreamed the dream of every red-blooded Canadian boy — to be a Mountie — but he also studied piano, organ and violin. One of eight children, he did his first formal singing in his father’s church choir and his first informal singing long before, around the family table.
As a young man Mr. Shea attended Houghton College in Houghton, N.Y., but left before graduating to help support his family in the Depression. He found work in Manhattan as a clerk with the Mutual Life Insurance Company, a post he would hold for nearly a decade. Meanwhile he studied voice with private teachers.
During this period Mr. Shea entered an amateur talent contest on Fred Allen’s radio show, singing “Go Down, Moses.” He came in second — he was beaten by a yodeler — but the exposure led to offers to sing on commercial radio. He declined, ill at ease with the idea of a life in secular music. His career in sacred music, however, was now assured.
In the late 1930s Mr. Shea moved to Chicago to join WMBI, the radio station of the Moody Bible Institute, as a staff announcer and singer. One day in 1943 a young man knocked on the studio door. The visitor was a Wheaton College student named William Franklin Graham Jr., who had stopped by to tell Mr. Shea how much he loved his singing.
Before long Mr. Graham, who had become a preacher in Western Springs, Ill., had recruited Mr. Shea to sing on his own religious radio show, “Songs in the Night.” From the mid-1940s to the early ’50s, Mr. Shea was also the host of “Club Time,” a gospel show broadcast on ABC Radio.
In 1947 Mr. Shea joined Mr. Graham and Cliff Barrows, who would serve as Mr. Graham’s longtime music director, in the first Billy Graham Crusade, in Charlotte.
Mr. Shea was the author of several books, including the memoir “How Sweet the Sound” (2004), written with Betty Free Swanberg and Jeffery McKenzie.
Mr. Shea’s first wife, the former Erma Scharfe, whom he married in 1934, died in 1976. His survivors include his second wife, the former Karlene Aceto, whom he married in 1985, and two children from his first marriage, Ronald and Elaine. Information on other survivors was not immediately available.
Though Mr. Shea was long a vital part of Mr. Graham’s work — Mr. Graham routinely insisted that without him he would have had no ministry — he retained a wry modesty about his role.
“The people didn’t come to hear me,” Mr. Shea told The Charlotte Observer in 2009. “They came to hear Billy. To get to hear him, they first had to listen to me.”
It was not always so. When they joined forces in the 1940s, Mr. Shea was already a nationally known voice in Christian music, Mr. Graham a fledgling minister. Their early revival meetings were often advertised this way:
BEV SHEA SINGS
Billy Graham will preach.