Music April 17, 2013
George Beverly Shea, Gospel Singer For Billy Graham, Has Died At 104


Think of him as The Rolling Stones of the gospel world.

George Beverley Shea, the gospel singer for the Reverend Billy Graham crusades, has died. He was 104.

Born in Winchester (now North Dundas) Ontario in 1909, Shea spent 60 years alongside Graham - performing for an estimated 200 million people worldwide.

Shea first met Graham in Chicago in 1943. Graham had been listening to Shea's radio show "Hymns From A Chapel" and was impressed.

Several years later, in 1947, they started their crusade ministry.

Graham once described it this way, "As a young man starting my ministry, I asked if he would join me. He said yes and for more than 60 years we had the privilege of ministering together across the country and around the world."

Along the way, Shea popularized the hymn 'How Great Thou Art' for a generation of Protestants.

And he performed at London's Royal Albert Hall, the White House, and as TIME magazine writes, everywhere "from North Dakota to North Korea".

Like many gospel singers, Shea got his start in church as a youngster. His father, a Methodist minister, taught him the violin and his mom taught him piano and organ.

He moved to New York in his early 20s, where he worked in the insurance business while training with vocal coaches on the side.

It was in the Big Apple that he landed his first break, winning runner-up in the "amateur portion" of Fred Allen's NBC radio show and losing out to a yodeler!

As Shea put it, "I did my song, and I got a pretty good low note. I got second prize... [the yodeler] was so nervous in the green-room, he was smoking two cigarettes at a time."

As for his gospel career, the unassuming Shea told the Ashville Citizen-Times, "They were a captive audience! They had to listen to me - a couple of verses - before Billy spoke!"

In an interview a few years ago, Shea told TIME summed up the appeal of his songs this way...

"It's the message of the lyrics, the test that hits the heart in a hurry and the melody that goes along with it and seems to all go together," Shea said.

Photo: At the 1970 Crusade in Knoxville, TN with Johnny Cash via Billy Graham

He went on to record an astounding 70 albums and earned 10 Grammy nominations - winning in 1965 for his album 'Southland Favorites' and was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

In 1978, he was elected to Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame, in Nashville. And at the age of 88, he recorded his first country-and-western album.

Graham, who's 94 now, said he'd loved Shea "as a brother".

In tribute to Shea, Graham's evangelical organization said he had "carried the Gospel in song to every continent and every state in the Union."


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