George Beverly Shea, who spent a lifetime singing for God and Billy Graham, died Tuesday after a brief illness. He was 104.
Spokesman Brent Rinehart of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association said Shea died in Asheville.
Known to family, friends and fans simply as Bev, Shea and his wife, Karlene, lived for years in the N.C. mountain town of Montreat – a mile or so down the road from Billy Graham.
Shea lived his life not just in North Carolina but on the grandest of pulpits – the stage of the Billy Graham crusades, singing to millions of Christians in stadiums and arenas the world over.
It was as much a part of the American Christian experience as a Sunday morning sermon – that bass-baritone voice singing about “The Wonder of it All” and “How Great Thou Art” before Graham marched to the pulpit and asked people to open their Bibles and listen for God’s word.
“How Great Thou Art” became Shea’s signature offering. He sang it on 108 consecutive nights during the 1957 New York crusade that helped catapult Graham – and Shea – to Christian stardom.
In all, he recorded more than 60 gospel albums and sang in front of more than 200 million people. He was inducted into the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame in 1978 and the Religious Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 1996.
Billy Graham, Bev Shea and crusade musical director Cliff Barrows – they were the Graham crusades, the three-part harmony that touched or changed who knows how many lives.
Years ago, Shea said: “What a great experience I have had. … I certainly don’t think of myself as a star. I’ve just been lucky to work with Billy for so many years.”
George Beverly Shea was born Feb. 1, 1909, in Winchester, Ontario, Canada, to the Rev. A.J. and Maude Whitney Shea.
The son of a Wesleyan Methodist minister, Shea grew up singing duets at home with his mother. He first sang publicly in the choir of his father’s church, then went off to little Houghton College in Houghton, N.Y., where he lent his voice to the college glee club. It didn’t take a musical genius to recognize that the man behind this astonishingly deep and striking voice was going to go places.
Shea was singing on a Chicago radio station when he caught the ear of Billy Graham, a lanky, aggressive evangelist from Charlotte. Graham graduated from Wheaton College and began pastoring the Village Church in Western Springs, Ill. He was also hosting the “Songs in the Night” radio program on Chicago’s WCFL, and asked Shea to join him.
Graham, Shea and musical director Cliff Barrows joined forces for the first time at the November 1947 crusade at the old Charlotte Coliseum (now Bojangles’ Coliseum) on Independence Boulevard. Shea was 38 at the time, Graham 28 and Barrows 24 – three young men in search of an audience.
That audience began coming in droves two years later, at the Los Angeles tent crusade. That’s where newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst ordered his reporters and editors to turn the publicity spotlight on this Southern preacher with the electrifying message – and the sweet hymns.
In a sense, the music became Shea’s legacy.
While Graham got the headlines and met the presidents, Shea was content to sing a gospel number or two at the crusades, then move on to the next city and stadium and bring the Christian message of salvation through Jesus alive through harmony. In between, there were gospel albums to record - more than 70 in all.
The song with which he is most closely identified, “How Great Thou Art,” originated as an old Swedish folk melody.
“The first time we saw it, the words and the melody,” Shea said, “we knew we had something.”
Shea had said he’d go to his organ at home in his later years and play that hymn, and it would serve as his own private moment of devotion.
He wrote “The Wonder of It All’’ while on an ocean liner in 1955, after hearing an acquaintance sing the praises of a Graham crusade. “The wonder of it all” the man had said at one point in praising these events.
Many of the stories, and song lyrics, can be found in “How Sweet the Sound: Amazing Stories and Grace-filled Reflections on Beloved Hymns and Gospel Songs.”
But the real story will be forever embedded in the memories of all those Christians all over the world whose faith blossomed at the sound of his voice.
“Songs can touch and open a heart to hear God when sermons and preaching may fall on deaf ears,” Graham wrote in Shea’s book. “Music is such a universal language – and God used Bev to be an instrument to touch and enrich lives.” The Associated Press contributed.
Ken Garfield is a former religion writer at the Observer.