Justin Bieber, Drake and Arcade Fire have nothing on George Beverly Shea, the Canadian hymn-singing bass-baritone who won a Grammy in 1966 for his RCA gospel album Southland Favorites, recorded with the Anita Kerr Quartet. Shea, a native of Winchester, Ont., near Ottawa, would go on to receive 10 nominations.
Now 102, the self-described "psalm singer" will receive a lifetime-achievement award at a ceremony held on the eve of the 53rd Grammy Awards. Shea, who summers in Quebec, spoke from his home in North Carolina, his voice still in strong, golden form.
You once recorded an album, Hymns That Have Lived 100 Years. You've beaten that by a couple of years. How do you feel?
Well, I don't walk like I did at 99. But I do wake up in the morning, feel like living and sometimes think [sings] 'Thank you for waking me this morning, thank you for giving me today, thank you for a new day dawning.' Meaning the Lord, you know?
Absolutely. I guess we don't need to ask if you still sing.
Ha! Well, there's a few frogs in the morning, you know.
How do you feel now about that first Grammy?
I keep looking at this Grammy, that sits on the shelf here. It came a long time ago. It's something. It's nice to have.
How does it compare with this year's award?
I was so surprised, you know, when they phoned me in December and told me. And then I saw online who I was with: Julie Andrews, Dolly Parton, the Juilliard String Quartet and so forth. I felt like the farmer who put his horse in the Kentucky Derby. They said, 'Why?' He said, 'Look at the company it's keeping.'
Is there vanity involved with these kinds of awards? Is there an inherent conflict with gospel music and trophies?
No. The Reverend Billy Graham was over to see me yesterday - he lives just a mile away. He was rejoicing that the hymns of the church were being honoured in this way.
Because you sang as part of Billy Graham's evangelistic team, it's said that you've sung to more people over your career than any other singer. Is that true?
I did receive this nice thing from the Guinness Book of World Records, saying that I had sung to 210 million people in person. But those people didn't come to see me. They came to hear Mr. Graham. But it was nice to receive that.
Any memorable instances or performances that stand out over the years?
In '66, we were over there in Vietnam. They took us on the day before Christmas into a compound. There were a lot of boys sitting under the trees, having just come in from off the line. They were getting haircuts. And somebody yelled, 'Hey, Shea, sing How Great Thou Art.' I put my hand to my mouth, and sang it. And then I heard 'Thank you.'
Is a moment like that just as rewarding as a Grammy?
It was very important. I was very moved by that. To think, I'd been singing it for so many years. I'll never forget that.
This interview has been condensed and edited.