George Beverly Shea, the Methodist preacher’s kid from Winchester, Ont., who became known as “America’s beloved Gospel singer” died April 17 in Asheville, N.C., at the age of 104.
As a result of his singing at Rev. Billy Graham’s worldwide crusades, it has been estimated that Mr. Shea’s resonant bass-baritone voice was heard in person by more than 230 million people, a Guinness Book of World Records mark record unlikely to be broken. Bev Shea sang in the flesh to more people than Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and the Beatles combined. And he sang always in praise of Jesus Christ.
Mr. Shea was also a Grammy Award-winning composer and arranger. He composed the music to the hymn that defined his own testimony: I’d Rather Have Jesus (the words were written by a minister’s wife, Rhea F. Miller). He also wrote, arranged and recorded The Wonder of It All, which became a popular hymn translated into several languages. In 1978, he was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame; in 1996 into the Broadcasting Hall of Fame. In 2011, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Grammy Association.
George Beverly Shea (the odd middle name was in honour of an itinerant preacher, Dr. Beverly Carradine, who had paid a visit to his father’s Methodist church in Winchester) was born Feb. 1, 1909, the fourth of eight children. His father, Adam, taught him to play the violin, and his mother, Maud Mary, taught him piano. But it was his deep baritone voice that caught public attention, first when he sang solos at his father’s church at about the age of 8, then as a teenager in other local churches scattered throughout the Ottawa Valley.
When Bev Shea was 5, two American singers who were to sing that Sunday in his father’s church came to the Shea home to ask Mrs. Shea to accompany them while they learned the lyrics to what they called a new hymn – The Old Rugged Cross. Young Bev stood by the piano, listening, unaware that over the next half century he would sing that hymn on every continent in the world.
Mr. Shea attended Houghton College in upstate New York, then started his career as a claims adjuster for Mutual Life Insurance Company. But Moody Bible Institute in Chicago had recently established the first Christian radio station (WMBI) in the United States, and in 1940 Mr. Shea began to broadcast Hymns in the Night; the program was soon syndicated on many other stations.
It was on Jan. 2, 1944 that Mr. Shea first sang for a Billy Graham meeting. Mr. Graham was then pastor at Village Baptist Church near Chicago, and Mr. Shea sang in the church basement. Soon after that, Mr. Graham asked Mr. Shea, and music director Cliff Barrows, to join him in a mission of evangelizing.
Mr. Shea recalled that moment this way: “I came to this work with Mr. Graham after we had exchanged letters and talked on the phone. He said he wanted me to be his gospel singer. I thanked him, but told him that the only gospel singers I’d ever heard about would sing a verse or two and stop and talk awhile. ‘Would I have to do that?,’ I asked him. He chuckled and said: ‘I hope not’. With that I said: ‘Well, I’d like to come with you. That was in November, 1947 and I’ve been with him ever since.’”
Bev Shea was a proud Canadian and seldom missed an opportunity to remind an interviewer of his Canadian roots; yet he was so closely identified with Billy Graham, and lived for so many decades in the United States, that he was commonly assumed to be American. “America’s beloved Gospel singer” would sing each night of a crusade just before Billy Graham preached.
This devotee of Tim Hortons coffee remained Canadian to the end, so much so that his funeral casket was accompanied by an RCMP officer from Ottawa, in full regalia.
Throughout his career, Mr. Shea recorded 70 records, mostly for RCA Victor. Perhaps his best-known recording was of Stuart K. Hine’s English translation of a Swedish hymn, How Great Thou Art. Mr. Shea premiered this hymn at the Graham Toronto crusade at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1955, and went on to sing it nightly during the 1957 Madison Square Garden crusade.
On his 100th birthday in 2009, Mr. Shea was honoured at the Billy Graham Centre in Asheville, N.C. He told a local paper: “On the ladder of life, I have reached rung 100 and I can survey the scenery a little better than those who are still climbing.”
Billy Graham said: “I will always be grateful not only for Bev’s musical contribution, but also for his warm spirit and personal friendship.”
Mr. Shea was predeceased by his first wife, Emma, who died in 1976; he leaves his wife, Karlene, and two children, Ron and Elaine.