George Beverly Shea, gospel singer who preceded Billy Graham sermons, dies at 104


George Beverly Shea, the booming baritone who sang to millions of Christians at evangelist Billy Graham’s crusades, died at 104. (Chuck Burton/AP)
April 17, 2013

George Beverly Shea, a Grammy Award-winning singer who performed hymns before millions of people as the vocal soloist for globe-trotting evangelist Billy Graham, died April 16 in Asheville, N.C. He was 104.

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association announced his death but did not cite a specific cause.

Mr. Shea was often reported to have sung before more people than any other person in history — an estimated audience of 220 million in a career that spanned seven decades. As late as 2006, when he was 97, he performed before a crowd of 81,500 people in Baltimore.

But as Mr. Shea often pointed out, he was never the main attraction.

“They didn’t come to hear me,” he told the Asheville Citizen-Times in 2011. “They had to listen to me before Billy spoke.”

The two met in the 1940s, when Mr. Shea was an announcer and singer on a Christian radio station in Chicago, and Graham was a pastor in a nearby suburb with a radio show of his own.

When Graham devoted himself to his evangelistic “crusades” in 1947, he invited Mr. Shea to join him. From then on, wherever Graham preached, Mr. Shea sang.

He was known for his clean diction, perfect pitch and a robust bass-baritone voice that was as sturdy and as flashy as a tree trunk.

Mr. Shea had a repertoire of hundreds of hymns — some of which he composed — but was identified with a few familiar favorites, including “The Old Rugged Cross,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and, especially, “How Great Thou Art.”

He began singing “How Great Thou Art,” a Swedish hymn written in the 1880s, in the mid-1950s. When Graham preached to more than 2 million people during a prolonged crusade in New York City in 1957, Mr. Shea sang his signature number on more than 100 consecutive nights.

Two alterations he made in the lyrics of “How Great Thou Art” became so well known that the original words were almost forgotten. Mr. Shea changed “consider all the works thy hands have made” to “all the worlds thy hands have made” and “I hear the mighty thunder” to “I hear the rolling thunder.”

“I got a bang when I used to hear Elvis Presley sing my two words,” Mr. Shea told the Kansas City Star in 2004.

But Mr. Shea avoided any show-biz gimmicks that were remotely ostentatious. He stood still, seldom raised his arms and, after finishing a song, quietly retreated to his seat, leaving the stage to Graham.

“I try not to do any vocal gymnastics — I’m not capable of it anyway,” Mr. Shea told the Post-Standard of Syracuse, N.Y., in 1989. “I’m not looking for any applause. I’m just looking to get that simple message over.”

George Beverly Shea was born Feb. 1, 1909, in Winchester, Ontario. Known as “Bev” throughout his life, he was one of eight children of a Wesleyan Methodist minister.

Mr. Shea studied violin, piano and organ but was drawn to singing from an early age. His mother, a church organist, was his first music teacher.

He attended Houghton College in Upstate New York before moving to New York City, where he worked for an insurance company and took voice lessons. He once finished second in a talent contest on Fred Allen’s radio show. First place went to a yodeler.

Mr. Shea wrote the music to one of his best-known hymns, “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” when he was 23. By 1938, he was on the radio in Chicago, where he later met Graham.

They ended up living less than a mile apart in Montreat, N.C., where the 94-year-old Graham still resides. Mr. Shea said that when he raised the possibility of retiring, Graham always rejected the notion.

“Mr. Graham says there is no Scripture that allows us to retire,” Mr. Shea said in 2002.

His first wife, the former Erma Scarfe, died in 1976 after 42 years of marriage. Survivors include his wife since 1985, Karlene Aceto; and two children from his first marriage.

Over the years, Mr. Shea performed for most of the presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Bill Clinton. He won a Grammy Award in 1965 for best gospel album for a recording with the Anita Kerr Singers. Other winners that year included James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” Barbra Streisand for “Barbra Is My Name” and Tom Jones as best new artist.

In 2011, when he was 102, Mr. Shea received a Grammy for lifetime achievement. He accepted the award in person and is believed to be the oldest Grammy winner of all time.

He recorded more than 70 albums, all of them of religious music, except for one country album in 1997. For 26 years, he had the same record label as Elvis Presley, RCA.

“The man who signed up Elvis signed me up,” Mr. Shea said in 2011. “I think Elvis sold a few more records than I did.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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