George Beverly Shea, “America’s beloved Gospel singer,” passed away last week at the age of 104, following a brief illness.
In an era when artists reinvent themselves with every album, Shea was an anomaly who became an icon, never changing his style to reach critical mass. And yet, in a remarkable musical career spanning more than seven decades, he released 72 albums (including nine CDs) of sacred music, recording his first of 53 records with RCA in 1951.
George Beverly Shea received 10 consecutive GRAMMY nominations and won two –including a Lifetime Achievement Award for artistic contributions to the recording medium by The Recording Academy at 102 years of age, making him the oldest living GRAMMY recipient.
At the 53rd annual GRAMMY Awards ceremony in 2011, Shea received a standing ovation from the crowd of fellow artists and industry peers. Many sought him out on the red carpet to have their picture taken together and gave him props for still singing – with excellence – at his age, having just performed a Christmas concert several weeks before the event.
Following a career in radio that began in 1929, George Beverly Shea’s perennial smiling face and rich baritone voice graced the stage at nearly every Billy Graham crusade since 1947, and additional evangelistic meetings held by two succeeding generations of Grahams, including son, Franklin, and grandson, Will.
Along with choir/program director Cliff Barrows, Shea was one of the original members of Billy Graham’s team. He sang in every state of the union and in 185 countries on every continent to more people in live audiences than any other artist in history – more than 220 million people.
George Beverly Shea was a gentle spiritual giant, whose sweet spirit and tender timber of a voice prepared audiences for Graham’s message around the world for more than six decades. “This is why I sing, to soften people’s hearts with a quiet little song, so they will be open to the life-changing message of the Gospel,” he said.
In addition to performing and recording hundreds of inspirational favorites, Shea wrote a number of popular Gospel hymns. At 23, he composed the music for one of his best known solos, “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” to the words of a poem left on the piano by his mother. Others include “The Wonder of it All,” “I Will Praise Him” and “If That Isn’t Love.”
Shea’s fingerprints were even on “How Great Thou Art,” his signature song, that he first learned in London in 1947 and subsequently brought it to America during Billy Graham’s historic New York Crusade at Madison Square Garden in 1954.
As the choir rehearsed the chorus, George Beverly Shea sang the verses, changing the lyrics to “Oh Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the ‘worlds’ – instead of ‘works’ – Thy hands have made.” Further, he replaced “I hear the mighty thunder” to “rolling thunder,” later prompting hymn writer Stuart Hine to permanently alter the lyrics.
While many seeker-friendly churches today incorporate a timely, contemporary style of worship, George Beverly Shea’s music was timeless. He had a unique, God-given talent that remained strong and seemed to improve with advancing age. The last few years of his life, he was sought out by popular artists, such as Michael Tait, Ricky Skaggs and Guy Penrod to record duets together on music projects geared to younger audiences and Millenials.
I first met George Beverly Shea --“Bev” to his friends -- backstage during the Billy Graham Crusade at Memorial Stadium in 1981. Though 45 years my senior, he and I developed a close personal friendship that began in 1984, traveling with Billy Graham as he conducted six crusades across England.
That summer, I accompanied Bev Shea and Grand Ole Opry legend George Hamilton IV, to the gorge at Burrington Combe near Bristol, England, where years before a local preacher was inspired to pen the lyrics to the classic hymn “Rock of Ages” after finding shelter from a storm in the fissured cleft of a giant granite formation. Accompanied by Hamilton’s guitar, the two men sang the song that speaks of God’s providence and protection – a moving moment, which was caught on film and I was blessed to witness.
The Man Transcends the Music
George Beverly Shea’s anointed melodies captivated a generation of millions of crusade-goers, now middle-aged and seniors, who grew up listening to him sing. I regularly enjoyed his musical artistry for more than 32 years, hearing him perform hundreds of times at crusades around the world.
But the man, the method and the message transcended the music. His exemplary life was a reminder that God protects, preserves, upholds and blesses those who selflessly dedicate their talents in service to him.
Many reporters who interviewed Bev Shea were impressed by the simplicity of his faith and testimony. ASSIST News Service observed he was “A man of deep sympathies; he will listen endlessly to the troubles of others, but dismiss his own with a word and a smile.”
Four years ago, a group of family and friends gathered at The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove in Asheville, N.C., to celebrate Bev Shea’s 100th birthday. They presented him with a Rodgers organ, to be installed in his home, which would eventually be used at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
Six months later, Bev called Warden Burl Cain and asked him to send someone to get the instrument, as he wanted to donate it the prison. When the warden reminded him the organ was his to use until he died, Shea replied, “I’m dying to have it go there now.” One month later, he put on a musical evening in the prison chapel, accompanied by his organ, attended by 600 inmates.
Shea was a deeply spiritual man who had “a hunger to know more about the Lord,” and liked to say, “we have promises to memorize and songs to sing.” His advice for other believers: “Keep your devotions, study the word, enjoy his presence and learn from him daily.”
Franklin Graham observed that Bev Shea’s life was a living testimony to the Scripture engraved inside his wedding band, Psalm 28:7: “The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusted in him and I am helped; therefore my heart greatly rejoices, and with my song I will praise him.”
As George Beverly Shea eternally adds his booming baritone to the heavenly choir, his melodious legacy lives on here in our hearts.
Larry Ross, president of A. Larry Ross Communications, a Dallas-based media/public relations agency founded in 1994, has more than 37 years’ experience in mainstream and Christian public relations, including serving as director of media/public relations and principal spokesperson for evangelist Billy Graham since 1981.