George Beverly Shea, the gospel singer who performed for more than 200 million people worldwide during six decades as the soloist in the Rev. Billy Graham’s evangelical crusades, has died. He was 104.
Shea died Tuesday following a brief illness, according to a statement by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. He lived in Montreat, N.C., in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where Graham also resides.
Known as “America’s Beloved Gospel Singer,” Shea and program director Cliff Barrows served as the nucleus of Graham’s musical team since 1949. With the crusades, he sang in more than 185 countries and in all 50 U.S. states, at venues from football stadiums to the Royal Albert Hall and White House.
“I’ve been listening to Bev Shea sing for more than 50 years and I would still rather hear him sing than anyone else I know,” Graham once said.
A bass-baritone, Shea recorded more than 70 albums of Christian music and was nominated for 10 Grammy Awards, winning once in 1965. He was probably best known for his powerful rendition of “How Great Thou Art” in the 1950s, a song later recorded by Elvis Presley. He also composed several hymns, including “The Wonder of It All.”
Shea was born on Feb. 1, 1909, in Winchester, Ontario, to A.J. Shea, a Wesleyan Methodist minister, and Maude Whitney Shea. He sang at his father’s church, and later in the glee club at Houghton College, a Christian school in upstate New York.
His family was unable to afford more than a year’s tuition, and Shea left Houghton for New York, where he worked as a clerk in the medical department of Mutual of New York, the life insurance company. By then, his family had also moved to the U.S., with his father joining a new congregation in nearby Jersey City, N.J.
Shea played organ and sang in his father’s church. At 23, he found a poem by Rhea Miller on his family’s piano and wrote music for it. The result was one his best-known solos, “I’d Rather Have Jesus.”
Shea began to develop a reputation from his appearances on the New York radio stations WMCA and WHN as well as through his performances at outdoor Bible meetings. In 1939, he received an offer to travel to Chicago to become a staff announcer for Christian radio station WMBI.
His network radio singing began in 1942 with “Club Time,” a program carried by ABC, the Armed Forces Network and independent stations. Graham, who was then pastor of the Village Church in Western Springs, Illinois, took over the “Songs in the Night” program on Chicago station WCFL in 1943. He admired Shea’s singing and asked him to help with the broadcast.
Shea sang at his first Billy Graham crusade in 1947 and joined the evangelist’s weekly “Hour of Decision” radio broadcast in 1950.
“He could have got a great singer years ago but he stuck with me,” Shea told the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram in 2005.
He was elected to the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame in 1978 and was similarly recognized by the Religious Broadcast Hall of Fame in 1996.
Shea published “How Sweet the Sound” in 2004, a book that includes stories about his music.
In June 2007, when he was 98 and walking with a cane, Shea sang at the dedication of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C.
He is survived by his wife. They were married in 1985. He has two children from a previous marriage, Ronald and Elaine.
Shea was often asked which of the many hymns he has sung over the past 60 years was his favorite. The one he always cited was derived from a poem written in the late 1800s by a Swedish pastor, Carl Gustaf Boberg.
“I never get tired of hearing ‘How Great Thou Art,’ “ he said in 2004. “It wears well. It still gets to your heart.”