Obituary: George Beverly Shea / Billy Graham's Grammy-winning gospel singer

Feb. 1, 1909 - April 16, 2013

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George Beverly Shea, who escaped a life of toil in an insurance office to become a Grammy-winning gospel singer and a longtime associate of the Rev. Billy Graham, appearing before an estimated 200 million people at Graham revival meetings worldwide, died Tuesday in Asheville, N.C. He was 104.

His death was announced by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, in Charlotte, N.C., of which Mr. Shea was the official singing voice for more than half a century. Canadian-born, he lived in Montreat, N.C. -- for decades just a mile from the home of Rev. Graham, a close friend.

Through the Billy Graham crusades, as the stadium-size revival meetings begun by Rev. Graham are known, Mr. Shea was perhaps the most widely heard gospel artist in the world, singing before tens of millions of worshippers throughout the United States and around the globe.

He also appeared regularly on "The Hour of Decision," Rev. Graham's weekly radio broadcast, which began in 1950 and continues to this day.

On a more intimate scale he sang at the prayer breakfasts of a series of U.S. presidents, including Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and George H.W. Bush.

Mr. Shea, who was still singing as he embarked on his second century, was fond of saying that Rev. Graham would not let him retire, since nowhere in Scripture is the concept of retirement overtly addressed.

When interviewers asked why Rev. Graham did not simply lead his flock in song himself as many preachers do, Mr. Shea did venture to suggest that the status quo was better for all concerned: Rev. Graham, as Mr. Shea put it with true Christian charity, suffered from "the malady of no melody."

Mr. Shea's vocal style, by contrast, was characterized by a resonant bass-baritone, impeccable diction, sensitive musical phrasing and an unshowmanlike delivery that nonetheless conveyed his own ardent religious conviction.

He recorded more than 70 albums, including "In Times Like These" (1962), "Every Time I Feel the Spirit" (1972) and "The Old Rugged Cross" (1978). In 1966, he won the Grammy Award for best gospel or other religious recording for his album "Southland Favorites," recorded with the Anita Kerr Singers.

Mr. Shea received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy, which administers the Grammys, in 2011.

Of the hundreds of songs he sang, Mr. Shea was most closely identified with "How Great Thou Art," a hymn that became the de facto anthem of Rev. Graham's ministry. In 1957, at a crusade in New York City, Mr. Shea, by popular demand, sang it on 108 consecutive nights.

Other songs for which he was known include "I'd Rather Have Jesus," for which he composed the music, and "The Wonder of It All," for which he wrote words and music.

George Beverly Shea, known as Bev, was born on Feb. 1, 1909, in Winchester, Ontario. His father, the Rev. Adam J. Shea, was a Wesleyan Methodist minister; his mother, the former Maude Whitney, was the organist in her husband's church.

Growing up, Mr. Shea dreamed the dream of every red-blooded Canadian boy -- to be a Mountie -- but he also studied piano, organ and violin. One of eight children, he did his first formal singing in his father's church choir and his first informal singing long before, around the family table.

As a young man, Mr. Shea attended Houghton College in Houghton, N.Y., but left before graduating to help support his family in the Depression. He found work in New York City as a clerk with the Mutual Life Insurance Co., a post he would hold for nearly a decade. Meanwhile, he studied voice with private teachers.

During this period Mr. Shea entered an amateur talent contest on Fred Allen's radio show, singing "Go Down, Moses." He came in second -- he was beaten by a yodeler -- but the exposure led to offers to sing on commercial radio. He declined, ill at ease with the idea of a life in secular music. His career in sacred music, however, was now assured.

In the late 1930s, Mr. Shea moved to Chicago to join WMBI, the radio station of the Moody Bible Institute, as a staff announcer and singer. One day in 1943, a young man knocked on the studio door. The visitor was a Wheaton College student named William Franklin Graham Jr., who had stopped by to tell Mr. Shea how much he loved his singing.

Before long Rev. Graham, who had become a preacher in Western Springs, Ill., had recruited Mr. Shea to sing on his own religious radio show, "Songs in the Night." From the mid-1940s to the early '50s, Mr. Shea was also the host of "Club Time," a gospel show broadcast on ABC Radio.

In 1947, Mr. Shea joined Rev. Graham and Cliff Barrows, who would serve as Rev. Graham's longtime music director, in the first Billy Graham Crusade, in Charlotte.

Mr. Shea was the author of several books, including the memoir "How Sweet the Sound" (2004), written with Betty Free Swanberg and Jeffery McKenzie.

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