George Beverly Shea: Gospel singer revered around the world


The evangelical preacher Billy Graham said, “I would rather hear Bev Shea sing than anyone I know”, and Shea was an integral part of his crusades, performing with Graham at huge arenas and effectively preparing the way for his addresses. He modestly said that he was never the main attraction, but he sold millions of albums and became the world's leading gospel singer.

George Beverly Shea was born in 1909 in Winchester, Ontario. His father, Adam, was a Methodist minister and his mother, Maude, the church's organist. He was one of eight children and he both sang in the church choir and at family gatherings. With his mother's help, he studied piano, organ and violin.

Shea attended a Christian college in New York and returned to help his family during the Depression. For more than 10 years he worked as a clerk in Manhattan with Mutual Life but he also studied singing and came second in a radio talent show hosted by Fred Allen. He sang "Go Down Moses", and when asked to perform popular songs on air, said he was more interested in sacred music.

In the 1930s Shea moved to Chicago and joined a religious station, WMBI, as a staff announcer and singer. In 1943 a young preacher, Billy Graham, complimented him on his singing and soon Graham had recruited him for his own programme, Songs In The Night, in Western Springs, Illinois.

Graham updated the concept of 19th century revival meetings and Shea sang on his first crusade, in Charlotte, Illinois in 1947. He was featured on Graham's weekly radio programme, The Hour Of Decision, which began in 1950 and continues to this day. Graham, Shea and musical director Cliff Barrows formed an impressive team and Barrows once joked, "Billy, when you get to heaven, you'll be out of a job but we'll still go on singing."

According to Shea, Graham suffered from "the malady of no melody" and so Shea's clear diction and perfect phrasing were crucial to Graham's success. Shea, a bass-baritone, was not ostentatious, mostly performing standing still and then returning to his seat. He said he wanted "to soften hearts with a quiet little song." He could tell a story in song and all his performances were filled with religious conviction.

In 1957 Shea tried a Swedish hymn, "How Great Thou Art", at a crusade and it became Graham's anthem. Shea had amended the English words and he was amused when Elvis Presley recorded this version. He also wrote "The Wonder Of It All" and "I'd Rather Have Jesus", and his whole life can be summarised in the couplet: "I'd rather have Jesus than men's applause, / I'd rather be faithful to his dear cause."

For over 25 years Shea recorded for RCA, the same label as Presley, and his albums included In Times Like These (1962), Every Time I Feel The Spirit (1972), The Longer I Serve Him (1975) and several Christmas offerings. In 1966 he won a Grammy for the best gospel recording with Southland Favourites, recorded with the Anita Kerr Singers.

Billy Graham's Crusades became a worldwide phenomenon and his 1954 Greater London Crusade in Harringay attracted over a million people. Graham made his 1966 London Crusade contemporary by adding Cliff Richard to the attractions. The American comedian, Mort Sahl, was skeptical saying that "if Billy Graham really wanted a challenge, he should go to Vegas."

Shea sang at several prayer meetings for US presidents including Eisenhower, Johnson and Clinton. He lived close to Graham and they remained the best of friends. Graham told him that he couldn't retire since the concept of retirement is not mentioned in the Bible. Even at 93 he was singing in Carnegie Hall, and four years later he was performing before 80,000 in Baltimore.

Shea wrote his autobiography, Then Sings My Soul, in 1968 and a memoir, How Sweet The Sound, in 2004. In 2011 he received a lifetime achievement award at the Grammys.

George Beverly Shea, gospel singer: born Winchester, Ontario 1 February 1909; married 1934 Erma Scharfe (died 1976; one son, one daughter), 1985 Karlene Aceto; died Asheville, North Carolina 16 April 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister
TVSPOILER ALERT: It's all coming together as series returns to form
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine