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.