George Beverly Shea
First singing for Billy Graham in 1944, George Beverly Shea carried the Gospel in song to all corners of the world. As the musical mainstay in Mr. Graham’s Crusades, Shea was often called “America’s Beloved Gospel Singer.”
Shea was born in Winchester, Ontario, February 1, 1909, where his father was a Wesleyan Methodist minister, he was taught to play the violin by his father and the organ by his mother. His first public singing was in the choir of his father’s church, and it was evident that every hymn he sang was a testimony of his faith in God. In as early as 1952, he was heard regularly on network radio, and later his bass-baritone voice was transmitted on weekly shortwave programs around the world. Between crusades, radio, and television, he sang hundreds of concerts and recorded more than 70 albums of sacred music. In addition to his vocal talent, he was a noteworthy composer, and at age 23 he composed the music to one of his best-known solos, “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” to words by Mrs. Rhea H. Miller. Shea also wrote “The Wonder of It All,” “Sing Me A Song of Sharon’s Rose,” and “I Love Thy Presence, Lord.”
When Billy Graham, then pastor of the Village Church in Western Springs, Illinois, took over the “Songs in the Night” radio program on Chicago’s WCFL in 1944, he heard Shea’s radio singing and enlisted him to help with the broadcast. That was the beginning of a long association between the two men. In 1947 Shea went to Charlotte, North Carolina, to sing in one of the first of Billy Graham’s city-wide crusades.
From the beginning of Billy Graham’s Crusade ministry, Shea and Cliff Barrows were the nucleus of the Crusade musical team. Barrows was choir director, platform emcee, and radio television program director. Shea was the soloist that provided an inspirational lift for Billy Graham just before the sermon message. They were joined in 1950 by pianist Tedd Smith, and through the years, organists Don Hustad and John Innes provided additional accompaniment. Shea and Cliff Barrows (music and program director for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association) introduced the song “How Great Thou Art” to the world in 1957 when Billy Graham held a Crusade in Madison Square Garden in New York City. They sang it for over 100 nights with their large choir. It was said at that time the crowds that came could not get enough of hearing that song.
During his career, Shea was nominated for eleven Grammy Awards. On March 15, 1966, he won his first Grammy for the Best Gospel or Other Religious Recording Musical for his album Southland Favorites, and in 2011, he received the Grammy’s prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1978 he was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame for his lifelong contribution to gospel music, and later in 1982 was awarded the Gold Angel Award for Country Music by Religion in Media. In 1996, Shea was inducted into the association of National Religious Broadcasters hall of fame. His international fame gained him a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Gospel Music Association Canada in 2004. Shea recorded approximately 500 vocal solos on more than 70 albums of religious music on both the RCA Victor and Word Records labels, and held the Guinness Book of World Records mark for singing in front of the most people ever in an individual career. He has sung on every continent in the world, and in front of 220 million people since first becoming a soloist.
In addition to Crusades, Shea remained active with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) into his late 90s, singing at Will Graham Celebrations in Gastonia, NC (2006), Paducah, KY (2007), and at Franklin Graham Festivals in Charleston, S.C. (2008), and Knoxville, Tenn. (2008). George Beverly Shea passed away in Montreat, NC on April 16, 2013 at the age of 104 years old. His final resting place is on the grounds of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte.