Wednesday, April 17, 2013

In Memorium: George Beverly Shea

George Beverly Shea died last night at the age of 104.

When a mere tyke, I would hear a booming bass voice on my mom's favorite radio station, and I puzzled over how such a manly voice could come from someone named "Beverly."

George Beverly Shea, or "Bev" to his friends, quickly became my favorite singer. Shea teamed up with Billy Graham and toured the world for nearly 50 years until retiring. He has been deemed "America's Beloved Gospel Singer" and considered the first international star of the gospel world. According to the Guinness Book of Records, Shea holds the world record for singing in person to the most people ever, with an estimated cumulative live audience of 220 million people. Born in 1909, this Grammy-winning Canadian is now a centenarian and still going strong!

Here is a photo from early in his radio career...

... and here is a photo from his 100th birthday party a few months back, singing of course to all his assembled friends, while seated alongside his long-time friend and mission-partner, Dr. Billy Graham...

Shea's father was a Methodist minister and his mother a piano/organ teacher, so his ultimate career should not be considered surprising, although he arrived at it circuitously. You see, he attended college in New York, but after financial concerns forced him to end college after a year, he worked 9 years as a clerk for Mutual of New York Insurance, taking voice lessons on the side. His break occurred after appearing on Fred Allen's amateur hour program. Though coming in second behind a yodeler, he still earned a spot singing popular music on Allen's radio program. In 1933, a network radio director heard Shea sing and was sufficiently impressed to arrange an audition to sing popular secular songs for Your Hit Parade, a national program broadcast on NBC. But Shea turned down the position because he didn’t feel right about performing secular music.

In 1939, the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago (MBI) offered Shea a staff position with "duties that included emceeing, interviewing, news-casting, continuity writing, programming, administration, auditioning, and singing" on radio station WMBI, the first non-commercial Christian radio station in America. Eventually he was heard on 187 different stations in 45 states, as well as in Canada, Latin America and China.

In 1944, Shea began his 50 year association with Rev. Billy Graham, beginning on Graham's "Songs in the Night" weekly radio program from the basement of his suburban Chicago church. It was Shea's popularity that helped Graham's previously financially struggling program become self-sustaining within weeks. Shea then teamed with Graham as featured singer with the Billy Graham Crusades which began in 1947.

Shea recalls how he first met Billy Graham in these words:

"One morning, there was a rap on my office door. I looked out and there was a tall young man with blond hair and we shook hands. He was 21 and I was 31. It was Billy Graham and he had traveled in from Wheaton College on a train just to say 'hello.' He said he listened to my morning hymn show called 'Hymns From The Chapel.' That's how we first got acquainted. "I came into this (Crusades) work with Mr. Graham in 1947 after we had exchanged letters and talked on the phone. He said he wanted me to be his gospel singer. I thanked him, but told him the only gospel singers I've ever heard about would sing a verse or two and stop and talk awhile. 'Would I have to do that?' I asked him. He chuckled and said, 'I hope not.' With that, I said, 'Well, I'd like to come with you. That was in November of 1947 and I've been with him ever since."

Shea has recorded approximately 500 vocal solos on more than seventy albums.

In 1932, Shea composed the tune to "I'd Rather Have Jesus", the words of which were written in a poem by Rhea F. Miller. In his book, How Sweet the Sound, Shea tells the story of his role in "I'd Rather Have Jesus":

"At the age of twenty-three, I was living at home with my parents, continuing to work at Mutual Life Insurance and studying voice. Going to the piano one Sunday morning, I found a poem waiting for me there. I recognized my mother's handwriting. She had copied the words of a poem by Mrs. Rhea F. Miller, knowing that I would read the beautiful message, which speaks of choice. As I read those precious words, I found myself singing the words in a melody that expressed the feelings of my heart."

Here is a video from 1957's New York City Crusade with a very young George Beverly Shea singing his own "I'd Rather Have Jesus"...

Shea also wrote both the lyrics and music of "The Wonder of It All", which was copyrighted in 1956. The inspiration for the song arose from conversation with another passenger who asked, "What goes on at Graham's crusades?" Shea attempted to describe the response that accompanied Graham's nightly invitation to audience members to become a Christian, and then watching people by the hundreds come forward. "Oh, if you could just see the wonder of it all," Shea stated to the stranger, who then wrote on a card and handed it back to Shea: "That sounds like a song to me." Later that night, Shea wrote the lyrics and roughed out a melody to go with them. Here is Shea, at age 97, performing his song, "The Wonder of It All..."

In 1998, North Carolina Public Television produced "The Wonder of It All", a television program on Shea's amazing life story.

Shea was nominated for ten Grammy Awards, winning the 1965 Best Gospel for his album "Southland Favorites" and in 1978, he was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame for his lifelong contribution to gospel music.

In 1956 Shea received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts, from Houghton College (NY), and in 1972 received the honorary Doctor of Sacred Music from (now) Trinity International University of Deerfield, Illinois.

Few realize that Shea was the first to popularize what is now a beloved standard hymn, "How Great Thou Art." Here he is, while in his 90s, singing at a Gaither Homecoming concert...

And here he sings the other most popular Christian song, "Amazing Grace"...

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