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Billy Graham's Singer George Beverly Shea, 104, Dies; Sang Gospel to 200 Million People

( [email protected] ) Apr 17, 2013 10:44 AM EDT
George Beverly Shea, the ten Grammy Award winning soloist of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), died Tuesday following a brief illness. He was 104.
George Beverly Shea, the ten Grammy Award winning soloist of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), died Tuesday following a brief illness. He was 104. BGEA

George Beverly Shea, the ten Grammy Award winning soloist of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), died Tuesday following a brief illness. He was 104.

"George Beverly Shea was one of my closest friends for nearly seventy years, and has been one of the dearest friends my wife, Ruth, and I have ever had...I've been listening to Bev Shea sing for more than 70 years, and I would still rather hear him sing than anyone else I know." Billy Graham said in the statement on the passing of Shea.

He first sang for Graham in 1943 on the Chicago radio hymn program, “Songs in the Night,” then joined Graham’s crusade team in 1947. Since then Shea has carried the Gospel in song to every continent and every state in the Union. He stayed until Graham’s declining health ended most of the evangelist’s public appearances over the span of more than one-half century.

“As a young man starting my ministry, I asked Bev if he would join me,” Graham said then. “He said yes and for over 60 years we had the privilege of ministering together across the country and around the world. Bev was one of the most humble, gracious men I have ever known and one of my closest friends. I loved him as a brother.”

Born in Winchester, Ontario, Canada, where his father was a Wesleyan Methodist minister, Shea’s first public singing was in the choir of his father’s church. Between Crusade, radio, and television dates in many countries, he sang at hundreds of concerts and recorded more than 70 albums of sacred music. At age 23 he composed the music to one of his best known solos, “I’d Rather Have Jesus.”

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 Mr. Graham’s ministry. In 1957, at a crusade in New York City, Mr. Shea, by popular demand, sang it on 108 consecutive nights.

Shea was the recipient of ten Grammy nominations, a Grammy Award in 1965, and was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Grammy organization in 2011.

“Even though Bev was 10 years older than my father, he never acted his age,” said Franklin Graham. “He was absolute fun to be with. Bev was one of the most gracious and unassuming men I have known. He was always encouraging and supportive, a man of deep faith and strong commitment to Jesus Christ.”

Shea is survived by his wife, Karlene, and his children from his first marriage, Ronald and Elaine. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Erma, who died in 1976.