One of my true heroes, a man I’ve admired for more than 50 years, has died.
Largely unknown to the following generations, but a man who had a huge impact on my life, 104 year old George Beverly Shea died on April 16. It was the day after the Boston Marathon Bombings, so I didn’t even hear about it in the news.
What’s so great about this old fashioned singer? The featured soloist in the Billy Graham crusades, George Beverly Shea sang to more live audiences than anyone in world history, an estimated 220 million people. No one else comes close and I doubt anyone ever will.
Canadian born, son of a Wesleyan Methodist preacher, Bev Shea was blessed with a voice that provided him the opportunity for “rock star” status like others from his era, Frank Sinatra or Perry Como. But Bev turned down invitations for fame and wealth in New York and went to Chicago to sing on WMBI, the radio station of Moody Bible Institute. It was there where he was discovered by Wheaton College student Billy Graham, with whom he served and traveled the world for nearly 65 years, singing as recently as 2006 at the Los Angeles Crusade. He was 97 at the time and his voice still strong and steady.
How did such an old fashioned singer touch the life of a Kansas farm kid who grew up listening to the Beach Boys, the Beatles and the Four Seasons; a steady diet of Top 40 hits?
My parents had an album or two of his songs, but during adolescence, I was exposed to the singing of Bev Shea primarily through the Hour of Decision, Billy Graham’s half hour weekly radio program that aired every Sunday night at 9:30 on KFH radio out of Wichita, Kansas. The signature song for that program was I Surrender All. Equal to Billy Graham’s compelling preaching was the strong baritone of the ever humble Bev Shea.
Our family drove up the Kansas Turnpike to Kansas City in 1967 to attend the crusade at the old Municipal stadium, where my beloved Kansas City A’s played, as they consistently anchored last place in the American League. But even the A’s didn’t compare to Billy Graham, Cliff Barrows and George Beverly Shea, the closest thing to heroes in my childhood. Ethel Waters was there to sing His Eye is on the Sparrow, and to tease “Cliffie” as he introduced her.
Bev Shea released 72 albums, received two grammys, came to be known as America’s Beloved Gospel Singer. He is most remembered for How Great Thou Art, the song made famous at the 16 week 1957 New York Crusade, where attendance topped 2 million at Madison Square Garden, where Billy preached to over 100.000 at Yankee Stadium, and where the closing was held in Times Square.
I’m blessed to enjoy and worship through a wide range of musical styles from Handel to the latest contemporary artists. But no singer has ever consistently touched my heart with the impact of the ever humble servant of Jesus, George Beverly Shea.
Thank you, Lord!