102-year-old Canadian Gospel singer to be honored

The Canadian Press
February 7, 2011
Nick Patch

In 1966, George Beverly Shea claimed his first - and what he figured would be his last - Grammy Award. After all, he was happily settling into what he naturally assumed would be the twilight of his long, illustrious career.

He was 57 years old then, when the eighth annual installment of the Grammys was conducted concurrently in Los Angeles, Nashville, Chicago and New York.

Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler's patriotic ode "Ballad of the Green Berets" was atop the charts in the U.S. at the time, while the Vietnam War raged halfway around the world.

Shea always felt out of place in Hollywood and this night was no exception. He liked to refer to himself as "just a psalm singer" from the small town of Winchester, Ont. He watched as the event's big awards were scooped up by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Herb Alpert, Tom Jones (who, believe it or not, won for best new artist), and a 23-year-old Barbra Streisand.

Shea shared the honour for best gospel or other religious recording with Anita Kerr. The award was presented to the duo by the master of ceremonies, comedian Jerry Lewis.

Though back then the Grammys weren't televised live, Shea didn't need video evidence of the incident to crystallize it in his mind. He savored every detail. After all, he knew he wouldn't be back.

"Oh my, never," he said now, reached via telephone from his home in North Carolina.

"It was a privilege to be there once. You know, that's the way we looked at it."

But he was wrong. He will be back. At 102 years old, George Beverly Shea is going to be recognized by the Grammys again.

The gospel singing legend will be honoured with a lifetime achievement award at a ceremony on Saturday, the evening before the 53rd Grammy Awards.

Shea will be feted alongside Julie Andrews, Roy Haynes, Juilliard String Quartet, the Kingston Trio, Dolly Parton and the Ramones.

"You consider all those famous people in that category, it makes me think of the farmer that wanted to put his mule in the Kentucky Derby race - they said, 'Well, you know, he'll lose.' And the farmer said, 'Well, yeah, but look at the company he's keeping!"' Shea said with a chuckle.

"That's the way I feel a little bit, you know."

Of course, that's not exactly fair, given Shea's own achievements, and the way his rich bass-baritone voice has enabled him to explore every corner of the world, to become acquainted with generations of famous singers and to maintain a career for more than 70 years.

But he still prefers to look back on his achievements with a modesty instilled at an early age by his father, a Wesleyan Methodist minister.

Shea was born Feb. 1, 1909 in Winchester, a small community in Eastern Ontario. The fourth of eight children, Shea's family moved around several times, including a stay in the United States, but Shea mostly grew up around Ottawa.

He played violin, piano and organ but his vocal talent emerged early, and he became a fixture in the choir at his father's church. Later, when Shea attended Houghton College in Western New York, he sang with the glee club.

It was back in 1940 when Shea's hobby began to become something more. He was 31 years old, working as a radio announcer at a small station in Chicago. There, he met an ambitious 21-year-old college student and pastor at a local church who hosted a show called "Songs in the Night."

The student's name was Billy Graham. Shea liked him, so he helped him with his show.

When Graham became involved with the religious movement Youth for Christ International, he decided Shea's sonorous voice would be the perfect accompaniment to his sermons. But Shea wasn't so sure.

"I said: 'The only gospel singers I know would sing a couple verses and then stop and talk a while - would I have to do that?"' said the notoriously shy Shea. "And (Graham) chuckled, and he said: 'I hope not.'

"We didn't know it would last all these years."

As Graham steadily grew his following, Shea was always there, his booming solos setting the table for Graham's crusades around the world, from New York's Madison Square Garden to London's Wembley Stadium to a gathering of more than a million people in Seoul, Korea.

Now, Graham and Shea live about a couple kilometers apart in Montreat, North Carolina.

"It's a great privilege to work with him," Shea said of his longtime colleague. "He's a wonderful man. He's so unselfish. And when he was well and strong, he was the kind of man who would be first to the door to open it for you - you know, that kind of a man."

"I (still) talk to him. He sent me a letter just the other day. But it's hard to read his writing," he adds, chuckling.

During his work with Graham, Shea quietly assembled an impressive catalogue of original gospel music, including several songs that have, over the years, become well-known: "I'd Rather Have Jesus," "The Wonder of it All" and "I Love Thy Presence, Lord." Meanwhile, his rendition of "How Great Thou Art" is widely considered the gold standard.

"To write hymns that stand the test of time or sing hymns that you introduce and make standards, that is a tremendous achievement of longevity," said Paul Davis, the U.K. author of the authorized biography, "George Beverly Shea: Tell Me the Story," in a telephone interview.

"It's a legacy, isn't it?"

Indeed. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Shea has cumulatively sung for 220 million people over the course of his lifetime - a record, of course.

BBB My Hope with Billy Graham

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association of Canada

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