January 7, 2011
At the Grammy Awards next month, a 102-year Canadian singer, who
won his first Grammy half a century ago, will be honoured with a
Lifetime Achievement Award. The singer's name is George Beverly
Shea. Most Canadians have probably never heard of him.
George Beverly Shea is a Methodist preacher's kid from Winchester,
near Ottawa. He was born on Feb. 1, 1909.
By singing at the Reverend Billy Graham's worldwide crusades, it is
estimated that Mr. Shea's resonant bass-baritone voice has been
heard in person by more than 230 million people, a Guinness record
unlikely to be broken.
Bev Shea sang in the flesh to more people than Frank Sinatra, Elvis
Presley and the Beatles combined. And he sang always in praise of
Mr. Shea's 1966 Grammy award was for composing the music to the
hymn that defined his career: I'd Rather Have Jesus (the words were
written in the 1920s by a minister's wife, Rhea F. Miller). Mr.
Shea also wrote, arranged, and recorded the song The Wonder of It
All, which has been translated into many languages.
George Beverly Shea (the odd middle name was in honour of an
itinerant preacher, Dr. Beverly Carradine, who had impressed Bev's
father) was the fourth of eight children; his father taught him to
play the violin, and his mother taught him piano.
But it was his deep baritone voice that soon caught public
attention, first when he sang solos in his father's Methodist
church at about eight, then as a teenager in other Ottawa Valley
When Mr. Shea was five years old, two American singers who were to
sing that Sunday in his father's church came to the Shea home in
Winchester to ask Mrs. Shea to accompany them while they learned
what they called a "new" hymn; it was The Old Rugged Cross. The
young boy stood by the piano, his mouth open, listening intently;
for half a century and more, Mr. Shea would go on to sing that hymn
around the world.
Mr. Shea attended Houghton College in upstate New York, then
started his career as a claims adjuster for Mutual Life Insurance
Company. But Moody Bible Institute in Chicago had recently
established America's first Christian radio station (WMBI); In
1940, Mr. Shea began to broadcast Hymns in the Night. This program
was soon syndicated widely.
It was on Jan. 2, 1944, that Mr. Shea first sang for a Billy Graham
meeting. Mr. Graham was then pastor at Village Baptist Church near
Chicago, and Mr. Shea's hymns were broadcast from the church
basement. Soon after, Mr. Graham asked Mr. Shea, and music director
Cliff Barrows, to join him for itinerant evangelizing.
Mr. Shea recalled it beginning this way: "I came to this work with
Mr. Graham after we had exchanged letters and talked on the
"He said he wanted me to be his gospel singer. I thanked him, but
told him that the only gospel singers I'd 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,
1947, and I've been with him ever since."
The Canadian who was soon dubbed "America's beloved Gospel singer"
would sing every night during a crusade, just before Billy Graham
Throughout his career, Mr. Shea recorded about 70 records, mostly
for RCA Victor. Perhaps his best known recording was Stuart Hynes'
English translation of a Swedish hymn How Great Thou Art. Mr. Shea
premiered this hymn at the Billy Graham Toronto crusade at Maple
Leaf Gardens in 1955, and went on to sing it nightly during the
1957 Madison Square Garden crusade.
On his 100th birthday in 2009, Mr. Shea was honoured at a party at
the Billy Graham Center in Asheville, North Carolina. Mr. Shea told
a local paper: "On the ladder of life, I have reached Rung 100 and
I can survey the scenery a little better than those who are still
climbing." Billy Graham said on that occasion: "I will always be
grateful not only for his musical contribution, but also for his
warm spirit and personal friendship."
- Ian Hunter is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at the
University of Western Ontario.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association of Canada