An Unsung Hero

National Post
January 7, 2011
Ian Hunter

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 Jesus Christ.

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 churches.

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 phone.

"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 preached.

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.

BBB My Hope with Billy Graham

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association of Canada

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