It’s almost been lost in the spate of horrific news from the Boston bombing, the Texas fire, and the attempted ricin letter poisonings:

George Beverly Shea, at age 104, dies…

(Feb. 1, 1909–Apr. 16, 2013)

     Shea, a musician unknown to many of the young, sang live to 220,000,000 people, more than anyone else according to the Guinness Book of Records*. Nominated for 10 Grammies, he won in 1965 for his album “Southland Favorites.” In 2010 he received a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement.

     But totally unmentioned by the NY Times, NPR, USA Today, and other summaries is that Bev, in addition to his wife and two children, is survived by one sister and a brother Alton who knows all too well  that he “had a big brother for 99 years.” I know because I’ve known Alton and part of his family for several years.

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According to Alton’s son Paul (my daughter-in-law’s father), one of his and Bev’s siblings passed away less than a year ago.

So much can be said about “America’s Beloved Gospel Singer.” In addition to association with Billy Graham, he sang gospel music for decades, recording 70 albums and at age 93 performed to a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall.

The son of a preacher, Shea dropped out of Houghton College during the depression and took a job with New York City Life. At some point in the late 1930′s (date uncertain in all my sources) he competed on Fred Allen’s Amateur Hour radio program (like TV competition today?) winning second place for singing “Go Down, Moses,” beaten only, as one source put it, by a “chain-smoking yodeler.” That propelled the somewhat shy Bev with his rich, bass-baritone voice into the public eye.  This led to work in Chicago singing and announcing on WMBI, the first “Christian radio station.”  Then in 1943 an unknown evangelist Billy Graham appeared, who hired Bev full-time to be his gospel singer, and decades of revival ministry around the world followed.

Graham, of course, made history, but as Bev jokingly offered to explain his own success, “They had to get through me first” since he sang before the evangelist’s message.

But as one source reported, the first signs for the evangelistic services said:

……….”BEV SHEA SINGS…………

……Billy Graham will preach”……

When asked by Graham to join his evangelistic team, Bev reported that this exchange took place: “I said, ‘Billy, the only gospel singers I know will sing only a verse or two and then start talking. Would I have to do that?’ And Billy said, ‘I hope not.’”

A man of few “unsung” words, Shea, a humble man, nevertheless had a clever wit. According to the NY Times, “When interviewers [once asked Bev] why Mr. Graham did not simply lead his folk in song himself as many preachers do, Mr. Shea suggested that the status quo was better off for all concerned: ‘Mr. Graham,’  as Mr. Shea put it with true Christian charity, ‘suffered from the malady of no melody.’”

Shea and Graham, living in North Carolina only a mile apart, were close friends till the end.

Bev’s renditions of “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” “The Wonder of It All” (to which he wrote both lyrics and music), “In Times Like These,” and  “Every Time I Feel the Spirit,” all of which he sang without commentary, were highly valued by Graham who considered them the perfect way to precede his preaching that would immediately follow. Also, Shea’s rich voice narrated some early films, including Ken Anderson’s Pilgrim’s Progress in which Liam Neeson made his acting debut. Otherwise his personal life was quiet and private.

To George Beverly Shea, that he could sing and praise God, bringing thousands to hear the Gospel was what mattered most.

_________________

* According to the Asheville Citizen-Times.com