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Obituary: GEORGE BEVERLY SHEA

by
26 April 2013

Canon David Winter writes:
THE Gospel singer George Beverly Shea died on 16 April, aged 104. His given Christian name was "Beverly", but "George" was added later, at the insistence of his record label, RCA, because Beverly might sound like a girl's name. Born in Ottawa, Canada, the son of a Methodist minister, he later moved to the United States, and was naturalised as an American citizen in 1941.

His father taught him the violin, and his mother the piano and organ, but, from his teens onwards, it was his rich baritone voice that was most admired. In 1929, he went to New York to study singing at Houghton College, under the distinguished tutor Gino Monaco, but family financial problems meant that he could not complete his studies. That was, after all, the year of the Wall Street Crash. For nine years, he worked as a clerk in an insurance office, singing regularly in churches, chapels, and concert halls. By the end of the '30s, he was performing on Gospel radio programmes broadcast across the States.

The big change in his life came through his association with Dr Billy Graham, whom he first met in 1940. Dr Graham was an admirer of Shea's talent and commitment to Christian ministry, and eventually in 1947 the singer joined the Graham team - Bev Shea became the Sankey to Dr Graham's Moody. So it was that, in 1954, the pair of them, with the choir director Cliff Barrows, came to London for what proved to be the first of many "Crusades" in the UK.

Few people in Britain had heard of Dr Graham at the time, and fewer still of Beverly Shea, but, by the time of the final mission meeting at a packed Wembley Stadium, they were headline news.

Dr Graham and Shea were not simply a platform partnership, but lifelong friends - indeed, they lived as close neighbours in North Carolina. When the team was first formed, they drew up a set of ethical guidelines for their ministry, which were rigorously observed and gained them world-wide respect.

There was no doubting the profound impact that Shea's contribution made to the Graham rallies. He selected his songs carefully, but it was the impact not only of his superb voice, but also of his dramatic interpretation, that won over audiences previously unfamiliar with his Gospel repertoire. I recall - 50 years after the event - a rendition of the old Sankey song "There were ninety and nine". The atmosphere became electric as he took us with almost operatic intensity through the old, old story of the shepherd and the lost sheep. No one coughed; no one moved. When it was finished, there was a stunned silence. I suspect that no one who was there quickly forgot it.

Among his best-loved songs were "How great thou art" (which he introduced to Britain), "The wonder of it all" (which he wrote and composed), "Lead me gently home" and "I'd rather have Jesus than silver or gold", for which he wrote the lyrics. That last song was truly the testimony of his life. Winning a prestigious Grammy Award in 1966, and later, alongside Dolly Parton, no less, a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award, he could have found fame and fortune in the secular music world. He regarded his talent, however, as a God-given gift, and his performing as a Christian ministry.

His first wife, Erma, died in 1976. He married Karlene ten years later, and she survives him.

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