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
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.