George Beverly Shea dies; sang at Graham crusades

George Beverly Shea, the booming baritone who sang to millions of Christians at evangelist Billy Graham’s crusades, died Tuesday after a brief illness. He was 104.

George Beverly Shea, the booming baritone who sang to millions of Christians at evangelist Billy Graham’s crusades, died Tuesday after a brief illness. He was 104. Photo by The Associated Press.

MONTREAT, N.C. (AP) — George Beverly Shea, whose booming baritone voice echoed through stadiums, squares and souls during a decades-long career with evangelist Billy Graham, died Tuesday. He was 104.

Billy Graham Evangelistic Association spokesman Brent Rinehart said Shea died in Asheville after a brief illness.

Shea’s rendition of “How Great Thou Art” came to define the faith of a Protestant generation that Graham helped bring to Jesus Christ. He performed live before an estimated 200 million people at crusades over the years — taking him from North Dakota to North Korea and beyond.

He joined Graham’s crusade team in 1947 and stayed until Graham’s declining health ended most of the evangelist’s public appearances nearly 60 years later.

“As a young man starting my ministry, I asked Bev if he would join me,” Graham said then. “He said yes and for over 60 years we had the privilege of ministering together across the country and around the world. Bev was one of the most humble, gracious men I have ever known and one of my closest friends. I loved him as a brother.”

A Canadian emigrant who became one of America’s most-recognized gospel soloists, Shea himself summed up his career with one of his inspirational trademarks: “The Wonder of It All.”

“I just thought it was such a privilege,” Shea said in a January 2009 interview.

Despite several chances to perform on the secular stage, Shea largely stuck with gospel music. He recorded dozens of albums of sacred music and was nominated for 10 Grammys. He won in 1965 for his album “Southland Favorites.” At age 88, he recorded his first country-and-western album.

Shea believed the simplicity of old hymns drew people to his music.

“It’s the message of the lyrics, the test that hits the heart in a hurry and the melody that goes along with it and seems to all go together,” Shea said.

Born Feb. 1, 1909, in Winchester, Ontario, George Beverly Shea grew up singing around the family dinner table and then later in his father’s church choir.

Though his father was a Wesleyan minister, Shea recalled that he was a wandering teenager who needed direction. He had wavered several times from the gospel until the week his father put on a special effort to draw people to the faith.

When the invitation came, the gospel song “Just As I Am” — a tune that he himself later sang and recorded — filled the sanctuary.

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