february 2009

George Beverly Shea: 'On the 100th wrung, and climbing'

George Beverly Shea Celebrates A Centennial—His Centennial

By David McGee

On February 1 gospel giant George Beverly Shea celebrated his 100th birthday. In an interview with writer Catherine Pike Plough, he shrugged off the matter of aging and said he considered himself to be "on the 100th wrung, and climbing." Having recently had his piano tuned, he awoke Karlene, his wife of 23 years, on his birthday morning by singing to her the Roberta Flack hit, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." That night he was honored at a private gathering of friends and family at The Billy Graham Training Center at the Cove in Asheville, North Carolina, where he lives.

Over his long career, Shea has recorded more than 70 albums of religious music and sung to an estimated 220 million people in person. He is best known for his rendition of "How Great Thou Art," the 1920s English translation by Rev. Stuart K. Hine of the Swedish song "O Store Gud," written in 1886 by Rev. Carl Boberg (1859-1940); but his own song, "I'd Rather Have Jesus," a poem by Mrs. Rhea H. Miller that he set to music in 1934, has become a gospel standard as well. He has been nominated for 10 Grammy Awards, winning in 1965 for Best Inspirational Performance. In 1978, he was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame by the Gospel Music Association, and in 1996 the association of National Religious Broadcasters voted him into its "Religious Broadcasting Hall of Fame." He also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Gospel Music Association Canada (GMA Canada) in 2004.

In 1944 a 26-year-old pastor named Billy Graham, then occupying the pulpit of the Village Church in Western Springs, IL, accepted an offer to preach on a radio show called Songs In the Night. He thought the key to drawing more listeners to his show would be to enlist the help of an established gospel singer, someone like, say, George Beverly Shea, whose own radio show had made him a gospel star. Visiting Shea at his office at the Moody Bible Institute, Graham politely introduced himself and asked Shea to join him on Songs In the Night. Shea agreed. "I realized that I was meeting someone quite unusual," Shea recalled of his thoughts at that meeting. "His name was Billy Graham. He said that every morning he listened to my radio program before he went to class." Shea joined Graham's radio show, then in 1947 Shea sang in his first Billy Graham Crusade, held in the evangelist's home town, Charlotte, NC, and continued for 60 years thereafter. Admitting to Catherine Pike Plough that traveling with the Crusade could be taxing—"I occasionally wearied of packing and unpacking"—he was quick to add that "the Crusades never became commonplace. Watching people respond to the message and come down those aisles to meet the Savior moved me profoundly every single time."

"Bev was the very first person I asked to join me in evangelism," Graham says. "He was well known in the Midwest, but at the same time he was humble. It was God who brought us together. [His] rich, bass baritone voice has touched the hearts of millions in our Crusades. I don't believe I've ever heard him utter an unkind or critical word about anyone."

In an article published on the Billy Graham Evangelistic Organization website on Bev Shea's 99th birhday, Graham told how Shea's music moved even most determined naysayers. "A man came very reluctantly to [an evangelistic] meeting and was very vocal in his scorn of all that was taking place," the Rev. Graham recounted. "When Bev Shea got up to sing, he made yet another wisecrack. But halfway through Bev's song, 'He's Got the Whole World in His Hands,' the man became serious. As Bev quietly sang the words, 'He's got the tiny little baby in His hands,' the man bowed his head. At the invitation, he came forward to open his heart to Christ, later telling his counselor that his child was at home seriously ill and that it was Bev's song that had touched his heart."

George Beverly Shea and his wife Karlene: on his 100th birthday, he serenaded her with 'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face'

Born in Winchester, Ontario, February 1, 1909, where his father was a Wesleyan Methodist minister, Shea's first public singing was in the choir of his father's church. Later, he sang with the Houghton (N.Y.) College Glee Club. When Billy Graham sought him out in 1944, Shea was a regular on "Club Time," a program carried for more than eight years on ABC, the Armed Forces network, and many independent stations.

Last year Spring House Productions released a superb documentary about George Beverly Shea's life and career, featuring vintage live footage and insightful interview segments interspersed throughout. Gospel legend Bill Gaither hosted and served as Shea's interlocutor. Originally published in the October 2008 issue of TheBluegrassSpecial.com, the review of George Beverly Shea: Then Sing My Soul is reprinted below, with a link to order from Amazon.

Hosted by Bill Gaither
Spring House Productions, 2008
Producer: Bill Gaither
Run Time: 85 minutes

A long overdue tribute to one of the greatest voices in gospel music history, Then Sings My Soul chronicles George Beverly Shea's rise from his childhood in Winchester, Ontario, Canada (his father was a Wesleyan minister), to world renown as the voice of the Billy Graham Crusades over the course of a 65-year friendship/partnership with Billy Graham. With nimble wit and keen insight, the 98-year-old Shea, ably guided by producer Bill Gaither's informed questioning, recounts his remarkable career with the same humility and gratitude millions of people around the world have seen him exhibit on the stage of the Crusades and express in the songs he's helped forge into the gospel canon with one of the most expressive bass voices of the 20th Century. To his repertoire he brings the commanding presence of another imposing bass singer, Paul Robeson, and the unquestioned integrity and commitment of his friend, and sometime Billy Graham performing partner, Mahalia Jackson.

According to Gaither's introduction, Shea has sung to 220 million people worldwide, more than any other artist in history; his audiences have spanned economic and class distinctions, ranging from royalty to the poorest of the poor. Hearing this, the genial gospel giant chuckles. "I heard you talking," he says. "Who were you talking about? You polished it too much, man." Hardly. The sweep of history in Shea's reminiscences is breathtaking, from his recounting of the 1947 phone call from Rev. Graham inviting him to join he and Cliff Barrows in his ministry (he agreed after being assured he would only have to sing, not talk, to the audience). In addition to the biographical detail, though, Gaither engages Shea in discussion about the songs he's made famous, which gives us a glimpse into the vast store of knowledge Shea possesses about the sources and history of the music with which he's indelibly identified. The amazing footage includes tantalizing black and white moments from the '50s, notable among these being a clip of Shea and the massive Billy Graham Choir performing a jubilant version of "Every Time I Feel the Spirit" (the joy illuminating Shea's features as he sings bespeaks his depth of feeling for the message). Among the other 25 songs are many of the monuments emblazoned in Crusades lore: "Amazing Grace" (accompanied by a priceless Shea anecdote about visiting the grave of the song's composer, John Newton, and memorizing a poetic sentiment about Newton's conversion carved on the back of the tombstone), "The Old Rugged Cross," "It Is No Secret," "Jacob's Ladder," "He Touched Me," "Satisfied," the great hymn of invitation that he single handedly elevated to classic status, "Softly and Tenderly," and, of course, his signature number, "How Great Thou Art." Shea is shown performing the song in a collage of clips assembled non-chronologically from 1957, 1958, 1985, 1973 (in Seoul, Korea, singing in the Korean language), 2006 and, finally, at Gaither's 2002 Carnegie Hall concert, a magnificent performance that moves many in the sellout audience to tears and to various states of ecstasy in a grand arrangement featuring strings, horns and an evocative harmonica in addition to a resounding church piano leading the way. Still, some will wish they could have seen an uncut '50s performance of this beloved hymn, since the footage clearly was available from the decade when the Rev. Graham was establishing his ministry in this country and beginning his international outreach. One might also lament the relative paucity of detail about the Crusade's epic 26-week stand at Madison Square Garden in 1957, which made Billy Graham a household name and the preeminent Christian minister in America—but that might be a whole book unto itself, not to mention a film in its own right. That's neither here nor there; Gaither does a fine job throughout, and at the end he and Shea engage in an "unplugged" set, with Gaither accompanying Shea on piano on a beautiful version of "Lord, I'm Coming Home." It's an emotional occasion on its own, but Gaither's closing narration, spoken over still photographs of the Rev. Graham, Shea and musical director Cliff Barrows (who also appears in the video, discussing his friendship with Shea), from the early days to the present, in the winter of their lives, is a moving summation of the sacred commitment the three men made in the late '40s and to which they have remained unfailingly true. Clearly, when Big Profundo sang low C (the title of a humorous song about the awesome power of Shea's vocal range) he made the world a better place.

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