George Beverly Shea Turns 104

By   •   January 29, 2013

“Dad, how do I describe what you do?”

Ron Shea was asked in grade school to define his father’s profession. But how does a kid put into a few words the career of a renowned Gospel singer and composer who holds the world record for singing — in person — to the most people ever?     

George Beverly Shea was born in 1909 in Winchester, Ontario, to a minister and his wife. The beloved performer turns 104 on Feb. 1 after decades of singing and songwriting which often accompanied Billy Graham’s Crusades.

See a tribute page to Mr. Shea here.

“When we started out, the people came to hear Bev Shea sing,” Mr. Graham said in 1989. “They’d have in all the advertising, big letters … ‘Beverly Shea,’ and then way down there in small letters ‘Billy Graham will preach.’”

Ron remembers those Crusades well. He often attended in the summer when he was out of school. He also watched his dad play the piano and organ at home.

“I play the radio,” Ron said, confessing his lack of musical talent. He once “got fired” from piano lessons for being too rambunctious.

Ron now works in donor ministries at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Sometimes he talks to donors who recognize his last name.

Although his father firmly stuck to hymns, Mr. Shea has impacted people from all walks of life, most notably for his rendition of “How Great Thou Art,” a song later recorded by Elvis and Willie Nelson.

Mr. Shea is also well-known for writing “The Wonder of It All” and co-wrote “I’d Rather Have Jesus.”

“I’ve been listening to Bev Shea sing for more than 50 years,” Mr. Graham once said, “and I would still rather hear him sing than anyone else I know.”

Mr. Shea first met Mr. Graham who was pastoring the Village Church of Western Springs in Illinois — his only full-time pastorate — in 1940. Mr. Graham was 21, and Mr. Shea was 31.

Mr. Shea first sang for him on the Chicago program “Songs in the Night” in 1943, and by the late 1940s, the pair – along with music and program director Cliff Barrows, formed the heart of Mr. Graham’s ministry. It was in Mr. Graham’s hometown of Charlotte, N.C., that Mr. Shea sang in the first of many citywide Crusades.

Mr. Graham and his late wife, Ruth Bell Graham, didn’t just treasure Mr. Shea’s friendship, but played the role of cupid to Mr. Shea and his second wife, Karlene. His first wife, Erma, died in 1976.

“I used to say that when God conceived the idea of husbands, that Bev was the mold,” Karlene said.

Back in the ’80s, Karlene worked in Mr. Graham’s office in Montreat, N.C. Mr. Shea would come and go and also sang at her church. They married in 1986 in the Grahams’ home.

“He has five organs and a piano,” Karlene said. “Every time he gives an organ away, another one finds its way into the house.” He still plays them on occasion.

The couple shares a home in Montreat. Karlene said her husband regularly breaks out into hymns and knows all the verses. She sings only when she’s alone.

“By the time you reach 100 years of age, you have a lot of friends,” she said. Mr. Shea used to answer his own letters – typing them up on the computer – but now he sticks to phone calls and entertains visitors. Young musicians come by for inspiration and advice.

Mr. Shea was also an inspiration to countless households during World War II. He worked in radio as an announcer and Gospel singer and helped boost the morale. He had a special song for the troops.

With all the pre-Crusade concerts and all the concerts between Crusades, Karlene said, the pair has traveled quite a bit over the years. The best part, she said, was meeting fellow Christians wherever they went.

“People would come out of the woodwork and hug him,” she said. Once, the couple was on a plane and the pilot came back to see Mr. Shea.

“He’s a very gentle man,” Ron said. “I’ve never heard him talk negatively about anybody.” He now has a word to describe his father – “gregarious” – but remembers seeing him on his knees by the bed at night, praying. “It wasn’t a showy thing. It was just a point of surrender to the Lord.”

Mr. Shea has taken that simple faith to every continent, and his bass-baritone voice is now recognized all over the world. He has been nominated for 10 Grammys, won two, and recorded more than 70 albums, including nine CDs. He has received several acknowledgments for his work, including his induction into the Religious Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 1996. He was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 2011.

And yet, Mr. Shea has never lost sight of the One he sings about. One of his best-known songs, “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” says it all. He composed the music at his mother’s piano in just one day at age 23 and later sang it at Crusades around the world – in Mandarin, Swedish, Finnish, Spanish and Japanese.

“I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold;
I’d rather be His than have riches untold;
I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands,
I’d rather be led by His nail-pierced hand.”

The Billy Graham Library will host an exhibit in tribute to George Beverly Shea from Feb. 1 to March 31. The exhibit includes family photos, awards and the piano his mother taught him to play on – the same piano where he composed “I’d Rather Have Jesus.” Click here for more.

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35 Comments

  1. Leo says:

    What an amazing lifespan and amazing life. Happy Birthday.

  2. Maxine says:

    My very first exposure to true Christanity was listening to you sing on a record in my Gr-Aunt's home when I was a little girl. Your gentle voice and the message of Christ began my journey towards salvation in Christ. Happy Birthday with thanks.

  3. Raymond says:

    Happy belated 104th birthday, Mr. Shea! Your soothing bass-baritone voice has been a daily blessing for millions of people, and you have inspired me to become a musician for Jesus, and for that, I am forever grateful.

  4. Daniel says:

    Happy birthday Bev. I am a caregiver for my 92 year old Mom. Everyday, I play some of your records on her vacuum tube HI-FI. You provide inspiration, encouragement, and strength, as we listen to you singing hymns recorded in the 1950’s. God bless you

  5. Anne says:

    Thank you so much for the joy you have given me over the years. We send you belated birthday greetings from our home in England and may God continue to Bless you and your family.

  6. Carol says:

    Happy Birthday Mr. Shea,I love your songs they mean at lot to me.God Bless You

  7. Reuel says:

    Psalm 91:14-16 fulfilled.He loved God and with long life God satisfies him.Love

  8. Gerald says:

    Happy belated birthday, Mr. Shea. God has used you to bless our family for many years. May He also bless you richly in the year ahead.

  9. Terry says:

    HAPPY 104TH BIRTHDAY MR SHEA. I HAVE ALWAYS ENJOYED LISTENING TO YOU SING ON THE BILLY GRAHAM CRUSADES. THANK YOU FOR YOUR FAITHFUL SERVICE TO OUR LORD AND SAVIOR? GOD BLESS.

  10. Joyce says:

    I bought my first record of GBS as a teen and have bought many recordings since. I went to see him in Syracuse years ago and shook his hand and got his autograph in my bible. What a humble and faithful servant of God.