It was a rare privilege and one that I will always remember.
On the eve of his 100th birthday, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with one of the world’s most recognized Christian vocalists, George Beverly Shea. And I found this long-time minister of the Gospel to be as deep, warm and inviting as the bass-baritone voice that has made him so beloved around the world.
As one might imagine, I had a list of questions I wanted to ask this man who holds the world record for singing to more people in person than anyone else. An estimated 220 million have listened to Shea deliver a “sermon in a song,” as Billy Graham once stated, in the course of the 60-plus years with the Graham Crusade team.
There were other questions, too. Questions I had about observations made and wisdom gained in walking with Christ for most of those 100 years.
But the “interview” quickly evolved into a conversation between new friends, filled with humor, stories and – yes, even song. With easy laughter, Shea informed me that he didn’t consider this birthday a stopping place, but preferred to think of himself as “on the 100th wrung and still climbing.”
As we spoke I found this statement to be true. He talked enthusiastically about just having his piano tuned and waking Karlene – his bride of 23 years – that very morning to his rendition of the 70s love ballad, “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face.”
He also admitted to stealing away in his speed boat when he got the chance (and Karlene wasn’t watching), enjoying classical music, working on his computer, and even occasionally traveling with both Franklin and Will Graham for evangelistic events.
A Storyteller at Heart
Shea also loves to tell stories. And he has some real jaw-droppers. But this man who has met and performed for an array of dignitaries, together with audiences on every continent of the world, enjoys relaying stories reflective of his humble heart and gratitude to his Savior.
One of those stories is about the first time he met Billy Graham. Shea was working as a staff radio announcer and featured soloist for a radio station owned by Moody Bible Institute in Chicago (WMBI). One day Shea says he received an unexpected visit from a Wheaton College Bible student, a faithful listener.
It was 1943 and the 26-year-old Graham boldly invited the rising radio star to sing on his own radio show, “Songs in the Night.” Shea says the visitor immediately struck him as “unusual,” describing Graham as “very tall, thin, blonde – and very, very personable.”
But it was the young man’s passion for the Gospel that convinced Shea to join Graham in 1947 for his first crusade, held in Charlotte, North Carolina. Shea quickly became part of the three-man nucleus of the Crusade team, consisting of Graham and Shea, along with Cliff Barrows, who served as choir director, platform emcee and radio-television program director.
For the next six decades, the team expanded in scope, though never veering from its focus – sharing the Gospel. “I occasionally wearied of packing and unpacking,” admits Shea, “but 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.”
Beyond the personal reward of singing night after night, the crusades powerfully affected each member of the Shea family. In those early years, Shea says he saw both of his own children come forward during crusades to accept Christ as their personal Savior.
Another favorite story Shea likes to tell is that of how he came to compose the music for what many consider to be his signature song, “I’d Rather Have Jesus.” His mother, who roused the seven Shea children with a praise song at the piano each morning, had a hand in bringing this song to the world.
“My mother left a copy of a poem by Mrs. Rhea H. Miller at the piano where she knew I would find it. I was in my twenties, a time when a young man is faced with many decisions. I was immediately touched by it and the melody for the song just came to me.”
The Role of Music
What does Shea see as the role of music in the crusades or, simply, in the life of the believer? Music, Shea points out, has the power to “get to the heart in a hurry.” His career is evidence of the truth of this statement. Shea has recorded over 70 Gospel albums. In 1978, he was elected to the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame and recognized by the Religious Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 1996. He is also a Grammy Award recipient.
And what of people? Has 100 years changed humankind? The world has changed, Shea attests, but people – not so much. “Some struggle with the call of the Spirit on their life.
“Others,” he continues, “are denominationally minded. But there are those who grow ‘tender’ toward Jesus, and these are about relationship – not bricks and mortar.” Shea remains convinced that a clear, simple presentation of how to know Christ is the hope of reaching the lost.
“So many people are discouraged right now,” he comments about recent events. “I say, tell them to turn toward Him and to take comfort from the message of the Gospel.”
Shea has lived through years of economic and personal turmoil himself. He has also been offered opportunities to rise in fame and to seek “silver and gold.” Yet, since the day he took up the call to sing about Jesus, to invite men, women and children to a “tender” love relationship with the Savior, George Beverly Shea has demonstrated to the world that he would, as the song goes, “rather have Jesus than anything.”
In celebration of reaching his 100th wrung, Shea will be honored at a private gathering of friends and family at The Billy Graham Training Center at the Cove in Asheville. There, stories will be recounted, laughter shared, cake enjoyed and, undoubtedly, Shea will touch hearts, yet again, with a song or two.
Maybe he’ll even share lines from a favorite poem penned by his father, a Wesleyan Methodist minister, that he so graciously shared with me:
Life has been wonderful;
The promises of God, precious;
Eternal Hope is glorious
–A. J. Shea
Learn about Mr. Shea’s biography here »