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.