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.
Spokesman Brent Rinehart of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association 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.”
He recorded more than 70 albums, including “In Times Like These” (1962), “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” (1972) and “The Old Rugged Cross” (1978). In 1966 he won the Grammy Award for best gospel or other religious recording for his album “Southland Favorites,” recorded with the Anita Kerr Singers.
Mr. Shea received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy, which administers the Grammys, in 2011.
Of the hundreds of songs he sang, Mr. Shea was most closely identified with “How Great Thou Art,” a hymn that became the de facto anthem of Mr. Graham’s ministry. In 1957, at a crusade in New York City, Mr. Shea, by popular demand, sang it on 108 consecutive nights.
Other songs for which he was known include “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” for which he composed the music, and “The Wonder of It All,” for which he wrote words and music.
He is survived by his wife, the former Karlene Aceto. They were married in 1985. He has two children from a previous marriage, Ronald and Elaine.
Shea was often asked which of the many hymns he has sung over the past 60 years was his favorite. The one he always cited was derived from a poem written in the late 1800s by a Swedish pastor, Carl Gustaf Boberg.
“I never get tired of hearing ‘How Great Thou Art,’” he said in 2004. “It wears well. It still gets to your heart.”
George Beverly Shea Interview:
George Beverly Shea singing I’d Rather Have Jesus: