George Beverly Shea dies at 104; Grammy-winning gospel singer

George Beverly Shea, a gospel singer and songwriter who was a featured part of the Billy Graham crusades for more than 50 years, died Tuesday. He was 104.

Shea, who received a lifetime achievement award at the 2011 Grammy Awards, died in Asheville, N.C., after a brief illness, spokesman Brent Rinehart of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Assn. told the Associated Press.

“Bev” Shea became the soloist for the Billy Graham Evangelical Team in 1947, traveling the world with the famous preacher as part of his ongoing crusade.

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

Shea appeared on stage with Graham before live audiences of an estimated 210 million over the years in more than 185 countries and territories, The Times reported in 2003. By then, Shea was in his 90s and usually limited himself to one song, encouraged by Graham. “Billy still seems to want me around,” Shea said in interviews.


Tall and slim with a resonant baritone voice, Shea was known for his straightforward singing style and his simple renditions of traditional gospel songs. He rarely left a stage before delivering his version of “How Great Thou Art.”

He recorded more than 70 albums and won a Grammy Award for Best Gospel Recording in 1965 for “Southland Favorites,” recorded with Anita Kerr. He was a member of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and the Religious Broadcasting Hall of Fame.

Shea also wrote and performed his own hymns, including his most popular, ''The Wonder of It All.” One of his signature songs was “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” putting a poem by Rhea H. Miller to his melody.

“I just sing a simple hymn,” Shea said in a 2000 interview with the Tennessean, the Nashville-based newspaper. “Mine is a quieting voice. That is why I sing, to soften hearts with a quiet little song.”

“I try not to do any vocal gymnastics. I’m just looking to get a simple message over,” he said in a 1989 interview with the Syracuse (N.Y.) Post-Standard.

Born Feb. 1, 1909, in Winchester, Ontario, Canada, Shea was one of eight children in a musical family. “We would have choir around the table,” he told the Daily Oklahoman in 2003.

His father, Adam J. Shea, was pastor of a Wesleyan Methodist Church in Winchester. His mother, Maud, woke Bev, his two brothers and five sisters by singing gospel music to them in the morning.

Shea began his gospel music career singing in the choir at his father’s church.

He graduated from Houghton College, a Christian school in New York, where he was a member of the glee club. He then took a job with an insurance company in New York and sang regularly on Christian radio.

He made music his full-time work in 1938, when he moved to Chicago to be a radio announcer and soloist with a Christian radio station. One day, Graham stopped by Shea’s office to introduce himself.

“I’ve been listening to you on the radio and just wanted to come by and shake your hand,” Graham told Shea, who recalled the conversation in the 2003 interview with the Daily Oklahoman.

At the time, Graham was 21 and the pastor of a church in Western Springs, Ill. He was about to become the preacher on a radio program, “Songs in the Night,” and he was looking for a marquee name to sing as his soloist. Shea was 34 and had attracted a following.

They worked together on the radio program starting in 1943. Several years later, Graham asked Shea to join his evangelical team. Shea first appeared on stage with Graham in Charlotte, N.C., in 1947. He also became a regular on Graham’s weekly radio show, “Hour of Decision.”

Shea and his first wife, Erma, had two children, Ronald and Elaine. His wife died in 1976 after a long illness.

The handsome, 60-something widower got so many letters from female admirers that he had to hire extra office help to answer them all.

In 1985, he married Karlene Aceto, who worked for the Billy Graham organization. She and his children survive him.

Shea kept up an active schedule, saying in interviews that he never saw a reference to “retirement” in the Bible. At 93, he performed in a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City, followed several weeks later by a concert at the hockey rink in his hometown of Winchester, where he sang from the penalty box.

He also wrote several books, including his autobiography, “Then Sings My Soul,” in 1968.

In Graham’s 1997 book, “Just as I Am,” he referred to Shea as “America’s beloved gospel singer.’' He added, “I would feel lost getting up to preach if Bev were not there to prepare the way through an appropriate song.”

Rourke is a former Times staff writer.