Because of his six decades of traveling with Billy Graham, it is estimated that Shea sang "live" in front of over two hundred million people, on every continent, more than any other singer in Christian history. In the latter decades, Shea was regarded as something of an "extra" to the crowds that came to hear Graham preach; but at the beginning, when they were young, it was Shea's popularity as an established and beloved singer that drew the crowds. George Beverly Shea was the "sidekick" of only one Man: the Lord Jesus Christ.
He was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1909, the son of a Wesleyan minister. He wasn't simply a man who sang Christian music; he was, first and foremost, a Christian. In a 2001 interview, he said that he was actually born again around the age of six, but dedicated his life completely to God at age 18: "There were times when I needed to rededicate my life to the Lord Jesus. When I was 18, my dad was pastoring a church in Ottawa, and I was feeling not too spiritual. The church was having a 'special effort,' as they called it, for a week. I remember that on Friday night Dad came down from the pulpit and tenderly placed his hand on my shoulder. He whispered, 'I think tonight might be the night, son, when you come back to the Lord.' And, yes, that was the night!"
The details of his life can be found in obituaries in The New York Times, Time, and Christianity Today, among many other places. By the time he joined Graham in 1943, he had already recorded numerous albums, and was well-established as one of the world's most beloved Gospel singers.
His "signature" song was probably "How Great Thou Art," which he was given by an obscure English songwriter, Stuart K. Hine, and which was itself a translation of a Swedish poem written in 1885 by Carl Gustav Boberg. But equally beloved were "I'd Rather Have Jesus," and his rendition of this classic, from a recording made in the 1950s:
It's not terribly important that he received several Grammies, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011; or that he sang at the White House for numerous Presidents; or that he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Sacred Music. These things are ephemeral. The important thing is that he never stopped singing, praising God, even as the health of his friend Billy Graham began to fail. As pictured below, he was still recording, with a new generation of Gospel singers, to the day he died; and that he enjoyed robust health until the brief illness that took his earthly life.
And his priorities were important. After he passed the age of 100, friends purchased a fabulously expensive organ from Europe, and had it installed in his home for his personal enjoyment. Gratitude and courtesy demanded that he keep the gift, but within two years, he had given it to the men's chapel at Angola Prison in Louisiana. He felt that it would be put to better use there.
Like Mahalia Jackson, George Beverly Shea will be remembered, but cannot be replaced. And, like Mahalia, he had no interest whatsoever in singing secular music, although both singers had many offers. In these days when the death of a Kurt Cobain or a Whitney Houston is met with worldwide hysteria, the promotion of George Beverly Shea to Heaven is being met with joy, thankfulness, and an expectancy of a future reunion by generations of the world's Christians.
Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.
- - - Psalm 116:15
Recording with Guy Penrod, at age 103