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Died: George Beverly Shea, Longtime Singer at Billy Graham Crusades

(UPDATED) Shea's "How Great Thou Art" defined 'the faith of a generation that Graham helped bring to Jesus.'

Update (April 18): Billy Graham's biographer, William Martin, offered CT his reflections on Shea, including the singer's most lasting achievement.

Also, the BGEA has created a memorial website with stories and photos of Shea's life.

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(Editor's note: This obituary has been substantially updated with videos, photos, commentary, and other links.)

Famed gospel singer George Beverly Shea, who regularly opened for Billy Graham at his crusades for nearly six decades, died Tuesday evening "following a brief illness." He was 104.

"Shea's rendition of "How Great Thou Art" came to define the faith of a Protestant generation that Graham helped bring to Jesus Christ," noted the Associated Press in a lengthy obituary. "He performed live before an estimated 200 million people at crusades over the years — taking him from North Dakota to North Korea and beyond."

Gaither Music broke the news on Twitter:

Sad to Announce...George Beverly Shea Passes Away at Age 104:bit.ly/11bls5w– Gaither Music Co. (@Gaithermusic) April 17, 2013

In an obituary (full text and tribute video below), the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) noted:

Since George Beverly Shea first sang for Graham in 1943 on the Chicago radio hymn program, "Songs in the Night," Shea has faithfully carried the Gospel in song to every continent and every state in the Union. Graham's senior by ten years, Shea devotedly preceded the evangelist in song in nearly every Crusade over the span of more than one-half century.

Said Billy Graham:

"I first met Bev Shea while in Chicago when he was on Moody Radio. As a young man starting my ministry, I asked Bev if he would join me. 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. My prayer for his wife, Karlene, and his children, Ron and Elaine, is that God will strengthen them during this time."

This history of gospel music offers more details on how Graham and Shea became partners.

"The history of George Beverly Shea, in many senses, is the history of Christian music in the 20th century," noted Shea's authorized biographer, Paul Davis, in an interview after Shea's 100th birthday. "The number of people George has sung to is larger than anybody else in history. We know that because broadly speaking, it's the same number that Billy Graham has preached to."

The BGEA has released a lengthy video tribute to Shea.

Shea received many accolades over his career, including 10 Grammy nominations, a Grammy Award in 1965, and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011.

Factoid: #George Beverly Shea, who passed 2nite, in 2011 became the oldest living person 2 receive a Grammy @102-yrs-old– ALarryRoss (@ALarryRoss) April 17, 2013

Wheaton College offers an archive on Shea, including audio clips of his early songs on Club Time, the evangelistic radio show Shea was doing when Billy Graham discovered him. Click here to listen to one of Shea's earliest renditions of "The Old Rugged Cross" from that program.

CT noted in 2004 when a heart attack forced Shea to miss his first crusade since 1947. Noted Franklin Graham when his father Billy Graham turned 90, "Bev Shea turns 100 in February, so I think Daddy's trying to catch up to him."

David Neff told the story of Shea's signature tune–How Great Thou Art"–when Shea turned 100:

The song most associated with Billy Graham is "Just As I Am," but Bev Shea's signature tune is clearly "How Great Thou Art." Even though nearly every gospel artist - from Elvis Presley to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir - has recorded it, it is Bev Shea's tune. Here's the story of that song.

Shea's other signature song:

Full obituary from the BGEA:

CHARLOTTE, N.C., April 16, 2013 – George Beverly Shea, 104, of Montreat, North Carolina, soloist of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), died this evening following a brief illness.

Since George Beverly Shea first sang for Graham in 1943 on the Chicago radio hymn program, "Songs in the Night," Shea has faithfully carried the Gospel in song to every continent and every state in the Union. Graham's senior by ten years, Shea devotedly preceded the evangelist in song in nearly every Crusade over the span of more than one-half century.

Shea was the recipient of ten Grammy nominations, a Grammy Award in 1965, and was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Grammy organization in 2011. He was also a member of the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame (1978), and was inducted into the Religious Broadcasting Hall of Fame in February 1996. Shea was also inducted into the inaugural class of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists' "Hall of Faith" in 2008.

"I first met Bev Shea while in Chicago when he was on Moody Radio," said Billy Graham. "As a young man starting my ministry, I asked Bev if he would join me. 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. My prayer for his wife, Karlene, and his children, Ron and Elaine, is that God will strengthen them during this time."

Born in Winchester, Ontario, Canada, where his father was a Wesleyan Methodist minister, Shea's first public singing was in the choir of his father's church. Between Crusade, radio, and television dates in many countries, he sang at hundreds of concerts and recorded more than 70 albums of sacred music. At age 23 he composed the music to one of his best known solos, "I'd Rather Have Jesus."

"Even though Bev was 10 years older than my father, he never acted his age," said Franklin Graham. "He was absolute fun to be with. Bev was one of the most gracious and unassuming men I have known. He was always encouraging and supportive, a man of deep faith and strong commitment to Jesus Christ."

Shea is survived by his wife, Karlene, and his children from his first marriage, Ronald and Elaine. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Erma, who died in 1976.

Ron, born in 1948 in Chicago, graduated from Trinity International University in Deerfield, Ill., in 1971. For more than 30 years, Ron has been an associate in Crusade ministry through the BGEA, assisting in preparatory work for evangelistic crusades involving Mr. Graham and more recently for Franklin Graham's ministry. He is married to the former Kathy Ford.

Details on the funeral service for Shea will be forthcoming.

Visit www.billygraham.org for additional information.

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Posted:April 16, 2013 at 10:14PM
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