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Faith keeps 102-year-old gospel singer going

George Beverly Shea photo from the Billy Graham Association in North Carolina

By Robert Wilson

Earlier this year, a 102-year-old Canadian singer was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys in Los Angeles.The singer’s name is George Beverly Shea. Many people in Prince Edward County have probably heard of him.

George Beverly Shea is the son of a Wesleyan Methodist minister (Adam Shea) from Winchester, Ontario, near Ottawa. He was born in 1909.

Through his singing in countries around the world, at Billy Graham Crusades, it is estimated that Mr. Shea’s resonant bass-baritone voice has been heard in person by more than 230 million people, a Guinness record unlikely to be broken.

Bev Shea sang to more people in a live audience, than Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and the Beatles, combined. His singing was always in praise of Jesus Christ, and his solo was always just before Billy Graham’s message.

Mr. Shea was nominated 10 times for a Grammy, and in 1965 was selected for the prestigious Grammy for composing the music for the hymn “I’d Rather Have Jesus”. The words had been written as a poem in the 1920’s by Rhea Miller. Mr. Shea also wrote, arranged and recorded the song “The Wonder of It All” , which has since been translated into many languages.

George Beverly Shea was the fourth of eight children; his father taught him to play the violin, and his mother gave him piano lessons.

As noted by writers and biographers, it was Bev Shea’s “deep baritone voice that soon caught public attention, first when he sang solos in his father’s Wesleyan Methodist Church at about eight, then as a teenager in other Ottawa valley churches.”

The story is told that when Mr. Shea was five-years-old, two American singers who were visiting song evangelists, came to sing at his father’s Winchester church. They wanted to practise a new hymn and asked Bev’s mother to accompany them on the piano as they learned the unfamiliar hymn.It was The Old Rugged Cross. As one writer has noted, “the young boy stood at the piano his mouth open, listening intently; for half a century and more, Mr. Shea would go on to sing that hymn around the world.”

While in Ottawa Mr. Shea attended Annesley College before transferring to Houghton College in upstate New York. By this time his father was pastoring a Wesleyan church in New Jersey, and on graduation Beverly (Bev) started his career as a Claims Adjuster for Mutual Life Insurance Company.

Bev’s daily morning routine before going the work, was to sit down at the piano for a few minutes. One morning he noticed that his mother had placed a poem on the piano which she had written out by hand. The poem, “I’d Rather Have Jesus” was written by a minister’s wife, Mrs.Rhea Miller. On reading the poem Bev Shea immediately sang and played the notes for “I’d Rather Have Jesus”. As indicated, he was selected in 1965 to receive a Grammy for this compostion.

After working on Wall Street for a couple of years, Mr. Shea left the insurance business, and travelled to Chicago, where Moody Bible Institute had opened the first Christian radio station in the U.S.(WMBI). In 1940 Bev was the singer on the programme “Hymns in the Night”; which was soon syndicated and reached larger audiences.

A young 21-year-old pastor in Chicago heard Mr. Shea and went to the WMBI studio and met the 31-year-old Bev Shea. The pastor was Billy Graham, and after some letters and correspondence, he invited Mr. Shea to join him in his calling to share the gospel through evangelism. That was in 1947, and with Cliff Barrows the choir director, the three men have worked together since that time.

The Canadian from Winchester,Ontario,soon described as “America’s beloved Gospel singer”, would sing every night during a crusade, just before Billy Graham brought the message.

During his lengthy career, Mr. Shea recorded about 70 records, mostly on the RCA Victor label; with one of his best known recordings being “How Great Thou Art”- first performed at the 1955 Billy Graham Toronto Crusade at Maple Leaf Gardens.

At 102 Bev Shea still sings as often as he can, noting that singing is an important part of his spiritual practise. He indicates that it was a privilege to be a part of the Billy Graham team, and for him the most exciting  part was to see the thousands of people streaming forward when Mr. Graham gave the invitation to receive Christ!

George Beverly Shea stresses that “I was doing it for Him (Jesus)”. In retirement at 102, he indicates that his faith keeps him going, and he sees each day as a gift.

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  1. Robert Wilson says:

    George Beverly Shea can be contacted by letter or card c/o the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, 1 Billy Graham Parkway, Charlotte, North Carolina, 28201

    see website:

  2. Joy Sabourin says:

    It is wonderful to see this wonderful Christian man still alive and doing God’s work. I have enjoyed watching and listening to him on all the T.V. shows of Billy Graham’s, plus records I have heard of his music about the Lord God. He is truly an inspiration to people in this day and age with no where to go and have nothing to do with their lives.

  3. Diana Duncan-Fletcher says:

    I was so interested to read this and realize that George Beverley Shea is still alive. How can one contact him?

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