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Friday, February 1, 2013

Special Exhibit at Billy Graham Library to Honor Legendary Gospel Singer George Beverly (Bev) Shea
Exhibit opens today (Feb. 1), on singer’s 104th birthday; features rare photos and memorabilia

By Dan Wooding
Founder of ASSIST Ministries

CHARLOTTE, NC (ANS) -- George Beverly (Bev) Shea, longtime Crusade soloist and friend of Billy Graham, is celebrating his 104th birthday today (Friday, February 1, 2013) with his wife Karlene, family and friends at his home in Montreat, North Carolina, and is also being honored at The Billy Graham Library with a special exhibit.

Bev Shea singing

Called “How Sweet the Sound: A Tribute to George Beverly Shea” the exhibit will celebrate “America’s Beloved Gospel Singer” and the impact he has had around the world.

“George Beverly Shea, an original member of the Billy Graham Team, has played such a vital role in this ministry,” said Tom Phillips, vice president of The Billy Graham Library. “We are excited to unveil many items to the public for the first time, to honor the wonderful life of Mr. Shea, yes, but more importantly to honor God to whom Mr. Shea gives all the glory.”

The tribute will include pieces of memorabilia from Shea’s early career in Chicago to his many years spent as an integral part of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Highlights of the display include: the actual piano on which he composed the music to the popular hymn “I’d Rather Have Jesus;” his Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammy association and the suit he wore for the ceremony; a Western Electric Model 633A “Salt Shaker” microphone that Mr. Shea used at WMBI in Chicago in the early 1940s; and more.

A world-class baritone, Shea has sung in front of more than 210 million people at the Crusades, a fact that has been acknowledged in the Guinness Book of Records.

Bev Shea with his wife, Karlene

“They sent me a certificate that my wife, Karlene, framed and put on the wall here at my home,” he said in an interview I did with him some time back for my Front Page Radio show. “The truth is that they didn’t come to hear me; they came to hear Billy Graham.”

I interjected by saying, “Yes, but they came to hear you sing as well!”

In his autobiography Just As I Am, Billy Graham had this to say about George Beverly Shea: “I have sometimes said that I would feel lost getting up to preach if Bev were not there to prepare the way through an appropriate song. But I will always be grateful not only for his musical contributions to our Crusades but also for his warm spirit and his personal friendship over the years.

A world-class baritone, Shea has recorded more than 70 albums, and among other honors and achievements, was the recipient of ten Grammy nominations, a Grammy Award in 1965, and a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Grammy organization in 2011.

The Sheas make their home in Montreat, North Carolina, less than a mile away from the Graham home. On the opening day of the exhibit, Shea will celebrate his 104th birthday. Guests to the exhibit will have the opportunity to write a personal birthday greeting to Mr. Shea during the opening week of it.

The George Beverly Shea tribute exhibit runs from Feb. 1 through March 30 and is free to the public. For more information on the Library and upcoming events, or to schedule a group tour, please visit

Although Bev Shea is known as “America’s Beloved Gospel Singer,” he told me in the interview that he was actually born in Canada.

“Yes, I was born in Canada; it was in a town called Winchester, Ontario, which is 35 miles from Ottawa, the capital city,” Shea admitted. “My dad was a preacher there for 20 years and then he went to Ottawa for 10 years. After that he moved down to the New York area. I followed him there during my 20s.

“His final pastorate was in Syracuse, New York and he decided he’d better go to Heaven.”

Bev then spoke about his time at Houghton College in Houghton, New York.

“The college is near Buffalo and Rochester and is a fine college,” he said.

He also revealed that it was his mother who first spotted his musical talent.

“I’m in the middle of eight children and my mother noticed that I couldn’t stay away from the piano,” he said. “When I was very young, before the others came along, I was banging on the piano and so she took time to teach me some chords, like people do on a guitar these days. I took lessons for a while, but I found out that I would rather just develop different chords in all the different keys and play by ear. I don’t do it for people today, but I still play like this for my wife and for my own enjoyment morning and night.”

I then asked Mr. Shea how he first met Billy Graham.

Billy Graham greets is dear friend, Bev Shea, during a later crusade meeting

“Oh, that was marvelous,” he said. “I had worked for 10 years during the Twenties in New York in the medical department of the Mutual Life Insurance Company,” he said. “During that time, I met Dr. Houghton, Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, and he heard me sing a few songs. Then he was transferred to Chicago to become the president of Moody Bible Institute and we met again at a Bible conference in Pennsylvania. Dr. Houghton said, ‘I’d like to ask you if you have ever considered Christian broadcasting. I told him that I didn’t know it was available. That’s how it went in 1939. I accepted and went to Chicago, staying there five and a half years.

“One morning, there was a rap on my office door. I looked out and there was a tall young man with blond hair and we shook hands. He was 21 and I was 31. It was Billy Graham and he had traveled in from Wheaton College on a train just to say ‘hello.’ He said that he listened to my morning hymn show called ‘Hymns From The Chapel.’ That’s how we first got acquainted.

“I came into this work with Mr. Graham in 1947 after we had exchanged letters and talked on the phone. He said he wanted me to be his gospel singer. I thanked him, but told him the only gospel singers I’ve ever heard about would sing a verse or two and stop and talk awhile. ‘Would I have to do that?’ I asked him. He chuckled and said, ‘I hope not.’

“With that, I said, ‘Well, I’d like to come with you. That was in November of 1947 and I’ve been with him ever since.”

Bev said that his first appearance with Mr. Graham took place at the Old Armory in Charlotte, North Carolina and so I asked him what he sang on that first night.

“It was, ‘I Will Sing The Wondrous Story,’ the old congregational hymn,” he replied. “And I remember that someone in the audience gave that information to Billy Graham’s mother and she wrote me a note in which she said, ‘Whenever you come around, please sing that again.’”

Memories of the 1949 Los Angeles crusade

The tent used for the 1949 Los Angeles crusade

Bev Shea then talked about his memories of Billy Graham’s historic “Big Tent” crusade in Los Angeles that launched the young evangelist into international prominence.

“Yes, we had those tents at the corner of Washington and Hill Streets,” he said. “It was supposed to be for only three weeks, but the Lord was moving mightily and different ones came to the Lord such as Stuart Hamblen, who wrote, ‘It Is No Secret’ and ‘This Old House.’ Because of what was happening, the local committee asked Mr. Graham to continue, so we were there for a whole eight weeks.”

I asked him to recall how this became the turning point for Billy Graham.

“Well, of course that happened when William Randolph Hearst [the newspaper magnet] issued the directive to his staff to ‘Puff Graham.’ That happened, and we saw more and more people come to the meetings after that.”

How Stuart Hamblen wrote “It Is No Secret…”

Bev then shared how Hamblen came to write “It Is No Secret.”

“What happened was that Stuart Hamblen had accepted Christ at the Los Angeles meetings and he’d done some movies with John Wayne,” he said. “One day, the story goes, John Wayne was walking along Hollywood Boulevard there and the two met up. John Wayne had read about Stuart’s conversion and asked him, ‘What’s this I hear about you Stuart, going forward at Mr. Graham’s meetings?’ They apparently talked for a while and then Stuart said, ‘It’s no secret what God did for me. If he can do it for me, He can do for anyone.’ And the movie star said, ‘That sounds like a song to me.’ I’m not sure if that’s true or not. And so Stuart Hamblen sat down at his Hammond organ at home and wrote this wonderful song that I still sing today at Mr. Graham’s meetings.”

Harringay Arena

I then told Bev Shea that the first I had heard him sing was in 1954 when I was part of a massive crowd of 120,000 at London’s Wembley Stadium. I asked him for his recollections of those times in the UK.

“The Harringay arena seated some 12,000 and it was filled every night,” he began. “And then someone thought of the idea of carrying the meetings by landlines to other parts of the United Kingdom. During the War, they had extra phone lines that they used and somebody saw those idle lines and got them all hooked up. And so one night we had some fifty areas hooked up to Harringay. They were listening in churches, auditoriums in Wales and Scotland, and Ireland. It was marvelous!”

Winston Churchill

I wondered if Bev Shea had ever met Winston Churchill during his visits to Britain.

“I never met him, but I heard Mr. Churchill in Parliament and I also heard his speech in Ibrox Stadium, Glasgow, when he was running again for Parliament. He talked for 70 minutes. I was sitting beside Mr. Graham and he, and I, were very impressed with Mr. Churchill's oratory.”

The Queen Mother

He then spoke about an experience with the Queen Mother, mother of the present Queen Elizabeth II. “I never got to meet her before she passed away in her sleep in March, 2002,” Bev said. “But back in the fifties, when she was Queen she and King George VI [her husband] decided to visit Washington, DC, and Mrs. Roosevelt entertained them at the White House.

“There was some entertainment that night. They had Chief White Feather, an Indian who was an opera singer. He sang two arias and then, when the audience wanted more, he said, ‘May I sing something from my heart’ and then he sang, ‘I’d Rather Have Jesus,’ the song I had the privilege of writing the music to, but not the words; they were written by Rhea Miller. After he had sung that song, the Queen looked at him and said, ‘That song bespeaks the sentiment of my heart and that of my husband.’ Isn’t that beautiful?”

Richard Nixon

Billy Graham and Richard Nixon greet the crowd in New York

Bev Shea then spoke of his encounters with Richard Nixon who attended the 1957 New York Crusade at Yankee Stadium.

“He came on a very hot night and we had about 90,000 people there,” he recalled.

I then asked if he had ever sung for Nixon at the White House after he became president.

“Yes, I did,” he replied. “It was in the East Room and Mr. Graham spoke at the very first service he held there. Nixon had decided to hold Sunday morning services and not everybody agreed with the idea, but he liked to do that. Congressmen and others came, and I sang, ‘How Great Thou Art.’ Then we had had breakfast upstairs. Being a Canadian I thought that was really something.

“Afterwards, Nixon sat down at an old banged up Steinway piano and went up and down the keys and he began singing, ‘He will hold me fast, for my savior loves me, so he will hold me fast.’ I wondered where he ever heard that. I kept inquiring and I understand when he was thirteen or fourteen years of age he went to the Paul Rader meetings in Los Angeles and that was the signature song every night for the choir.”

When asked how he would describe his friend, Billy Graham, he replied, “If he’d never met the Lord, he still would have been a gracious gentleman. But he met the Lord, and He transformed his life at a young age, gave him that great gift of just interpreting the Word and bringing in the net.”

Bev Shea said he meant by “bringing in the net” -- the invitation to receive Christ at the end of each service.

“When I sat there on the platform and prayed, I have to admit that once in a while I peek and see them coming forward by the hundreds,” he said. “What a thrill that is. And his son, Franklin, is being blessed and is doing very well. He’s quite a preacher. Some time back, I went down to Mobile, Alabama, with my wife and he had me do some numbers. We also did New Orleans with Billy and Cliff Barrows.”

I concluded by asking Bev Shea about his favorite hymns.

“I’m never tired of ‘How Great Thou Art,’” he said. “It seems like I’ve sung it so many times but the words are almost like scripture, you know. And there are others that I like when I go to my the organ I have at home here or the piano I often sing, ‘I Saw One Hanging In A Tree…’ and also ‘And can it be…’ And then ‘Great Is Thy Faithfulness’ is another that I love. I knew the man who wrote the music for that. His name was William Runyan and he worked at Moody Bible Institute.”

What an example, that he, Mr. Graham and the other veteran, Cliff Barrows, are for those who think we should retire at 65!

To see a video tribute to Bev Shea, go to

To listen to my previous interview with Bev Shea, go to:

Note: I’d like to thank Robin Frost for transcribing this interview.

Dan Wooding, 72, who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, is an award winning British journalist now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for 49 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. He is the founder and international director of ASSIST (Aid to Special Saints in Strategic Times) and the ASSIST News Service (ANS) and he hosts the weekly “Front Page Radio” show on the KWVE Radio Network in Southern California and which is also carried throughout the United States and around the world. Besides this, Wooding is a host for His Channel Live, which is carried via the Internet to some 192 countries. Dan recently received two top media awards -- the “Passion for the Persecuted” award from Open Doors US, and as one of the top “Newsmakers of 2011” from Plain Truth magazine. He is the author of some 45 books, the latest of which is “Caped Crusader: Rick Wakeman in the 1970s.” To order a copy, go to: Caped Crusader - Amazon

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