CHARLOTTE, N.C. (BP) -- George Beverly Shea, the longtime soloist for Billy Graham Crusades, died Tuesday (April 16) after a brief illness. He was 104.
Shea and Graham were lifelong friends, for decades living only a mile apart from each other in Montreat, N.C.
"I first met Bev Shea while in Chicago when he was on Moody Radio," Graham said. "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."
Graham added, "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."
A lengthy New York Times obituary said Tuesday Graham wasn't always the more famous of the two. When Graham asked him to sing at his preaching events in the 1940s, Shea already was a nationally known voice in Christian music, The Times said. Graham, at the time, was a "fledgling minister."
"As has been widely reported, their early revival meetings were often advertised like this: BEV SHEA SINGS. Billy Graham will preach," The Times said.
By the time old age led to the winding down of their ministry together, Shea had "faithfully carried the Gospel in song to every continent and every state in the Union," the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) said.
Franklin Graham reflected on the character of the man who was by his father's side in ministry for more than six decades.
"Even though Bev was 10 years older than my father, he never acted his age," Franklin Graham said. "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."
Mike Harland, director of LifeWay Worship, said it was hard to articulate the tremendous impact Shea had on church music as a singer, songwriter and musician.
"He was a Christian gentleman whose talent could have placed him on any music stage in the world. But his love for Christ compelled him to serve the Kingdom of God," Harland told Baptist Press.
Born in Canada, where his father was a Wesleyan Methodist minister, Shea grew up singing in the church choir and later studied voice with private teachers in New York while he worked as a clerk with the Mutual Life Insurance Company for nearly a decade, The Times said.
Shea composed the music to one of his best known solos, "I'd Rather Have Jesus," at age 23.
He was working as a staff announcer and singer at WMBI, the radio station of the Moody Bible Institute, in 1943 when Billy Graham, then a student at Wheaton College, walked in to express gratitude for Shea's singing. Four years later, Shea and Graham led the first Billy Graham Crusade, in Charlotte, N.C., The Times recounted.
Shea appeared regularly on Graham's weekly radio broadcast, "The Hour of Decision," which began in 1950, and throughout his ministry recorded more than 70 albums. He sang at the prayer breakfasts of U.S. presidents, including Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson and George H.W. Bush, The Times said.
Perhaps the most popular hymn Shea sang, The Times said, was "How Great Thou Art," which he sang by popular demand on 108 consecutive nights at a crusade in New York City in 1957.
"Mr. Shea's vocal style was characterized by a resonant bass-baritone, impeccable diction, sensitive musical phrasing and an unshowmanlike delivery that nonetheless conveyed his own ardent religious conviction," The Times said.
Shea received 10 Grammy nominations, won a Grammy Award in 1965 and was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Grammy organization in 2011, BGEA said. In 1978, he was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and in 1996 he became a member of the Religious Broadcasting Hall of Fame.
In 2008, Shea was part of the inaugural class of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists' "Hall of Faith."
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. --30-- Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).