Longtime GetReligion readers may recall that I grew up in Texas in the 1960s and early ’70s, the son of a Southern Baptist pastor. Suffice it to say that I have been to my share of Billy Graham meetings, back then and as a reporter on the religion beat in Denver and elsewhere.
So I heard George Beverly Shea sing on multiple occasions.
The purpose of this post is quite simple, but I will admit that it is a bit strange. I would like to thank the editors of The Washington Post for running a non-snarky obituary for Shea, who died April 16 at the age of 104. I don’t think I have ever heard a single person say a bad word about Shea, which would have raised the degree of difficulty in writing an obit with some teeth in it.
It is estimated that Shea sang — in person — for an estimated audience of 220 million in a career that spanned seven decades. Toss in television and shelves of albums and he would have to rank near the top, in terms of impact, in the world of gospel music.
Shea was never the main attraction and he knew it, a fact noted in the Post report. Here’s my favorite chunk of the story:
When Graham devoted himself to his evangelistic “crusades” in 1947, he invited Mr. Shea to join him. From then on, wherever Graham preached, Mr. Shea sang. He was known for his clean diction, perfect pitch and a robust bass-baritone voice that was as sturdy and as flashy as a tree trunk.
Mr. Shea had a repertoire of hundreds of hymns — some of which he composed — but was identified with a few familiar favorites, including “The Old Rugged Cross,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and, especially, “How Great Thou Art.” He began singing “How Great Thou Art,” a Swedish hymn written in the 1880s, in the mid-1950s. When Graham preached to more than 2 million people during a prolonged crusade in New York City in 1957, Mr. Shea sang his signature number on more than 100 consecutive nights.
Two alterations he made in the lyrics of “How Great Thou Art” became so well known that the original words were almost forgotten. Mr. Shea changed “consider all the works thy hands have made” to “all the worlds thy hands have made” and “I hear the mighty thunder” to “I hear the rolling thunder.”
“I got a bang when I used to hear Elvis Presley sing my two words,” Mr. Shea told the Kansas City Star in 2004.
The connections with the Graham family were strong at every possible level.