CHARLOTTE, N.C. George Beverly Shea, the award-winning baritone who is often described as "America's Beloved Gospel Singer," celebrated his 100th birthday Feb. 1. The celebration continued a day later when Shea was the guest of honor during a private gathering of family and friends at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove in Asheville, N.C.
For decades Shea was a fixture on the Billy Graham Crusade stage and on televisions in living rooms around the country.
"On the ladder of life, I have reached rung 100, and I can see the scenery a little better than those who are still climbing," Shea said of his 100th birthday.
In 2008, at the age of 99, Shea continued to perform in front of large audiences, taking part in Franklin Graham's Festivals in Knoxville, Tenn. and Charleston, S.C.
Shea also was part of the 2003 Billy Graham crusade in San Diego and the 2004 crusade in Los Angeles.
In the past few years, Shea has ministered alongside a third generation of Grahams by performing at Will Graham Celebrations in Gastonia, N.C. and Paducah, Ky.
Shea was born in 1909 in Winchester, Ontario, where his father was a Wesleyan Methodist minister. It was there where he first sang publicly with the choir of his father's church. Later, he sang with the Houghton College Glee Club in New York.
Shea's network radio singing started on "Club Time," a program carried for more than eight years on ABC, the Armed Forces network and independent stations. When Graham, then pastor of the Village Church in Western Springs, Ill., took over the "Songs in the Night" radio program on Chicago's WCFL in 1943, he recalled hearing Shea's radio singing and enlisted him to help with the broadcast.
That was the beginning of a long association between Graham and Shea. In 1947 Shea went to Graham's hometown, Charlotte, N.C. to sing in the first of Graham's citywide crusades.
The fledgling evangelistic team worked together in several other crusades, and in 1949 the famous Los Angeles tent meetings catapulted Graham and his associates to national attention.
Since the beginning of Graham's crusade ministry, Shea and Cliff Barrows have been the nucleus of the crusade musical team. Barrows is choir director, platform emcee, and radio-television program director.
Through the years, Shea has been one of the busiest men on the Billy Graham Evangelistic Team. Between crusade, radio and television dates worldwide, he has sung hundreds of concerts and recorded more than 70 albums of sacred musicincluding nine CDs.
Shea is a noteworthy composer and at age 23 wrote one of his best-known solos, "I'd Rather Have Jesus," to words by Mrs. Rhea H. Miller.
The poem had been left on the family piano by Shea's mother, and after reading the words he sat at the piano and composed the tune. He also wrote "The Wonder of It All," "Sing Me A Song of Sharon's Rose," and "I Love Thy Presence, Lord." His most recent CD, "Out In the Country," was released by Homeland Records.
He is the recipient of 10 Grammy nominations, a 1965 Grammy Award and was inducted into the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame in 1978. For his significant contributions to Gospel music, he was inducted into the Religious Broadcasting Hall of Fame in February 1996.
"Bev was the very first person I asked to join me in evangelism," Graham said. "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. I've been listening to Bev Shea sing for more than 50 years, and I would still rather hear him sing than anyone else I know.
"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."