(ABP) — George Beverly Shea often wished he could preach like his father and grandfather, but he seemed to lack the “gift.”
Even so, when he was on staff at the Moody Bible Institute's flagship radio station in Chicago, a professor advised him to “turn his eyes to the pulpit” because he'd never be able to make a living singing sacred music.
Shea didn't listen. Instead, he began a career as a Christian singer that has spanned six decades, sharing the gospel in song with perhaps more people than anyone in history as featured vocalist with Billy Graham's evangelistic crusades.
Shea recalled the words of a colleague who said, “'God uses music to open the heart and the word of God to fill it.' I just try to set things up for Mr. Graham to talk about the Lord.”
Shea, 95, recalled a time several years ago when he was invited to submit an entry to the “Guinness Book of World Records” as the person who has sung live to more people than anyone. He never bothered to fill out the paperwork.
While that record remains unconfirmed, other honors have come his way through the years — 10 Grammy Award nominations and one Grammy Award, as well as induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and the Religious Broadcasting Hall of Fame.
His resonant bass-baritone voice has been heard on “The Hour of Decision” radio program for more than 50 years, and he has recorded more than 70 sacred music albums and composed Christian standards such as “The Wonder of It All.”
But his greatest joy has come in traveling with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, singing gospel songs on every continent and in every state of the Union.
He shared recollections from many of those evangelistic crusades, as well as other personal reflections, in a recent book, “How Sweet the Sound,” published by Tyndale House.
In the book, which he refers to as “just a collection of stories glued together,” he identified more than 50 of his favorite hymns and gospel songs.
He told about being deeply moved when he visited the graves of John Newton, the former slave trader who penned “Amazing Grace,” and Fanny Crosby, the blind composer of more than 8,000 gospel songs, including “Blessed Assurance.”
And he recounted the story of a truck driver who said he was moved to tears every time he heard “Lord, I'm Coming Home” on the radio. Shea personally led the man to profess his faith in Jesus.
In addition to Shea's memories of hymns such as “Rock of Ages” and “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” the book also includes lesser-known family favorites, such as the blessing for food sung around the dinner table of his boyhood home in Canada.
He resisted the idea of singling out one favorite song but acknowledged: “I never really get tired of 'How Great Thou Art.' It wears well. It still gets to your heart.”
While Shea speaks fondly of friends in contemporary Christian music, he admitted: “I probably would make a fool of myself if I tried [to sing contemporary music]. I stick with the old ones. They have the ability to get to the heart so quickly.”
At the church Shea and his wife, Karlene, attend near their North Carolina home, the worship service every other week follows a contemporary format.
“We stand for 15 minutes at a time, singing songs nobody will even think of tomorrow,” he said with disapproval. “But there are good songs being written. There always needs to be change.”
Shea pointed out his friends Kurt Kaiser and Ralph Carmichael were on the cutting edge of Christian music 25 years ago. He also voiced great respect for modern composers such as Michael W. Smith and performer Michael Tait of dc Talk, who have become a part of recent Billy Graham Missions, as the evangelistic crusades are now called.
Shea already has committed to participate in upcoming evangelistic meetings in Kansas City and Los Angeles this year, in addition to Graham's return to Madison Square Garden in 2005.
“Madison Square Garden almost has to be the last one for him at his age, and I'm 10 years older than he is,” he said.
Shea knows his voice is not as strong as it once was, but he said, “I'll go along and do what I can. … I talked with Mr. Graham less than a year ago, asking if he wanted me to step down because of my age. He told me, 'If you lose all your teeth, just come whistle.'”