On George Beverly Shea

As you might have noticed, Billy Graham’s most famous song leader soloist is among this year’s recipients of the Grammy’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Good on him. And them. If NARAS had waited much longer - Shea is nearly 102 - it might have had to have been a posthumous award.

Anyway, I don’t really have a lot to say about the award itself other than that it’s obviously well-deserved. But it does give me an occasion to comment on the relative disconnect between Shea’s style of white gospel and the southern variety that we all know around here and mostly love. In researching and writing the book, this turned out to be a not insignificant issue I had to grapple with in understanding how southern gospel relates to the wider world of gospel music. Shea sold a gagillion records and was known the world over. And yet, despite a lot of overlap between the Graham crusade crowds and southern gospel, there doesn’t seem to be much of a meaningful interface between the two. I have some theories about why that is, though of course you’ll have to wait for the book.

But that doesn’t prevent me sharing my own personal opinion about Shea’s style. Which is: it certainly fit to the forthright, just-the-gospel-of-Christ-ma’am Graham aesthetic, but Shea’s propensity for coloring his tones quasi-operatically tended to make most everything he sang sound the same. “I’d Rather Have Jesus” can certainly carry the weight of Shea’s majestic singing. Or perhaps more accurately, Shea’s singing style befits the song. A more rollicking tune like “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” not so much.

No matter, Shea was arguably among the first bonafide international gospel stars and certainly the most famous white gospel singer of the 20th century. He’s the kind of singer whose work and talent suffuse the fiber of American culture and yet - like so much of the popular culture and arts of evangelicalism - often go largely unnoticed and unrecognized outside of the religious world. Congrats, Bev.

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  1. oldtimer wrote:

    One more thing that can be said about Shea is that he’s always been consistant. Many younger folks today may not relate to his style, but it was perfect for what he did, especially through the first 30 or so years of his career.

    And Doug’s right: Shea was a great compliment for Graham’s preaching style.

    Although most of his songs may have sounded alike, that can be said for many of today’s artist’s too, gospel or otherwise. It’s like we find a formula that works, and we run it to death. We use the same songwriters, same lead vocalists, same arrangers and producers, and expect something different?

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

  2. Jake wrote:

    If Billy Graham / Cliff Barrows / George Beverly Shea were just starting out in ministry today, they would most likely need a different style than they did to connect with people today. (That was an organ in the background!) The world was different back then. Christian music was different. But they sang and preached the changeless Gospel, using the tools of the time and the styles of the time, and their success showed that it worked.

  3. Janet B wrote:

    Yes, congratulations, Bev. Long overdue.

    I was playing my mother’s Christmas albums a few weeks ago; she had a Reader’s Digest Collector’s Edition set - Joyous Noel. Has everyone from Mario Lanza to Perry Como to Henry Mancini…even Lorne Greene (singing We Wish You a Merry Christmas - okay). To my surprise & delight, GBS is included - singing Go Tell It On The Mountain. I don’t know exactly when this collection was produced, but it had to be in the 60’s sometime. A nice testament to Bev’s popularity & regard at the time.

  4. JM wrote:

    To suggest the tag of “song leader” for GBS is something of a misstatement. GBS was the featured soloist for most of Dr. Graham’s crusades; however, Cliff Barrows was the designated “song leader”, who additionally led the assembled choirs.

    As part of a SG quartet in the late 70’s, we had occassion to provide the “song services” for a prominent evangelist of the period. He always “counseled” us to sing a “lively song that would get them on their feet and give them access to their wallets” just before the evening offering. This evangelist owned and travelled in a jet, which was costly to run. I often thought how wondeful it would have been to be part of Dr. Graham’s crusades, rather than some of the charlatans and characters we ran into during our SGM career. Unfortunately, SGM seemed to be a rich and fetid breeding ground for those of questionable reputations during that time. Perhaps the Graham organization was keeping its’ distance for reasons of credibility.

  5. Alan wrote:

    Some of these things are cyclical. Today, Tony Bennett travels from one University to another, as the college crowd has discovered him and think he’s cool. There’s an honesty about certain singers; they know who they are, and they remain true to their voice and style. George Beverley Shea is one such singer. I consider him timeless, and hard to compare with any other Gospel singer of the last 50+ years. He may have sung some sg songs through the years, but he is a Canadian, after all. This award is indeed way overdue, and I’m thrilled for Mr. Shea.

  6. Michael McIlwain wrote:

    #3, Janet B: I listened to Jouyous Noel and enjoyed the Bev Shea song. I play that collection of records every year on Christmas Day. I think it was released in 1968. I bought the collection on eBay a few years ago and the box that holds the four records. It included an advertisement that allowed the owner to give a friend a coupon that would allow that one to purchase the collection for $7.98. The coupon gave the purchaser the option of purchasing in two payments. Oh, the treasures you could buy for less than $10 42 years ago.

  7. irishlad wrote:

    I dare say his high profile with Billy Graham via the media to the general public helped him be the accepted face of Gospel music during the 40’s 50’s and 60’s. He was Canadian though, and no doubt the yankees liking his ’sophisticated’ sound more than contributed to his gazillions of record sales thus sadly leaving what was to become ‘Southern Gospel ‘ in its wake.

  8. Extra Ink wrote:

    #1, Old Timer: I agree. SG music today feels bland and tired because we are using about 5-10 primary songwriters over & over again…how can the music not sound the same after awhile?

  9. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    Many people don’t realize this, but George Beverly Shea was already in his mid-30s and a well-known singer by the time he teamed up with Billy Graham on radio in 1944. Three years later, they held the first of Graham’s famous crusades. Shea was 38 years old.

    Prior to that, Shea worked in radio and sang at Youth For Christ rallies. This came after a nine-year career working for an insurance company in New York where he also studied opera. His career as a singer was launched there. He recorded for Decca Records during the 1930s and sang on radio programs in New York and New Jersey. After ten years, he moved to Chicago to work for the Moody Bible Institute.

    Shea had been syndicated on several radio shows by the time he met Graham. People all over the world recognized his voice. When the crusades began in 1947 he was one of the famous personalities on the platform.

    Graham himself was only in his late 20s in 1947 and relatively unknown compared to Shea.

    More than the rich tone of his voice or the songs he chose to sing, what I’ve most admired about Shea over the years is his remarkable diction. If every singer would aspire to pronounce their words as distinctly as George Beverly Shea, what a wonderful world it would be.

  10. Irishlad wrote:

    Any one seen the Billy Graham flick were Josh Turner plays Bev Shea?

  11. Matt G. wrote:

    #10 I’ve seen it. It’s not too bad.

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