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.Email this Post