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Billy Graham -- Tampa BayShea still singing, and grateful

He has heard the applause of millions in more than 50 years of working with Billy Graham, but 89-year-old George Beverly Shea is the soul of humility.

By JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 18, 1998


George Beverly Shea and Billy Graham go back a long way together.

"When I met Mr. Graham, he was 21 and I was 31," Shea said last week from his home in Montreat, N.C.

It was 1941, and Graham was a student at Wheaton College in Illinois. Shea was a staff announcer at the Moody Bible Institute's radio station, WMBI, in Chicago. One of the programs he hosted was Hymns From the Chapel, which capitalized on his booming bass-baritone singing voice.

"I'd do the theme song and take a low E at the end," he said.

Two years later, Graham was a little-known pastor looking for a "marquee name" for his new Sunday night radio program, he wrote in his autobiography, Just As I Am, and Shea "was the very first person I asked to join me in evangelism." The two have been working together ever since.

"I've been doing it a lot of years now," said Shea. "I'll be 90 in February, and just wait till you're 90. You're going to enjoy it, too."

He continues to sing a selection or two from his vast repertoire of old-time hymns, such as How Great Thou Art, I'd Rather Have Jesus or The Old Rugged Cross, during Graham's crusades.

"Mr. Graham likes me to sing a quiet little spiritual -- I call it a hymn, a gospel song -- before he speaks," he said. "It's not more than three or four minutes, or less than that, and it seems to help him and brings a focus onto his message."

It has been estimated that Shea has sung before as many 180-million people at crusades over the course of more than 50 years with Graham. The largest crowds of all were in Korea.

"In Korea, after one week of meetings, the police counted 1,100,000. It was a sea of faces," he said. "I sang How Great Thou Art in Korean. The choir was 10,000 singers in back of me."

In June, Shea was with Graham for a crusade in Ottawa. "That was a great thrill to me, because I was born in a suburb of Ottawa," he said. "My dad was a Methodist pastor up there for many years."

One of the guest musicians at the Ottawa crusade was Ben Heppner, a renowned, young Canadian tenor who recently won ecstatic notices for his starring role in Tristan und Isolde at the Seattle Opera. Heppner's performance with soprano Jane Eaglen in the Wagner opera was acclaimed as a historic pairing by more than a few critics.

"He's a fine Christian, and he sang a couple of songs for us," Shea said. "He's taller than I am. I'm 6-foot-3, but he must be 6-foot-5 or 6-foot-6. He sang a hymn and put a variation on it, took a high note or two."

Shea and his wife, Karlene, live about a mile from Graham in the North Carolina mountains around Asheville. His son, Ronald, also works for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and has been part of the Tampa crusade office, getting ready for this week's event.

Shea has recorded more than 70 albums of sacred music, and there are more to come. One afternoon last week from the office in his home, with a dog barking in the background, he played a sample from a forthcoming CD that features him in some newer hymns, such as Each Step I Take.

"Each step I take, my savior goes before me," the mellifluous voice intoned. "With each breath, I whisper, I adore thee. Oh, what joy to walk with him each day."

Those vocal tracks were recorded 15 years ago, Shea said, adding that his voice is not as strong these days.

"I'll tell you, sometimes I think I sound pretty terrible," he said. "If I start going off key, I just want to quit. I'm in pretty good physical health, thank the Lord, and I do some walking and treadmill and up and down stairs and things like that. I don't sing quite as high as I used to."

Shea gives the impression of a man who practices the humility that he preaches. Even though travel is the bane of a barnstorming evangelist, he has resisted the blandishments of first class. "I had a concert last week in Dallas, and we went coach and I got the middle seat," he said, groaning.

When asked if he ever pondered the significance of his career, Shea sounded as if such a line of thinking was the furthest thing from his mind.

"I never really planned to do all this," he said. "I just fell into it. We who pray and talk to our Lord feel that he leads in things of that nature. I tell young people to trust him for the future. I don't remember putting my hand on the doorknob to open this door; it just seemed like it was open. I'm very grateful, very undeserving, but grateful."

Shea remains a musician at heart. "I hope that when I die they put on my tombstone: "He was always on pitch,' " he said.

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