George Beverly Shea, whose voice played as a praiseful soundtrack as thousands professed their faith in Christ, died Tuesday at the age of 104 after a brief illness, according to Billy Graham Evangelistic Association spokesman Brent Rinehart.
Known particularly for his rendition of How Great Thou Art, Shea performed live before an estimated 200 million people during his decades-long journey with evangelist Billy Graham and could still belt out the hymn in his booming baritone voice well after his hundredth birthday (see the video clip below from a little over a year ago).
From North Dakota to North Korea, and beyond, Shea accompanied Graham for nearly 60 years—from 1947 until the time the Graham’s health began to decline and he ended most of his public appearances less than a decade ago.
“As a young man starting my ministry, I asked Bev if he would join me,” Graham said at the time. “He said yes and for over 60 years we had the privilege of ministering together across the country and around the world. Bev was one of the most humble, gracious men I have ever known and one of my closest friends. I loved him as a brother.”
Born in Canada, Shea become one of America’s best-known and favorite gospel soloists, earning 10 Grammy nominations, with one win in 1965 for his album Southland Favorites. At age 88, he recorded his first country album, though Shea mostly stuck to gospel music, eschewing the secular stage.
Shea, who considered it a privilege to serve alongside Graham for the majority of his life, believed the simplicity of old hymns drew people to his music.
“It’s the message of the lyrics, the test that hits the heart in a hurry and the melody that goes along with it and seems to all go together,” Shea said in a January 2009 interview.
Kurt Kaiser, Shea’s accompanist of 30 years, recalled the way in which Shea seemed to connect with each individual heart in his audience.
“When he begins to sing a song, he can sing it directly to you. He tried to find a single face in the audience, maybe a sympathetic gaze,” Kaiser once said. “This personal quality is same thing that can be found in the gospel message.”
The soloist fathered two children with his first wife, Erma, who died in 1976. Shea and his second wife, Karlene, lived in Montreat, N.C.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.