(In 2011 George Beverly Shea was honored with The Recording Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award. The following tribute penned by Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith ran in the GRAMMY Awards program book that year. Shea died April 16 at the age of 104.)
From our respective childhood homes in Nashville, Tenn. and Kenova, W. Va. — our memories of the beloved "Bev" Shea begin with the phrase, "Tonight our regularly scheduled programming will be replaced by. … "
Even as children we knew that the throngs of people filling the curved screen of our black and white TV meant one thing — Billy Graham was going to preach. And in a day of having only three channels, everybody knew it. It was much more than a TV show, it was an event!
This would be our first recollection of George Beverly Shea, the molasses-voiced baritone who sang alone right before the legendary preacher took the stage. We learned years later that Bev's voice was what calmed Dr. Graham's nerves before standing in front of the enormous crowds, and each of us who were ever privileged to share the Billy Graham Crusade stage experienced this too.
Sitting backstage with Bev before a crusade gave perspective to the task at hand. The "job" before us wasn't just to entertain the crowd — but to provide a vehicle to allow Dr. Graham to do what he was called to do, and no one did that better than George Beverly Shea.
Amy: I was a teenager when I met Bev Shea at a crusade in Nashville. Thirty years of enjoying his friendship have passed since then.
Two years ago I gave Bev and his lovely wife, Karlene, a ride to an airport in Nashville. As we were unloading the bags in front of the terminal, I watched Bev make light-hearted conversation with the two young men assisting us. I saw the effect his easy laugh and open smile had in the short time we stood outside. "How old do you think he is?" I asked our helpers after he and Karlene stepped through the doors. "I don't know … 80?" I laughed. "You're off by two decades." "You're kidding! Who is he?" they asked.
Michael: There are few things in life more memorable, more precious than visiting Bev and Karlene in their home. The visit always winds up around his piano. When Bev starts telling you about many classic hymns you quickly realize he got the story from the writer, firsthand! His mind is a treasure trove of stories, friendships and influence of many of the songs that were and are a staple of the church.
I've never been more proud and more humbled than playing piano for Bev there in his home. He has been a source of inspiration to millions, and especially to me.
He is a gifted man, with a great heart, who has lived his life as a faithful friend, and in doing so has changed the world.
George Beverly Shea was born Feb. 1, 1909. By the time he was 20, Bev had identified his passion of communication. Fresh from Houghton College, Bev began singing on WMCA. After a 10-year stint at WMCA, he moved to Chicago and became an announcer and staff soloist at WMBI. Beginning in 1944, he became a soloist on ABC's "Club Time." It was during his years at ABC that George crossed paths with a fiery young preacher from North Carolina named Billy Graham. As a guest soloist, Bev made his first appearance onstage with Dr. Graham in 1947.
More than 70 recordings on RCA and Word Records, numerous awards, including a GRAMMY, induction into the Gospel Music Association Gospel Music Hall of Fame and the National Religious Broadcasters Hall of Fame, and two doctorates later, the rest is history.
(Amy Grant is a six-time GRAMMY winner and Michael W. Smith is a three-time GRAMMY winner.)