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Baritone a stalwart of Graham's crusade

| Wednesday, April 17, 2013, 7:33 p.m.
FILE - In this Jan. 13, 2009 file photo, George Beverly Shea talks at his home in Montreat, N.C. George Beverly Shea, the booming baritone who sang to millions of Christians at evangelist Billy Graham's crusades, died Tuesday, April 16, 2013 after a brief illness. He was 104. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File)

MONTREAT, N.C. — George Beverly Shea, whose booming baritone echoed through stadiums, squares and souls during a decades-long career with evangelist Billy Graham, died on Tuesday. He was 104.

Billy Graham Evangelistic Association spokesman Brent Rinehart said Shea passed away in Asheville after a brief illness.

Shea's rendition of “How Great Thou Art” came to define the faith of a Protestant generation that Graham helped bring to Jesus Christ. He performed live before an estimated 200 million people at crusades over the years — taking him from North Dakota to North Korea and beyond.

He joined Graham's crusade team in 1947 and stayed until Graham's declining health ended most of the evangelist's public appearances nearly 60 years later.

“As a young man starting my ministry, I asked Bev if he would join me,” Graham said then. “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.”

A Canadian emigrant who became one of America's most-recognized gospel soloists, Shea summed up his career with one of his inspirational trademarks: “The Wonder of It All.”

“I just thought it was such a privilege,” Shea said in a 2009 interview.

Despite several chances to perform on the secular stage, Shea largely stuck with gospel music. He recorded dozens of albums of sacred music and was nominated for 10 Grammys. He won in 1965 for his album “Southland Favorites.” At 88, he recorded his first country-and-western album.

Shea 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.

Born Feb. 1, 1909, in Ontario, Shea grew up singing around the dinner table and in his father's church choir.

Shea moved to New York City and trained with voice coaches, singing on radio stations WMCA and WHN.

So he was already well-known in Christian music circles when he met Graham. The lanky young man, a student at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., came to the WMBI studio in Chicago in the early 1940s.

“I knew he was from the South. I could hear it in my ears,” Shea recalled. “He was what I call a Southern gentleman. He was just too complimentary of what he was hearing on the air.”

Their friendship began with that first handshake.

Shea always performed a peaceful hymn just before the famed evangelist preached his message and asked people to make Jesus their personal savior. Graham “really loves the quiet song before he speaks. Perhaps something that will point to what he's going to speak on,” Shea said.

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