MONTREAT, N.C. - From Canadian emigrant to America's most recognized gospel soloist, George Beverly Shea can aptly sum up his career with one of his inspirational trademarks: The Wonder of It All.
The man who, for many modern listeners, immortalized the hymn How Great Thou Art, is diffident about his place in music history. He expresses wonder at how a former insurance clerk ended up singing in person before what could be more people than anyone in history - some 180 million at the Rev. Billy Graham's crusades over the course of 50 years.
At 88, Mr. Shea's booming baritone voice is still going strong. He recently recorded his first country-and-western album and is preparing for upcoming Graham crusades.
"This was God's provision for a simple gospel singer," he said recently in Montreat, where Mr. Shea and the Rev. Graham live in the North Carolina mountains, 15 miles east of Asheville. "That has been the Lord's doing."
The son of a Wesleyan minister from Ontario honed his craft around the family table. After college in upstate New York, Mr. Shea moved to New York City and trained with some of the world's top voice coaches, including Italian-born Gino Monaco.
At the time, he was working both as a radio singer and shuffling paperwork at Mutual of New York.
Despite several chances to perform on the secular stage, Mr. Shea says his heart told him to stay with gospel music. And his heart proved right: He now has more than 60 sacred albums to his credit, along with a Grammy, and is one of the best-known Christian singers even though he's 20 years past the age when most people retire.
"He's just a phenomenon," said Kurt Kaiser, Mr. Shea's accompanist over the past three decades. "He's become sort of an icon."
Mr. Shea believes the simplicity of the old hymns has drawn 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," he said.
Mr. Shea became famous through his work with the Rev. Graham but, even before their friendship, he was well-known in Christian music circles. During the 1930s and '40s, he was a gospel crooner on a Chicago radio station and later on ABC radio's Club Time.
Mr. Shea recalls the first time he met a lanky Wheaton College student from Charlotte who came to the studios of the radio station where he was working - Mr. Shea was 31, and Billy Graham was 21.
"One morning after I've been there for a couple of years, there was a rap on the door of the office. There's a tall young lad and blond hair," Mr. Shea recalled. "Our hands shook. ... We started a friendship.
"I knew he was from the South. I could hear it in my ears," he said, laughing. "He was what I call a Southern gentleman. He was just too complimentary of what he was hearing on the air."
In 1943, the Rev. Graham, then a pastor of an Illinois church, persuaded Mr. Shea to perform on his Chicago radio show. Four years later, in November 1947, Mr. Shea joined the crusade team. He Has
been on the road with the Rev. Graham ever since.
Mr. Shea always performs a peaceful hymn just before the the Rev. Graham takes the podium.
The Rev. Graham "really loves the quiet song before he speaks. Perhaps something that will point to what he's going to speak on," Mr. Shea said. "Billy has about 12 to 15 favorites that he likes. And if I get away from one of them, sometimes he'll notice. He'll kid me about it: `Oh, I like those old songs.' He wants me to sing something familiar."
Mr. Kaiser said Mr. Shea loves "the inspiration of the moment" and sometimes changes the cadence of his songs. He also has a gift for making his audience feel appreciated.
"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," Mr. Kaiser said. "This personal quality is same thing that can be found in the gospel message."
Mr. Shea, his face creased from the rigors of a long life, has slowed down a bit, spending a lot of time at his Montreat home with his wife, Karlene.
The Rev. Graham planned only two crusades this year, and Mr. Shea sings three or four times at a four-day crusade.
He's still the featured soloist on the Rev. Graham's weekly Hour of Decision radio broadcast. And he and Mr. Kaiser travel to small towns for concerts at churches where people wouldn't normally get a chance to see them in person.
Mr. Shea enjoys spinning tales about the past, especially the early days of radio, but friends say he tries to keep up with the times. He and Charlotte radio legend Arthur Smith just completed an album called Out in the Country.
He knows that his time is short and wants to retire at "the right time." He hopes that can be in 1998, when the Rev. Graham crusade team holds meetings in Ottawa, not far from Mr. Shea's boyhood home, where a career that has almost spanned the 20th century began around a kitchen table.