october 2008

The Soul of Big Profundo


Hosted by Bill Gaither
Spring House Productions, 2008
Producer: Bill Gaither
Run Time: 85 minutes

A long overdue tribute tso one of the greatest voices in gospel music history, Then Sings My Soul chronicles George Beverly Shea's rise from his childhood in Winchester, Ontario, Canada (his father was a Wesleyan minister), to world renown as the voice of the Billy Graham Crusades over the course of a 65-year friendship/partnership with Billy Graham. With nimble wit and keen insight, the 98-year-old Shea, ably guided by producer Bill Gaither's informed questioning, recounts his remarkable career with the same humility and gratitude millions of people around the world have seen him exhibit on the stage of the Crusades and express in the songs he's helped forge into the gospel canon with one of the most expressive bass voices of the 20th Century. To his repertoire he brings the commanding presence of another imposing bass singer, Paul Robeson, and the unquestioned integrity and commitment of his friend, and sometime Billy Graham performing partner, Mahalia Jackson.

According to Gaither's introduction, Shea has sung to 220 million people worldwide, more than any other artist in history; his audiences have spanned economic and class distinctions, ranging from royalty to the poorest of the poor. Hearing this, the genial gospel giant chuckles. "I heard you talking," he says. "Who were you talking about? You polished it too much, man." Hardly. The sweep of history in Shea's reminiscences is breathtaking, from his recounting of the 1947 phone call from Rev. Graham inviting him to join he and Cliff Barrows in his ministry (he agreed after being assured he would only have to sing, not talk, to the audience). In addition to the biographical detail, though, Gaither engages Shea in discussion about the songs he's made famous, which gives us a glimpse into the vast store of knowledge Shea possesses about the sources and history of the music with which he's indelibly identified. The amazing footage includes tantalizing black and white moments from the '50s, notable among these being a clip of Shea and the massive Billy Graham Choir performing a jubilant version of "Every Time I Feel the Spirit" (the joy illuminating Shea's features as he sings bespeaks his depth of feeling for the message). Among the other 25 songs are many of the monuments emblazoned in Crusades lore: "Amazing Grace" (accompanied by a priceless Shea anecdote about visiting the grave of the song's composer, John Newton, and memorizing a poetic sentiment about Newton's conversion carved on the back of the tombstone), "The Old Rugged Cross," "It Is No Secret," "Jacob's Ladder," "He Touched Me," "Satisfied," the great hymn of invitation that he single handedly elevated to classic status, "Softly and Tenderly," and, of course, his signature number, "How Great Thou Art." Shea is shown performing the song in a collage of clips assembled non-chronologically from 1957, 1958, 1985, 1973 (in Seoul, Korea, singing in the Korean language), 2006 and, finally, at Gaither's 2002 Carnegie Hall concert, a magnificent performance that moves many in the sellout audience to tears and to various states of ecstasy in a grand arrangement featuring strings, horns and an evocative harmonica in addition to a resounding church piano leading the way. Still, some will wish they could have seen an uncut '50s performance of this beloved hymn, since the footage clearly was available from the decade when the Rev. Graham was establishing his ministry in this country and beginning his international outreach. One might also lament the relative paucity of detail about the Crusade's epic 26-week stand at Madison Square Garden in 1957, which made Billy Graham a household name and the preeminent Christian minister in America-but that might be a whole book unto itself, not to mention a film in its own right. That's neither here nor there; Gaither does a fine job throughout, and at the end he and Shea engage in an "unplugged" set, with Gaither accompanying Shea on piano on a beautiful version of "Lord, I'm Coming Home." It's an emotional occasion on its own, but Gaither's closing narration, spoken over still photographs of the Rev. Graham, Shea and musical director Cliff Barrows (who also appears in the video, discussing his friendship with Shea), from the early days to the present, in the winter of their lives, is a moving summation of the sacred commitment the three men made in the late '40s and to which they have remained unfailingly true. Clearly, when Big Profundo sang low C (the title of a humorous song about the awesome power of Shea's vocal range) he made the world a better place.—David McGee


'He's In a Category All His Own'
Bill Gaither on George Beverly Shea

by David McGee


A giant in the world of Contemporary Christian Music, Indiania-born Bill Gaither has made his mark as a songwriter (he and his wife Gloria have co-written a number of standards-"He Touched Me," "Just Praise the Lord," "Because He Lives," among others), as a performer with his Bill Gaither Trio, as a producer, and as head of the Gaither Music Company (record company, concert booking, television production, copyright management, retail store, recording studio and telemarketing services), and not least of all as mentor to an all-star lineup of important Contemporary Christian artists, including Sandy Patty, Amy Grant and Michael English among many others. Most recently her served as executive producer for his company's video tribute to his friend George Beverly Shea, Then Sings My Soul. TheBluegrassSpecial.com caught with Gaither recently to chat with him briefly about the project and to get his perspective on the gospel giant he calls friend.

You've known George Beverly Shea and worked with him for a long time. What does he mean to gospel music, what does he stand for?

Bill Gaither: He has to be the number one soloist of the 20th Century. I don't think we had anybody that was at that level for so long. In the '50s I don't know how many RCA projects he did, probably 40 or 50, and of course, if you talk about numbers of people before whom he sang, I don't think there's any gospel singer who has sung before as many as he has. Or has been televised as much as he's been televised. Or sold as many recordings. He's in a category all his own.

How has he affected your approach to your own ministry?

Gaither: It's interesting, in the Christian music field there's a Scripture that says we have this treasure in earthen vessels. The point is we're all human beings, so there's nobody who's not flawed in some way or another. But when it comes to integrity I've never seen a person whose spirit and attitude is as pure as his. I'm sure there is some human weaknesses there, but if there are I've not seen them. It seems like from a motive perspective, he has really done it to the glory of God. Not that other singers haven't done that, but I think he does it at the highest level. He has truly used his gift to glorify God, you know. Not saying other people have not done that, but he's done it at a higher level.

When you approached him about this project, was he enthusiastic? He's a very humble man. Did he think you were making too much over him?

Gaither: Exactly! He said, "Oh, Bill, I'm an old man. Not that many people care." In fact, when we showed a preview of that to about 200 or 300 Nashville business people-first of all he said, "Nobody will show up," and the place was full, and then he said, "They'll go to sleep halfway through it." I said, "Bev, this is wonderful. People love it. People want to know about you." At the end of it, when it was over and everybody was moved, I asked him if he wanted to say something. He stood up and said, "Is it morning yet?" I have never seen a person so humble and so unaware of who he is. I mean, if we have a Moses, he's Moses, okay?

Your introduction of him on the DVD is great, but it was funny when he looked at you after you'd finished and said, "I don't know who you were talking about there."

Gaither: And that's truly Bev. He's not faking humility. That's just Bev.

How many days did you film with him?

Gaither: I did that in a four-hour setting. And can you believe that a 98-year-old could sit there for four hours and be so on top of it? For instance, one time I said to him, "Bev, I heard a radio recording of you somewhere back in the early '50s, '51, '52, on WSM," and he said, "No, it was in '53 and we were there for a Crusade. I sang 'Roll, Jordan, Roll' and 'Give Me the Old Time Religion.'" He added, "The Governor of Tennessee, Governor Clement, was there," and anybody who knows that time knows that Clement was quite an orator, and he prayed that night and Bev said, "You woul have thought he was a preacher." He knew every detail of that event. It blew my mind. For four hours he sat there and could give you dates and times and places. I'm 72 and I can't recall the stuff he can recall.

He does look to be in amazingly good shape.

Gaither: It was rather interesting, when we used those clips form 1952 to 1977 to 1988 [showing Beverly Shea singing "How Great Thou Art" through the years and in different venues, including a verse sung in Korean at a Korean Crusade) it didn't make any difference. There were a few song where the key was lower maybe a step or two, but for the most part it was the same quality. And any vocalist, if you go much past 75, you're doing pretty well. Most vocalists, by the time they're 60, 65, have used up much of their chops. But not Bev.

The footage you show in the DVD is incredible. Was all of that made available by the Billy Graham organization?

Gaither: Yes. They have done a great job in their library of keeping all of this history, and thank God they have. We are all the recipients of that. Any time you talk to Billy, he'll say, "When we started out nobody knew who Billy Graham was." But see Bev is ten years his senior. So Billy says, "Everybody knew who Bev was." I mean it's amazing; the whole thing is amazing.

The other thing I loved about the project was, you know we all know his serious approach to life and to music, but this is a fun-loving character. I remember four or five years ago when I was down there, I'd done some TV stuff with him and he says, "Bill, do you like catfish?" I said, "Yes!" So he said, "I know a great catfish place." Then I had to follow him through those mountains in Asheville, North Carolina, and my lands, the guy drives like a madman! He's just out there having fun. And he jokes and kids on the DVD about this state trooper stopping him when he's 94 years old. You can tell I'm sitting there as a fan, but to see his humanity is wonderful.

When did you meet him?

Gaither: They were so big in the '50s and '60. Gloria and I started writing in '63, '64, when we first got married, and we were trying to get songs to him, because there were very few groups recording on the major labels, and we wanted to get radio play and visibility for our songs. It was tough getting to him, because he sang basically older material, did not do that much new material. So finally I got one of our early tunes to him, and I stopped by his house-he still lived in Chicago then-and sat with him at the keyboard. I'm not that much of a keyboard player, but Bev is quite a good keyboard player. We didn't cover this on this tape, but one time he had six or seven different organs in his house. He's quite a classical lover; he loves the classic approach. I remember when he first came to Nashville, he adjusted to the rhythm section-a bass and a drummer-but that was quite a stretch for Bev. But at 65 years old he did it; said, "Okay, if we have to go this way I'll do it." Amazing man.

At the end when we're seeing images of him, Cliff Barrows and Billy as young men, you're doing the voiceover, you're talking about how they've been true to a commitment they made in the late '40s. It's a powerful thing that's grown from the meeting of those three fellows so many years ago.

Gaither: You know what, I've got a friend who's president of Anderson University. One year he wanted to honor us, and I said, "Oh, Jim, you've honored us enough over the years. We don't need this." He said, "We're getting at the stage where there are fewer and fewer flags we can run up a flagpole and have people salute them." I joked and laughed about it, but when I think of those three guys, I think there are three serious flags that we can all salute and say, "You did it, and you did it well."

We've run this show on TV for the past couple of months, and Bev and his wife Karlene are getting overwhelming response. They wrote me the sweetest note saying, "We had no idea!" I thought that would happen, but I'm a realist also and thought, Well, maybe there's a whole generation that's removed and maybe those people don't know him-I'm sure Bev's outlived most of his fan base! Next February he will be 100 and we'll need to do another celebration for him.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
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