Gospel singer George Beverly Shea dies at 104

Shea (right) with Billy Graham (centre) and Cliff Barrows (left), music director at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

Much loved gospel singer George Beverly Shea passed away on Tuesday at the age of 104.

His death followed a brief illness.

Shea, of Montreat, North Carolina, accompanied Billy Graham on his mission tours around the world and would sing prior to the legendary evangelist taking to the stage to preach.

He first started working with Graham in 1943 on the Chicago radio hymn programme, "Songs in the Night", and would go on to devote over half a century in service to the evangelist.

Shea won a Grammy Award in 1965 and in 1978 was inducted into the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame.

This was followed by his induction into the Religious Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 1996 and the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists' Hall of Faith in 2008.

In 2011, he won the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Billy Graham paid a glowing tribute to his close friend.

"I first met Bev Shea while in Chicago when he was on Moody Radio," said Billy Graham. "As a young man starting my ministry, I asked Bev if he would join me. 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. My prayer for his wife, Karlene, and his children, Ron and Elaine, is that God will strengthen them during this time."

Born in Winchester, Ontario, Canada, where his father was a Wesleyan Methodist minister, Shea's first public singing was in the choir of his father's church. Between Billy Graham crusade, radio, and television dates in many countries, he sang at hundreds of concerts and recorded more than 70 albums of sacred music. At age 23 he composed the music to one of his best known solos, "I'd Rather Have Jesus."

"Even though Bev was 10 years older than my father, he never acted his age," said Franklin Graham. "He was absolute fun to be with. Bev was one of the most gracious and unassuming men I have known. He was always encouraging and supportive, a man of deep faith and strong commitment to Jesus Christ."

Details on the funeral service will be announced soon.