Saturday, April 20, 2013

I'd rather have Jesus than silver or gold

George Beverly Shea died a few days ago. He played Ira Sankey to Graham’s Dwight Moody. Shea has three distinctions:

1. He lived to be 104. That’s very rare. It’s even rarer for a man. Women typically outlive men.

2. His unrivaled vocal longevity. To judge by YouTube clips, he was able to sing to the very end.

Part of the key to his vocal longevity was the fact that he as a pop vocalist as well as a bass. Hymns are usually about an octave or so in range. And as a bass, when he lost the high notes, he could simply transpose the music down. Given, moreover, the limited range of hymns and gospel songs, there was lots of spare room to keep transposing down before he bottomed out.

Yet it’s still remarkable that he could hold a tune, with a firm resonant tone, past the 100-year mark.

He had a solid technique and a sturdy constitution. Genetics dealt him a royal flush.

The only singer I can think of whose vocal longevity approaches his is Jerome Hines. His achievement is both more and less impressive than Shea’s. More impressive in that opera singers must sing the music as written. Opera singers rarely have the luxury of transposing their numbers. In her twilight years, Joan Sutherland sometimes did that, but she could only get away with it because she was a superstar, and her husband was the conductor or accompanist.

Moreover, opera arias have a wider vocal range than hymns. And you have to hit the high notes. Even the lower voices are paid to hit the high notes.

But in another respect, his achievement was less impressive, for Shea was still singing at 100+, while Hines was still singing at a mere 80.

Mark Reizen, the Russian bass, was still singing at 90–but a shadow of his former glory. 

3. However, Shea’s greatest achievement wasn’t how long he sang, or how long he lived, but how well he lived. Pop entertainers aren’t famous for their moral consistency. They usually have many affairs. Wreck their own marriages, wreck other marriages.

Although he was in the public eye for 80 years, there was never a breath of scandal attaching to his life or reputation. From what I’ve read, he was a humble godly man, without pretense or pretension.

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