Cliff Barrows, longtime associate of Billy Graham, dies at 93

Cliff Barrows, who provided the soundtrack for Billy Graham’s global crusades for decades and remained a close friend to the Charlotte-born evangelist, died Tuesday at Carolinas HealthCare System-Pineville after a brief illness. He was 93.

Barrows, who lived in Marvin in Union County, had traveled the world with Graham since the earliest crusades in 1947, in Charlotte and across the country. The two men met in Asheville in 1945 and soon formed a team that became the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. He served in multiple roles, as song leader, choir director and emcee for the Billy Graham Crusades.

In 1947, Graham and Barrows became a “trio” with George Beverly Shea, the iconic baritone who died in 2013 at age 104. They were young, spiritually ambitious and on fire to spread the Gospel through music and sermons. Today, they remain part of American religious history, linked in the hearts of the millions of Christians who heard them on radio, saw them on TV or packed stadiums for their crusades.

“Cliff Barrows was the voice behind my father for 60 years, emceeing the platform for his crusades and ‘The Hour of Decision’ radio program,” said Graham’s son, Franklin Graham, now head of the Charlotte-based BGEA.

“Not only was he one of my father’s closest friends, but he was a friend to all of us on the team and in the family,” Franklin Graham said. “Growing up, and until the day of his death, I called him Uncle Cliff. He was very much a part of our family. My father has said: ‘The remarkable contribution Cliff has made to my ministry cannot be measured in human terms. I love him like a brother.’ His counsel and suggestions were invaluable. He was a great friend and will be missed by all of us. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Ann and the entire Barrows family.”

A public funeral service for Barrows will be held at Calvary Church in Charlotte at 10:30 a.m. on Nov. 22. He’ll be buried in a private ceremony on the grounds of Charlotte’s Billy Graham Library, where Barrows’ voice provides narration for tourists visiting the barn-shaped building on the Graham family homeplace.

Barrows’ first wife, Billie Barrows, the crusades’ one-time pianist, and Shea, the first of the trio to die, are also buried on the library grounds. And Billy Graham, now 98, will be buried there, next to his late wife, at the end of a cross-shaped walkway in the Prayer Garden. Ruth Bell Graham died in 2007, at 87.

“Mr. Graham wanted the whole team to be together,” a spokeswoman said of the burial plans in 2009.

Because of his age and health, Billy Graham is not expected to attend Barrows’ memorial service, said Ken Barun, chief of staff at the BGEA. Franklin Graham said recently that his father’s mind is clear, but he can’t see and doesn’t say much, speaking mostly in “sentences of one word.”

Barrows’ death brought condolences from U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., whose district includes south Charlotte and Union County.

“Cliff Barrows is now singing praises in heaven!” Pittenger wrote in an email to the Observer. “Cliff’s warm demeanor was always an important part of communicating God’s love through television, one-on-one, and in massive stadiums. No doubt he will meet tens of thousands of believers in heaven who came forward as he led the crusade choir in ‘Just As I Am.’ 

Named to hall of fame

Barrows was born in Ceres, Calif., where his musical career began at the local Baptist church. “My Aunt Helen was a terrific pianist and composer, and she taught me as a young boy how to read music,” he told the Observer in 2010. When he was 12, his aunt persuaded the pastor to let Barrows lead the church choir on Sunday nights.

“My dad taught me the best lesson,” Barrows said. “He sat there and watched me. I evidently wanted to get them to sing a little stronger, so I kind of bawled them out. And my dad said, ‘Son, you did pretty well. But let me give you a little tip: You’ll never get people to sing better by telling them they didn’t do too good. Tell them they did well, but you think they can do better.’ So, I’ve always tried in my life to encourage people.”

For his significant contributions to Gospel music, Barrows was inducted into the Nashville Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1988 and the Religious Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 1996. He was also inducted into the inaugural class of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists’ “Hall of Faith” in 2008.

Graham, Shea and Barrows were pioneers in selling the Old Time Gospel message on ever-more-modern media – radio, TV and concert-like rallies in sports stadiums. For much of the 20th century, they and their crusades defined mainstream Christian evangelism in America.

In his 2010 interview with the Observer, Barrows spoke of the importance of music at the crusades.

“It’s like opening the door to their heart,” he said. “They’ve come from a busy week or from burdens, grief and struggle. And if you can get them to focus on the message of the song and begin to sing, it’s the time in the service that everybody is doing the same thing. Bev (Shea) would sing. And by the time Bill gave the invitation, they were ready to make a commitment to Christ.”

Barrows’ favorite crusade was in 1957 at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Beforehand, reporters predicted it would be a flop, and “that nobody would come out to hear a preacher,” he said in the 2010 interview. “Well, we broke every attendance record. It was scheduled for six weeks. It went 16 weeks. Two million people came – and 56,000 of them made decisions for Christ.”

‘Soon be in heaven’

From the start, Billy Graham and his team were concerned with integrity. That led to the “Modesto Manifesto,” named for Modesto, Calif., near Barrows’ hometown.

In 1948, Graham had gathered the group – Barrows, Shea and another associate, Grady Wilson – in a hotel room there, and they listed the ways evangelists had been tripped up. Lust, greed and power had been the downfall of many a traveling preacher.

In their “Modesto Manifesto,” the men agreed to avoid situations that would put them alone with women other than their wives. On the road, they’d room near each other. And they’d ask God for help. They also decided on how to handle money, downplaying free-will offerings at the crusades.

Barrows was the youngest member of the original team, which did its last crusade in 2005 in New York. At Shea’s memorial service in 2013, Barrows told mourners that he and Billy Graham had talked about the Old Guard fading away.

“I said, ‘Bill, we’ve lost the third member of our trio, and you and I don’t sound too good together,’ ” Barrows recalled, sparking laughter. “(But) we’ll soon be in heaven with him.”

By then, the two men were sharing the reality of declining health. “I got a knee replacement. I don’t hear out of (one) ear. I don’t see. I’ve got macular degeneration. I can’t read a thing. I can see periphery. I can’t see features. I can get around in the house if I’m careful. But I need my hand on (his second wife Ann’s) shoulder. And when it gets dark, she leads me.”

Despite health problems, Barrows was there in 2013, when more than 800 people packed a ballroom at Asheville’s Grove Park Inn for Billy Graham’s 95th birthday party.

Big names from politics, religion and TV were among the group, but when Graham spoke, he didn’t acknowledge the celebrities, but focused on members of his family and Barrows, his longtime colleague and friend.

“Cliff, I want to thank you,” Graham said. “This celebration is partly for you as well. And I want to thank you for all that you have meant to me through all the years. God bless you and love you.”

Barrows, sitting nearby, returned the love, his voice cracking as he told Graham that he thanked God “for every remembrance of you. And I praise God for the journey we’ve had together.”

Speaking to Graham and the crowd, Barrows recounted something Graham had told him 68 years ago: “Cliff ... let’s pray the Lord will keep us together till he calls us home or till he comes again.”

Karen Garloch: 704-358-5078, @kgarloch