The song's success made singer Pat Boone consider a hero of his own.
"If there's anyone in my lifetime who deserves honor it is BillyGraham," Boone, 71, said in an interview. "I think he is the mostsignificant figure since the apostles. I didn't know Peter and I didn't knowPaul, but I know Billy Graham."
Thus began a process that would culminate eight years later in a tributeof his own featuring more than a dozen of the recording industry's biggestnames. Boone calls it "a love letter...from the world."
The song, "Thank You, Billy Graham" didn't receive much attention whenit was released on Boone's latest album, "Glory Train: The Lost Sessions,"last summer. But the creative forces behind the song claim the process,nearly a decade after its inception, is still in the works and could growlarger still.
Boone, who began his career as a 1950s rock 'n' roll heart throb famousfor his white buckskin shoes and outspoken Christian faith, first penned atwangy tribute titled "We Call Him Billy" that caused some listeners tocringe.
"I liked the idea, but I thought the song itself was dreadful," saidDavid Pack, a veteran gospel producer who agreed to review Boone's demo. "Hewas at least kind enough to say, 'Why don't you try something yourself,then?"'
Pack accepted the challenge, and with the help of country songwriterBilly Dean, reworked the bluegrass melody into a contemporary "We are theWorld"-type single.
Artists from the rock, pop, country, R&B and gospel traditions, joinedthe ensemble project to pay tribute to the man, now 87 and ailing fromParkinson's disease, who has evangelized the world for half a century.
After bumping into U2's Bono at a Grammy party, Boone convinced the rockstar to record an introduction.
"I give thanks just for the sanity of Billy Graham," Bono, an IrishCatholic, says of the Protestant evangelist in the recording. "For thatclear, empathetic voice of his and that Southern accent. Part poet, partpreacher, a singer of the human spirit, I'd say."
Musicians from country star LeAnn Rimes to gospel singer Andrae Crouchrecorded separate segments in the ensuing months. Digitally combining theirvoices in the studio, Pack and Dean assembled a multi-media package basedaround the lyrics:
"He heard the word, he got the call/ He took the message to us all/ Hesaid it so we all could understand/ Around the world, here at home/ He letus know we're not alone/ Oh, thank you, Billy Graham..."
Larry King contributes
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"From parliaments to presidents, from kings to common folks, each oneheard the truth of God's amazing grace," King says in his narration of thethird verse.
Demand to participate in the project soon outpaced available space onthe single. Country superstars such as Faith Hill and Tim McGraw were askedto simply record spoken tributes.
But the process stalled and nearly collapsed in the aftermath of theSept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Contributors backed out, the Web siteThankYouBillyGraham.com was shut down and plans for a televised concertdisintegrated in the chaos.
Growing nervous that the self-financed endeavor might fail completely,Boone tacked the single onto his 2005 "Glory Train" album, but says "a verymajor" retail negotiation is currently under way for mass distribution ofthe song.
Equally frustrated, Pack began looking into recording a version withartists more familiar to a younger demographic.
"This has been five years of my life and I am still not going to give uphope that this will be a live concert," Pack said. "We must make that happento introduce Billy to the next generation."
Boone plans to donate eventual proceeds to two Christian ministries --Samaritan's Purse, headed by Graham's son, Franklin Graham, and Mercy Corps,which focuses on relief and development efforts.
Mark DeMoss, spokesman for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Associationcalled the tribute "an honor to Mr. Graham" and for now, Boone said suchmodest recognition is enough.
Still, Boone said he is hopeful the single will become the next "Candlein the Wind," helping people remember Graham long after he has "gone to hisglorious reward."
"I would hope that in the months and years to come people would continueto do him honor by humming the song and playing it for the kids andgrandkids," Boone said.
"I really believe God has been populating heaven through the ministry ofBilly Graham and we hope thousands more will be helped in Billy's name."