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 Billy Graham," Boone, 71, said in an interview. "I think he is the most significant figure since the apostles. I didn't know Peter and I didn't know Paul, but I know Billy Graham."
Thus began a process that would culminate eight years later in a tribute
of his own featuring more than a dozen of the recording industry's biggest
names. Boone calls it "a love letter...from the world."
The song, "Thank You, Billy Graham" didn't receive much attention when it 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 grow larger still.
Boone, who began his career as a 1950s rock 'n' roll heart throb famous for his white buckskin shoes and outspoken Christian faith, first penned a twangy tribute titled "We Call Him Billy" that caused some listeners to cringe.
"I liked the idea, but I thought the song itself was dreadful," said David Pack, a veteran gospel producer who agreed to review Boone's demo. "He was at least kind enough to say, 'Why don't you try something yourself, then?"'
Pack accepted the challenge, and with the help of country songwriter Billy Dean, reworked the bluegrass melody into a contemporary "We are the World"-type single.
Artists from the rock, pop, country, R&B and gospel traditions, joined the ensemble project to pay tribute to the man, now 87 and ailing from Parkinson's disease, who has evangelized the world for half a century.
After bumping into U2's Bono at a Grammy party, Boone convinced the rock star to record an introduction.
"I give thanks just for the sanity of Billy Graham," Bono, an Irish Catholic, says of the Protestant evangelist in the recording. "For that clear, empathetic voice of his and that Southern accent. Part poet, part preacher, a singer of the human spirit, I'd say."
Musicians from country star LeAnn Rimes to gospel singer Andrae Crouch recorded separate segments in the ensuing months. Digitally combining their voices in the studio, Pack and Dean assembled a multi-media package based around the lyrics:
"He heard the word, he got the call/ He took the message to us all/ He said it so we all could understand/ Around the world, here at home/ He let us 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 one heard the truth of God's amazing grace," King says in his narration of the third verse.
Demand to participate in the project soon outpaced available space on the single. Country superstars such as Faith Hill and Tim McGraw were asked to simply record spoken tributes.
But the process stalled and nearly collapsed in the aftermath of the
Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Contributors backed out, the Web site
ThankYouBillyGraham.com was shut down and plans for a televised concert
disintegrated 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 very major" retail negotiation is currently under way for mass distribution of the song.
Equally frustrated, Pack began looking into recording a version with artists more familiar to a younger demographic.
"This has been five years of my life and I am still not going to give up hope that this will be a live concert," Pack said. "We must make that happen to 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 Association called the tribute "an honor to Mr. Graham" and for now, Boone said such modest recognition is enough.
Still, Boone said he is hopeful the single will become the next "Candle in the Wind," helping people remember Graham long after he has "gone to his glorious reward."
"I would hope that in the months and years to come people would continue to do him honor by humming the song and playing it for the kids and grandkids," Boone said.
"I really believe God has been populating heaven through the ministry of Billy Graham and we hope thousands more will be helped in Billy's name."