By Karl Anderson
Gospel singer Edwin Hawkins died at his California home on Monday, according to the New York Times. The singer, who is best known for the timeless gospel song “Oh Happy Day,” was 74 years old. For me the passing of Edwin is more than just the passing of the writer of Oh Happy Day. I worked closely with Edwin and his brother Walter For me it is the end of an era, the loss of a great man of god and personal friend.
Fifty years ago, Edwin’s Northern California State Youth Choir. The ensemble’s only album, Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord, was a vanity affair, hastily recorded at Ephesian Church of God in Christ in Berkeley — to help cover the expenses of a trip to a Church of God in Christ youth congress in Washington, D.C. Early the next year, one of the album’s tracks — “Oh Happy Day,” Edwin’s ultra-hip arrangement of an old hymn, fueled by a Latin-tinged soul groove and featuring lead singer Dorothy Morrison repeatedly interjecting “good God” into the lyrics in a manner inspired by James Brown — began getting airplay on KSAN, the hippie era’s hugely popular San Francisco progressive rock FM station. The song soon crossed over to AM Top 40 radio, first locally, then nationally. By the end of 1969, “Oh Happy Day,” reissued by Buddah Records in New York and credited to “the Edwin Hawkins Singers,” was a Top 10 pop hit throughout the United States, England and other parts of the world. It would sell some seven million copies, permanently alter the direction of African-American gospel music, and vastly improve the fortunes of Edwin and his siblings Carol, Feddie, Daniel, Walter and Lynette, who had grown up in relative poverty in Campbell Village, a housing project deep in West Oakland.
Edwin, Walter and their siblings come from a musical family, especially on their mother’s side. Mamie Vivian Hawkins, who was born in Houston, played piano, as did her father and two brothers, one of whom, Count Otis Mathews, led a jazz and blues band called the West Oakland Houserockers during the 1930s and ’40s. Their longshoreman dad, Daniel Lee Hawkins, originally from Shreveport, dabbled in Hawaiian steel guitar.
The Hawkins Family ran into other kid groups as they traveled from church to church, including the Stewart Four from Vallejo,
Which included future superstar Sly Stone, and the Combs Family from Richmond featuring future “Oh Happy Day” lead Dorothy Morrison. Later, both in the Bay Area and Southern California, they got to know singer, pianist, and songwriter Andrae Crouch and his tambourine-playing twin sister Sandra. During the late ’60s, Andrae would play a role in modernizing African-American gospel music that paralleled and rivaled Edwin’s in influence and popularity.
Edwin began attending Ephesian Church of God in Christ on Alcatraz Avenue in South Berkeley when he was 14 or 15. He was impressed with the dynamic sermons of Bishop E.E. Cleveland and by choir director Ola Jean Andrews, whose jazz-imbued sense of harmony would influence Edwin’s thinking. She also forced him to play in keys other than F sharp, the key that had been favored by his uncle Otis.
“I think our music was probably a blend and a crossover of everything that I was hearing during that time,” Hawkins told blackmusic.com in 2015. “We grew up hearing all kinds of music in our home. My mother, who was a devout Christian, loved the Lord and displayed that in her lifestyle.
In 1970, the Hawkins singers backed Melanie on her top 10 hit “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” and won a Grammy for best soul gospel performance for “Oh Happy Day.”
Meanwhile, George Harrison would cite “Oh Happy Day” as inspiration for his hit “My Sweet Lord,” and Glen Campbell reached the adult contemporary charts with his own version of the Hawkins performance. Elvis Presley, Johnny Mathis and numerous others also would record it.
Edwin Hawkins went on to make dozens of records and won four Grammys in all, including for the songs “Every Man Wants to Be Free” and “Wonderful!” In 2007, he was voted into the Christian Music Hall of Fame. He also toured on occasion with younger brother Walter Hawkins, a Grammy winner who died in 2010.
Edwin Hawkins, a Grammy Award-winning gospel star best known for the crossover hit “Oh, Happy Day” and who was a major force for contemporary inspirational music, died Jan. 15 at his home in Pleasanton, Calif. He was 74.
The cause was complications from pancreatic cancer, said his publicist Bill Carpenter
Edwin Hawkins is survived by his siblings Carol, Feddie, Daniel and Lynette.