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Gospel star Edwin Hawkins, known for ‘Oh Happy Day,’ dies

Edwin Hawkins attends the Apollo Theater Spring Gala and 80th Anniversary Celebration at the Apollo Theater on June 10, 2014, in New York City. (Photo by Brad Barket]/Invision for /AP Images) (Caption amended by RNS)

NEW YORK (AP) — Edwin Hawkins, the gospel star best known for the crossover hit “Oh Happy Day” and as a major force for contemporary inspirational music, has died at age 74.

Hawkins died at his home in Pleasanton, Calif., on Monday (Jan. 15). He had been suffering from pancreatic cancer, publicist Bill Carpenter told The Associated Press.

Along with Andrae Crouch, James Cleveland and a handful of others, Hawkins was credited as a founder of modern gospel music. Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and numerous other singers had become mainstream stars by adapting gospel sounds to pop lyrics. Hawkins stood out for enjoying commercial success while still performing music that openly celebrated religious faith.

An Oakland native and one of eight siblings, Hawkins was a composer, keyboardist, arranger and choir master. He had been performing with his family and in church groups since childhood and in his 20s helped form the Northern California State Youth Choir.

The choir’s first album, “Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord,” came out in 1968 and was intended for local audiences. But radio stations in the San Francisco Bay Area began playing one of the album’s eight tracks, “Oh Happy Day,” an 18th-century hymn arranged by Hawkins in call-and-response style.

“Oh Happy Day,” featuring the vocals of Dorothy Combs Morrison, was released as a single credited to the Edwin Hawkins Singers and became a million-seller in 1969, showing there was a large market for gospel songs and for inspirational music during the turbulent era of the late 1960s.

“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.

“My father was not a committed Christian at that time but was what you’d call a good man,” he said. “And, of course, we heard from him some R&B music but also a lot of country and western when we were younger kids.”

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.

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 is survived by his siblings Carol, Feddie, Daniel and Lynette.

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The Associated Press

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  • “I remember Eric [Clapton] and Delaney & Bonnie were doing interviews with somebody in either Copenhagen or Gothenburg, somewhere in Sweden and I was so thrilled with Oh Happy Day by The Edwin Hawkins Singers. It really just knocked me out, the idea of that song and I just felt a great feeling of the Lord. So I thought, ‘I’ll write another Oh Happy Day,’ which became My Sweet Lord.”
    – George Harrison

    “Oh happy day / Oh happy day / Oh happy day / Oh happy day / When Jesus washed / Oh when he washed / When Jesus washed / He washed my sins away! / … He taught me how / He taught me / Taught me how to watch / He taught me how to watch / and fight and pray / … And he’ll rejoice / and He’ll, and He’ll / rejoice in things we say / and He’ll rejoice / in things we say”
    – Edwin Hawkins Singers

    “My sweet lord / Hm, my lord / Hm, my lord / I really want to see you / Really want to be with you / Really want to see you lord / But it takes so long, my lord / … Hm, my lord (hare krishna) / My, my, my lord (hare krishna) / Oh hm, my sweet lord (krishna, krishna) / Oh-uuh-uh (hare hare) / Now, I really want to see you (hare rama) / Really want to be with you (hare rama) / Really want to see you lord (aaah) / But it takes so long, my lord (hallelujah) / Hm, my lord (hallelujah) / My, my, my lord (hare krishna) / My sweet lord (hare krishna) / My sweet lord (krishna krishna) / My lord (hare hare) / Hm, hm (Gurur Brahma) / Hm, hm (Gurur Vishnu) / Hm, hm (Gurur Devo) / Hm, hm (Maheshwara) / My sweet lord (Gurur Sakshaat) / My sweet lord (Parabrahma) / My, my, my lord (Tasmayi Shree) / My, my, my, my lord (Guruve Namah) / My sweet lord (Hare Rama)”
    – George Harrison

  • Thanks for providing a musical backdrop for some of the better known songs of the time, like “Let the Sunshine In” from Hair. For some reason I’ve never thought of soul or gospel when hearing that song, but listening to “Lay Down” made me think of it.

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