RIP: Edwin Hawkins, Architect of Contemporary Gospel

Photo Credit: Hawkins Gospel Conference website

By Bob Marovich

The Journal of Gospel Music has learned that Edwin Hawkins, whose arrangement of the nineteenth-century hymn “Oh Happy Day” became a crossover success and signaled the emergence of contemporary gospel music, passed away today (Jan. 15) in Pleasanton, California.

Here is a brief biography I put together:

Born August 19, 1943, to Mamie and Dan Lee Hawkins, Edwin Hawkins grew up in music. Trained by his elder brother, Edwin began playing piano at age five and accompanied the family group. By the time he was sixteen, Edwin had sung at a variety of churches in the Bay Area and was part of a Sunday evening radio broadcast.

Edwin attended Ephesian Church of God in Christ in Berkeley, California, and served as the organist for the church’s inspirational choir under the direction of Ola Jean Andrews of the famed Andrews Gospel Singers. Edwin succeeded Andrews as the minister of music at Ephesian.

In 1967, he and Betty Watson organized a community youth choir comprised of members from Bay Area COGIC churches. To raise money for the choir to attend and appear at the COGIC Annual Youth Congress, the Northern California State Youth Choir recorded a vanity album at Ephesian COGIC.

The album, called Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord, was recorded by Lamont Bench and 500 copies were initially released on the custom Century label. It included a softly rocking remake of the hymn “Oh Happy Day,” featuring passionate lead vocals from Dorothy Combs Morrison. The choir’s goal was to sell all 500 copies of the LP and use the proceeds to pay for their transportation and lodging for the Youth Congress. Nevertheless, a disk jockey from San Francisco’s KSAN played the LP’s “Oh Happy Day” selection on his show and it garnered significant interest outside the gospel music community. Soon other pop radio stations added the song to their playlist, including WVON in Chicago. Suddenly, everyone wanted to know who this choir was. The 500 copies quickly sold out and more had to be pressed to accommodate the demand.

This triggered a battle between record companies as to who would sign this upcoming new group with the crossover potential. Neil Bogart’s Buddah Records won the bidding war and “Oh Happy Day” was released as a single on Buddah’s Pavilion imprint. Let Us Go Into the House of The Lord was repackaged as by the Edwin Hawkins Singers.

“Oh Happy Day” won a Grammy Award in 1970 for Best Soul Gospel Performance and has since sold an estimated seven million copies worldwide. The single is often credited as launching contemporary gospel music and moving the locus of gospel music from Chicago to California.

In 1970, the Edwin Hawkins Singers backed pop singer Melanie on the single “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain),” which catapulted the choir back onto the Billboard charts. The group continued to release popular albums during the 1970s and 1980s, winning several more Grammy Awards along the way.

In the mid-1970s, Edwin joined his brother Walter Hawkins in founding Love Center Church in Oakland. A group of notable gospel singers, including sister Lynette and then-sister-in-law Tramaine Davis Hawkins, commenced recording a series of Love Alive albums that introduced such classics to the gospel music lexicon as “Changed” and “Goin’ Up Yonder.”

Edwin organized the Edwin Hawkins Music and Arts Seminar.  Later, he and Walter formed a joint venture in forming the Music & Arts Love Fellowship. The annual workshop trains and educates gospel artists on a variety of aspects of gospel music and the gospel music industry.

Bishop Walter Hawkins preceded his brother in death on July 11, 2010.

Special thanks to Kevan Peabody, Dean of the Music and Arts Love Fellowship from 2003-2007, for his assistance in correcting and adding information to this brief biography.

 

About Bob Marovich

Bob Marovich is a gospel music historian, author, and radio host. Founder of Journal of Gospel Music blog (formally The Black Gospel Blog) and producer of the Gospel Memories Radio Show.

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