Light’s Gospel Legacy Series: The Hawkins Family & Tramaine Hawkins

Light Records released two more Gospel Legacy reissue CDs last week, and this time the focus was on the Hawkins Family.

In 1968, Edwin Hawkins single-handedly, though quite unexpectedly, changed the sound and expanded the popularity of gospel music with the release of the Northern California State Youth Choir (COGIC) vanity album, Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord. Local radio picked up on one of the album’s tracks, a thoroughly modern arrangement of the old hymn, “Oh Happy Day,” and the rest is history.

As Bernice Johnson Reagon expressed simply but profoundly in the final segment of her 26-episode Smithsonian Institution radio series, “Wade in the Water,” every new generation embraces gospel music in a way that is uniquely its own. While lyrically the songs are grounded in Scripture, the music tends to reflect the current musical fashion. In the 1970s, that sound was smooth jazz with a touch of singer-songwriter folk. That is the milieu in which the Hawkins Family worked, and that is what Light –a maypole of recording activity during the dawn of the contemporary era – provides here.

The Hawkins Family
Five of the twelve tracks on the Gospel Legacy compilation were culled from the acclaimed 1980 live LP The Hawkins Family whose cover art adorns the reissue CD cover. The tracks are prefaced, as they are on the vinyl LP, with a brief introduction by RnB/soul artist Philip Bailey. The CD goes on to feature the LP’s two Walter Hawkins and Maurice White duets (the latter of Earth, Wind & Fire fame), and the family’s contemporary version of Willie Morganfield’s 1959 gospel hit, “What is This.” The remainder of the compilation comes from the same basic time period, give or take a few years.

What struck me while listening to the CD is how well the Hawkins oeuvre has held up over nearly thirty years. This is, no doubt, a tribute to the musically intelligent jazz- and funk-infused instrumentation, cool harmonies, and the emotionally-charged vocals of Tramaine Hawkins. This volume in the series will help introduce younger listeners to some of the classic Hawkins tracks from their Light Records period. Particularly astute listeners will be able to trace some of today’s gospel music to Hawkins’ innovations.

Three of Four Stars

Tramaine Hawkins
Speaking of Tramaine, Light has dedicated another CD highlighting her Light Records career. The prior compilation was released in 2004 as part of the Classic Gold series and was reviewed by TBGB. Of the twelve tracks on the Gospel Legacy Series volume, half are from the 2004 comp, and half are not. The new volume focuses more on Tramaine’s most dramatic moments as a Hawkins Family member and solo artist, and less on her dance-beat era, which to my ears wasn’t her strongest period. Not because the music was edgy – I am in favor of artists pushing the envelope – but because the instrumentation and beats buried her vocal talent.

To my ears, Tramaine is at her best when she is given plenty of room in the music to stretch out, turn up the vocal heat like a skilled preacher, and improvise all the way to the coda. Key examples provided here are the slower, waltz-tempo pieces such as “Changed” from Love Alive I and “He’s That Kind of Friend” from Love Alive II. Fear not: Tramaine’s epic performance on “Goin’ Up Yonder” from Love Alive I is included, as are two of her many gospel hits, “Jesus Christ is the Way,” and “Highway,” the latter a slow and bluesy variant of Dorsey’s “Highway to Heaven.”

Three of Four Stars

Postscript: Earlier in the year, Gospel Legacy released a separate retrospective on Edwin Hawkins that will be reviewed separately.

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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