RIP: Edwin Hawkins

Posted January 15, 2018 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

Gospel composer and contemporary gospel pioneer dies at the age of 74

Header photo: Ted Benson/The Modesto Bee 

Edwin Hawkins, the four-time Grammy-winning beloved gospel composer of the chart-topping gospel-pop gem “Oh Happy Day,” passed away after a bout with pancreatic cancer at his Pleasanton home in the Bay Area on Monday, January 15 at the age of 74.

Conversations concerning rising health issues arose just a few days ago from sources close to the family. A press release from family members was jointly made about Hawkins’ health on January 11 and published on social media. “Edwin is currently experiencing several health challenges,” the note read. “We ask that you please send your support, love, well wishes and prayers of comfort and healing to Edwin and his loved ones at this time.”

Reaction of Hawkins’ death from gospel luminaries reverberated throughout social media.

“Good night Edwin…rest in Power. We will see you in the morning,” wrote Yvette Flunder, a former collaborator and singer of Walter Hawkins’s Love Center Choir. Others chimed in: “My family BeBe Winans just informed me of the passing of a true gospel music legend and father of contemporary gospel music Edwin Hawkins,” urban gospel giant Fred Hammond wrote on Twitter.

Those praises from Hammond aren’t an exaggeration.

Born in Oakland California, Hawkins — raised in the musically-rich, Pentecostal tradition of the Church of God in Christ — emerged as one of the very first influencers of gospel pop, which later became known referred as contemporary gospel. Thanks to unexpected radio magnet “Oh Happy Day,” a song recorded in 1968 by the Northern California State Youth Choir of the Church of God in Christ, Edwin Hawkins opened new doors for the gospel crossover in rock and pop sectors. The innovative arrangement of the 18th century gospel hymn, featuring a soulful Dorothy Combs Morrison on lead, became a lightning rod on rock radio programming in Bay Area’s musical territory – an area already bubbling over with musical talent like Tower of Power, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Sly & the Family Stone, Credence Clearwater Revival, Grateful Dead and Santana.

ohhappyday-singleReleased originally on a small private label and with only 500 copies made, Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord, the album containing “Oh Happy Day,” was quickly picked up by Buddah Records and released on the Pavilion subsidiary. Thanks to the distribution deal and a rechristened group name (The Edwin Hawkins Singers), the single rocketed to number four on the pop charts and even landed at number 2 in the UK. It sold over seven million copies, a feat unheard of in the gospel music world. It later earned Hawkins his first Grammy for Best Soul Gospel Performance in 1970.

Rolling Stone called it “a pop Godsend” and “joyous thing” in a 1969 article. “Like no other song in recent memory, ‘Oh Happy Day’ has transcended all radio ‘formats,'” wrote Rolling Stone writer Ben Fong-Torres. “In San Francisco, where the song was first aired, it is being played not only on the Top 30, progressive rock, and soul stations, but on the Bay Area’s middle-of-the road and jazz outlets as well. All this for a package that came out-of a two-and-a-half-hour session at Berkeley’s Ephesian Church of God in Christ last June.”

The attention didn’t come without seeing a crucial backlash from religious communities. The Hawkins Family, in particular, was forced out of their Church of God in Christ denomination. “We’re talked about and ridiculed in our general area by the established churches,” Hawkins told the Washington Post in 1979 during the tenth year anniversary of the song. “I don’t know if they fear us or think we’re a cult movement.”

And with a smirk of jealousy, Rev. Lawrence Roberts (of James Cleveland fame) joined the loud noise of protest aimed at Hawkins. With Dorothy Norwood and the Angelic Choir in tow, Roberts parodied the song with “Oh What a Day,” released as a Part I & II single on Savoy Records. “Before I could cut my radio off, a rock and roll show came on,” Roberts uttered. “And do you know what I heard? They were playing one of our good ole gospel songs on a rock ‘n roll show. I was so disturbed that when I got home I…picked up my Bible and thought, ‘What are we coming to?'”

Edwin Hawkins Singers, 1970 in the Netherlands at Grand Gala du Disque Populaire

Edwin Hawkins Singers, 1970 in the Netherlands at Grand Gala du Disque Populaire

Due to the song’s alarming success, Buddah signed the Edwin Hawkins Singers – now shrunk down to members of Hawkins’ family and keynote singers of the larger ensemble – pushed for a follow-up single. 1970’s “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain),” a track featuring Buddah recording artist Melanie, proved magical, storming to number 6 pop. It was later revived after being used in the Steve Martin-featured film Leap of Faith.

After a number of national and international tours alongside heavy rock acts and 1969 appearance at Yankee Stadium with the Isley Brothers), subsequent albums done with a glossier production were recorded on the Buddah label. They also recorded a gospel take on Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” but Hawkins struggled to duplicate the success of what had been coined by some critics as their  ‘novelty hit.’ By the mid-‘70’s, Buddah dropped the Hawkins Singers act, pushing Edwin to record on the Birthright label, an upstart label that focused on contemporary gospel. There he netted a Grammy win for Best Contemporary Soul Gospel Performance for 1976’s Wonderful!, a disc also featuring the Edwin Hawkins Singers.

Edwin’s family would dominate the front end of the contemporary gospel sound for decades to come, thanks to his brother Walter who recorded and led the best-selling Love Alive series. In 1982, Edwin would uphold his legacy after establishing the yearly-held Edwin Hawkins Music & Arts Seminar, a gospel learning platform to help tutor the next generation of gospel singers what had been regulated as the “Hawkins” sound. Through this new foundation, a powerful league of gospel talent (made up of Daryl Coley, LaShun Pace, Lawrence Matthews and keyboardist/songwriter Kevin Bond) was introduced. It wasn’t the first of its kind, nor was it the largest. The Thomas Dorsey-organized National Convention of Choirs and Choruses and James Cleveland’s 20,000-strong Gospel Music Workshop of America beat Hawkins to the punch. But Hawkins’s younger band showcased a choral beauty and fitness that stunned the competition.

edwin-hawkins-01Along the way, Edwin served alongside Walter on many of those recordings, even appearing on duets with Walter on 1982’s “Heaven” and the Love Alive V majestic gospel standard “Marvelous.” Edwin also served as minister of music for years at Walter’s church.

Through Walter’s recordings and Edwin’s very own seminar, the songbook of Edwin Hawkins is clearly identified and fully embraced by choirmasters Songs like “Imagine Heaven,” “He’s Alright with Me,” “To My Father’s House,” “God Will Take Care of You,” “Angels Will Be Singing,” Give Us Peace” and the poignant “This Day” (a song performed regularly in concert by Whitney Houston *see video below*) are considered some of Hawkins’s most treasured compositions. But it will forever be “Oh Happy Day,” a fifty-year-old track globally revived in the Sister Act 2 soundtrack and now seen as the golden standard of gospel music in Europe, Japan and a host of other countries,  that will be forever remembered as his greatest contribution to the universe.

On December 12, Hawkins made one of his last public performances at the Holiday Soul Christmas program alongside CeCe Winans at the Oakland Interfaith Church before falling ill.

Hawkins is survived by three sisters Lynette (Hawkins-Stephens), Carol (Kemp), Feddie (Smith) and brother Daniel, all former or current members of the Hawkins Family. Hawkins’s popular brother, Walter, passed away after a battle with pancreatic cancer back in 2010.

1/15/17; 7:10 pm – Updated with cause of death and details from Edwin Hawkins’ official press release 


About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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