Groundbreaking, award-winning gospel artist, Edwin Hawkins, died Jan. 15 at his home in Pleasanton, California, after battling pancreatic cancer. He was 74.
Hawkins is best known for his lively, rhythm and blues rendition of “Oh Happy Day” paving a way for a major shift in gospel music.
Edwin Hawkins performing at Paramount Theatre in Oakland, Calif. (Courtesy photo)
In the 1960s many gospel singers were limited to choir robes, sheet music, and the tradition of singing church hymns under the strict eye of a pianist. In 1968, Edwin Hawkins and a group of singers who grew up in the projects of Oakland, California recorded “Oh Happy Day.” This song was a turning point in gospel music, as it became clear that it was okay to rock and clap in God’s House. Suddenly little old ladies were being replaced by choir directors, hymn books were scrapped and a nation learned a more contemporary way to praise the Lord through song.
Hawkins never set out to perform. His parents, Mamie and Dan Lee Hawkins wanted to get their children involved in singing as an alternative to life in Oakland’s Campbell Village public housing complexes. By age 5, Edwin was playing the piano for a Church of God in Christ, and at 16, he formed the Northern California State Youth Choir and had his own gospel radio show.
“Oh Happy Day” was an accident between he and Betty Watson that had its beginning in Washington, D.C. In 1968 Hawkins and Watson attended a youth convention at the Church of God in Christ in D.C. and when they got back, decided to make a recording. They only made 500 copies, but, a disc jockey at a rock station played the music and it took off. An executive from Buddha Records flew out and signed them for $5,000. For a group of young people from the projects in the late 60’s, that was a lot of money.
From northern California to southern Florida, “Oh Happy Day” became a hit with 7 million copies sold. Overnight, a musical family from an Oakland church called the “Love Center” became stars. These musical pied pipers, launched a new genre of gospel music and a style that sparked a change in music and dress on Sunday morning that was so profound that faith piano players were replaced by a new generation of singers and choir directors who knew how to “play by ear.”
Hawkins and his family were the gospel music equivalent of the Beatles. The Hawkins’ music made deacons tap their toes, turned singers into preachers and made young people feel good about singing and playing in church.
“Edwin Hawkins was a great example of style and grace. He just had a presence,” Jerome Bell, an area radio personality and Maryland pastor, who often hosted Hawkins family concerts in the area, told the AFRO.
In 1999, The Hawkins family, still based in Oakland, went on a national tour to commemorate the success of “Oh Happy Day.” On July 24, they rolled up to the National Church of God in Oxon Hill in a big luxury coach, walked into the pulpit and captivated more than 1,300 people with three decades of music. During the concert Walter Hawkins was the musical director, Tremaine Hawkins was most often the lead singer and Edwin would always be at the organ.
“The Hawkins were responsible for bringing us gospel Hollywood,” said Bell, adding that the group imported their own style and substance complete with lights and sound long before the other singers came along.
D.C. resident Bill Carpenter was the publicist for Edwin Hawkins for two decades. He said, “He came from a generation where he was matter of fact.”
Bell said a local memorial service is being planned for Hawkins, who along with his family performed at various churches in the area.