Edwin Hawkins obituary

US gospel singer best known for his hit version of Oh Happy Day

It has been said that the devil has all the best tunes, but this was emphatically not the case with Oh Happy Day, an exuberant paean to the spiritually cleansing powers of Jesus. It was a hymn written in the mid-18th century, but it was Edwin Hawkins, who has died of pancreatic cancer aged 74, who popularised it and turned it into a global standard.

The song became a hit in 1969, credited to the Edwin Hawkins Singers, and reached No 2 in the UK and No 1 in France and Germany, as well as No 4 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. It sold more than a million copies in two months, and would eventually sell 7m internationally.

It had first appeared on an album, Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord (1968), recorded by the Northern California State Youth Choir. The choir had been formed by Hawkins and Betty Watson while Hawkins was a university student at Berkeley, taking a course in interior design.

“I formed the choir at the local church in Berkeley, the Ephesian Church of God and Christ,” Hawkins told Blues & Soul magazine in 1970. “We originally only wanted about 500 records. We sold them all to the church’s regular patrons and had another 1,000 or so pressed to take with us to a youth convention in Cleveland, Ohio. The whole album was recorded on a simple two-track machine because we could afford no more.”

The choir sold 600 records in Cleveland, before returning to California and discovering that, as Hawkins put it, “the underground people had been showing an interest in our album”. In particular, radio stations in San Francisco had seized upon Oh Happy Day, arranged by Hawkins in a gospel-meets-R&B style, with the choir’s rousing ensemble singing in a call-and-response pattern with Dorothy Combs Morrison’s regal lead vocal. The song being long out of copyright, Hawkins was able to claim a songwriting credit.

Oh Happy Day was originally a hymn written in the mid-18th century

It was decided to release it as a single, on the newly created Pavilion label. “Then the label got distribution with Buddah [another label] and they felt it would be a better move commercially if we became the Edwin Hawkins Singers,” Hawkins recalled. So it proved.

Fans of Motown or soul singers such as Sam Cooke or Aretha Franklin could identify with the sound immediately, but instead of pop lyrics, Oh Happy Day was an unabashed celebration of religious faith. In 1970 it won a Grammy award for best soul gospel performance. Also that year the Four Seasons covered it on their album Half and Half, and it would be recorded by Glen Campbell, Johnny Mathis, Elvis Presley, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Franklin and Mavis Staples, not to mention Robson and Jerome, and Susan Boyle. George Harrison cited it as an inspiration for his hit My Sweet Lord.

Hawkins was born in Oakland, California, to Daniel and Mamie Hawkins. Daniel was a longshoreman who played the Hawaiian guitar, and Mamie was a pianist who accompanied Edwin and his numerous siblings in a family church singing group. By the time he was seven, Edwin had replaced his mother as piano player, and on most Sunday afternoons the group would sing in a church somewhere.

“We grew up hearing all kinds of music in our home,” Edwin reflected. “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 … we heard from him some R&B music but also a lot of country and western when we were younger kids.”

In later years he would tour regularly with assorted family members as the Hawkins Family, and often performed with his brother Walter, a singer and composer. Edwin and Walter were involved in developing the Love Center Ministries mission in Oakland. Walter died in 2010, also from pancreatic cancer.

The Edwin Hawkins Singers were back on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1970 when they appeared on Melanie’s single Lay Down (Candles in the Rain), which reached No 6, but that was their last mainstream success, although they released albums consistently throughout the 1970s. In 1971 their recording of Every Man Wants to Be Free won the Grammy for best soul gospel performance. In 1978 they did it again with Wonderful!

During the 80s and 90s Edwin recorded frequently with the Music and Arts Seminar mass choir, and in 1993 he won the Grammy for best gospel choir or chorus album for Recorded Live in Los Angeles. In 2007, Edwin was voted into the Christian Music Hall of Fame.

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

• Edwin Reuben Hawkins, singer, songwriter and producer, born 19 August 1943; died 15 January 2018


Adam Sweeting

The GuardianTramp

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