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Oh Happy Day! Edwin Hawkins goes home to his Father’s House

January 18, 2018

by Bill Carpenter

Pleasanton, Calif. – Edwin Hawkins, the four-time Grammy® Award-winning leader of The Edwin Hawkins Singers’ 1969 million-seller “Oh Happy Day,” died Jan. 15 at his home in the Bay Area, after a bout with pancreatic cancer. He was 74 years old.

Edwin Hawkins performs at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre.

“It is with deep sadness that we announce the passing of Dr. Edwin Hawkins – a celebrated artist, innovator and music icon. Though he will be greatly missed the world over, the message of love, life and encouragement that he incorporated into his music gives us all the same hope that we’ll join him in heaven and sing ‘Oh Happy Day,’” the Hawkins family said.

“Edwin Hawkins was not only a musical hero to me but he came to be a mentor and a close friend,” said Grammy® winning singer-producer Donald Lawrence. “His group also had a huge influence on Richard Smallwood, who has known Edwin since Richard was 19 years old.” Smallwood adds, “Edwin changed the face of gospel music and helped create a fresh sounding genre that spread around the entire world. He was a humble and kind spirit who not only encouraged others who were privileged to meet him, but also inspired millions to be daring in their creativity.”

One of eight children, Edwin Hawkins was born Aug. 19, 1943, in Oakland and raised in the Campbell Village projects. He discovered music early and began playing the keyboards in the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) denomination at the age of 5.

He and his friend Betty Watson co-founded the 46-member-strong Northern California State Youth Choir in 1967 so that they could attend the annual COGIC convention. They recorded an album, “Let Us Go into the House of the Lord,” to finance the trip.

The 500 copies they ordered didn’t come in time for the trek but one of the LPs eventually fell into the hands of a rock music DJ, Abe “Voco” Kesh, at KSAN-FM Radio. He began to play the hippy-soul song in the Bay area and soon the song’s success spread East.

“It is with deep sadness that we announce the passing of Dr. Edwin Hawkins – a celebrated artist, innovator and music icon. Though he will be greatly missed the world over, the message of love, life and encouragement that he incorporated into his music gives us all the same hope that we’ll join him in heaven and sing ‘Oh Happy Day,’” the Hawkins family said.

“My mother had an old hymnal and I had a knack for rearranging hymns,” Hawkins once said. “’Oh Happy Day’ was an old hymn and I rearranged it. It was actually one of the least likely songs to become a hit. There were some much stronger songs on there.”

Record executive Neil Bogart picked up the song and distributed it through Buddha Records. “Oh Happy Day” reached No. 2 on the Billboard R&B Singles chart and No. 4 on the Pop Singles chart in 1969. Their rendition won them a Grammy in 1970 for Best Soul Gospel Performance.

The tune has sold over 7 million copies to date and it established Hawkins’ career. “I wasn’t planning to go into the music business and I wasn’t looking for a record deal,” he said in the book, “Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia.” “The record’s success decided my fate.”

Hawkins often toured with his younger and equally successful singing brother, Walter, and Walter’s then wife, Tramaine, as The Hawkins Family in the 1970s. Their energetic stage show filled civic centers and concert halls across the world, including D.A.R. Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.

Edwin Hawkins, with his group and as a soloist, continued to make gospel radio hits throughout the next two decades including, “Worship the Lord,” “God Will Take Care of You,” “Give Me a Star” and “To My Father’s House.” In recent years, Hawkins recorded occasionally and toured largely in Europe.

He also sponsored the Edwin Hawkins Music & Arts Seminar to teach the next generation of musicians the business of music. “This is a sad day in music,” says Liz Black, midday radio host for WLIB, a gospel radio station in New York City. “I knew and loved Edwin Hawkins’ music even before I was in the church and I know that I’m not alone in that.”

In 2001, The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) ranked “Oh Happy Day” No. 63 on its Top 365 Songs of the 20th Century listing. The song has been covered by dozens of artists, including Quincy Jones, Johnny Mathis, Glen Campbell, Aretha Franklin, Jason Mraz, Susan Boyle, The Oak Ridge Boys and Elvis Presley. The tune was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999 and it was included in the National Recording Registry in 2005.

Hawkins is survived by his siblings Carol, Feddie, Daniel and Lynette. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Journalist and publicist Bill Carpenter can be reached at carpenterbill@me.com.

This is the original 1968 recording of “Oh Happy Day.”

This is a 2009 performance by Edwin Hawkins of his most famous song, beloved worldwide, at the Dove Awards.

Despite his illness, Edwin Hawkins gave a final performance on Dec. 13, for Holiday Soul with the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir and the San Francisco Symphony, on a bill also starring CeCe Winans, the best-selling female gospel artist of all time.

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