By Effie Rolfe
Oh Happy Day! The name Hawkins and gospel music is the perfect marriage for one of the greatest gospel songs ever written, this song was arranged, produced and recorded within the last 47 years ago. However, before the world knew Andrae Crouch, Walter or Tramaine Hawkins—there was Edwin Hawkins. The legendary gospel composer and singer was to the late 60’s what Kirk Franklin was to the 90’s. Always humble and gracious, the Grammy winner said, “I feel quite honored to be considered the ‘Father of Contemporary Gospel’ coined by Al Hobbs and then it caught on like wildfire. I know it started with “Oh Happy Day,” which was certainly the start of contemporary gospel and think about it—now it’s traditional.” It kicked off in 1969 and I never thought of it as being a pop sounding song and never did we purposely try to mimic the pop sound of the day,” he said.
Also a Pastor at the Love Center Church founded by his late brother, Walter, the musician shared the genesis of the Edwin Hawkins Singers and growing up in a musical dynasty. The fifth of eight children, the musical giant rearranged an 18th century hymn “Oh Happy Day” not knowing his life, as well as the lives of millions would forever be changed. “Oh Happy Day” sold over 7 million copies and was the Thomp
second gospel song to ever win a Grammy Award in 1970 for Best Soul Gospel Performance. Hollywood has also taken advantage of the international classic as it has been featured in many movies including “Sister Act 2,” “The Secretariat,” “Big Momma’s House,” “The Nutty Professor” and “License to Wed,” to name a few.
Hawkins admits the song was simply birthed from his love of music and had no idea it would be so successful to transcend generations, cultures and music genres. “There is no way you can think that far in advance,” said Hawkins. “Growing up as a young person in Oakland we heard all kinds of music.” He continued, “My mother was a Christian and my father was not. My mother’s sister went to college and loved pop—we heard it all. I heard country and western from my father. Pop music from my aunt and jazz from my uncle. We certainly heard all the gospel—my mom bought all the gospel albums including the Original Harmonettes, The Davis Sisters, the Clara Ward Singers, The Caravans, Joe May, Highway Q C’s, Sam Cooke, The Soul Stirrers, The Roberta Martin Singers and more. We heard it all. Hawkins recalled, “As children our family sang gospel in somebody’s church all day every Sunday afternoon. I would get a headache because I didn’t want to sing in church all day,” he said jokingly. “Every Sunday we would be singing somewhere. Church was all day. There was Sunday school, morning service and finally a chance to get a bite to eat. Then go sing at a 3 p.m. musical somewhere in the Bay area. But we had fun growing up and learned a lot.”
He is careful to acknowledge assistance with starting the Northern California State Choir, which was the choir that started it all. “I went to the Bishop and asked if we could organized the choir with the help of Betty Watson, one of the premier singers in the Bay area in the Churches of God in Christ. We placed second in the competition and we were very proud,” Hawkins carefully explained. “Upon returning we wanted to form a community choir. Some of the COGIC members left and we opened it up to be non-denominational.” “Oh Happy Day” recorded on a 2track machine, was later played by an FM Rock station in San Francisco and exploded. “God did it! We give Him all the glory. I didn’t know anything about the record business but about 12 record labels offered us contracts,” said Hawkins. “The church didn’t want us to record the choir, so someone suggested The Edwin Hawkins Singers.” The choir would travel the world and stage for years, as well as launch the careers of younger brother, Walter Hawkins, sister-in-law Tramaine, Shirley Miller, Yvette Flunder and Lynette Hawkins Stephens. Surprising to some, The Hawkins Family and The Love Center Choir were separate groups with various recordings. “Yes, they were totally different,” acknowledged Hawkins, who often collaborated with Walter on numerous songs and projects.
Not only was the gospel musical icon influential in paving the way for family members, but also, other popular artists like Yolanda Adams, LaShaun Pace, John P. Kee, Calvin and Queenie Lenox, as well as the late Rev. Daryl Coley. The God Father of Contemporary Gospel is delighted to bring The Edwin and Walter Hawkins Music and Arts Love Conference that helps aspiring artists come back to Chicago. “The last time we were here, was the first time Walter couldn’t make it and died a few months later. I love Chicago,” said Hawkins. “There is so much gospel music history in the city. Chicago was the home of the greats, the Father of Gospel Music, Professor Thomas A. Dorsey (who was with us at our first convention), Sallie Martin, Mahalia Jackson, Roberta Martin, Delois Barrett Campbell, Albertina Walker, Inez Andrews, Rev. Clay Evans, Pastor Maceo Woods and the list goes on. Chicago is now home to the some of Gospel’s current music influencers like Jonathan McReynolds, Donald Lawrence, Ricky Dillard, Tiff Joy and others. The Lord has allowed us to be together for 35 years, and I’m ecstatic that we get a chance to have a reunion celebration in the Windy City. The key to the continuation of our genre is empowerment through education. Its up to us to train future generations, giving them the origins and celebrated history of this great music we know as Gospel music to prepare them for what’s to come,” 35 years and growing.
“We were touring and observing the talents of so many people that wanted to sing. Our first official conference was in 1982 in Atlanta. Allowing young people to express themselves,” explained Hawkins. This year’s convention kicked off with pre-festivities on Friday celebrating the gospel quartets. Sunday continued with an amazing tribute in honor of the legendary Reverend Milton Brunson and the Thompson Community Singers to a standing room only crowd at West Point Baptist Church in Chicago. Musical guests included Malcolm Williams and Greater Faith, Paul Turner and CMI, Dexter Walker and Zion Movement and William Smith and RVC. The conference features daily classes for delegates at the Westin Hotel in Lombard. Guest speakers included Pastor Tecoy Porter, Pastor Clayborn Lea, Pastor John Hannah, Bishop Keith Clark and several others. On Thursday at 7 p.m. is Founders night and Hawkins will be honored. The conference ends on Friday, July 1st. For more information visit www.Hawkinsgospelconference.org.
Come August 18, the smooth tenor will be 73 years young as he prepares for a recording session with The New Edwin Hawkins Singers next year. In the meantime, the gospel classic continues to be a Sunday morning favorite worldwide. Oh Happy Day!
© Effie Rolfe is an Author of “Supersize Your Thinking”, Media Personality and Motivational Speaker. You can contact her on twitter.com/effiedrolfe. Listen to her show daily on urbanpraiseradio.org (2015 Stellar Award Winner for Best Internet Radio Station)