Oh Happy Day: West Angeles Honors Gospel Legend Edwin Hawkins
On Monday, January 15, 2018, the gospel music world lost a musical giant: the legendary Edwin Reuben Hawkins. Edwin Hawkins was a pioneer and an inspiration to urban gospel music and brought traditional gospel music to the forefront of the world’s stage. He was best known for his adaptation and arrangement of an 18th Century hymn titled, “Oh Happy Day”.
Hawkins’ arrangement of that hymn was recorded in 1969 by the Edwin Hawkins singers at the Ephesians Church of God in Christ, in Berkeley CA. It immediately became a hit, reaching No. 2 on the secular charts in the United Kingdom, No. 1 in France and Germany, No. 4 on the US Billboard charts, and No. 2 on the US R&B charts. The single sold more than 1 million copies in two months, and would eventually sell 7 million copies internationally.
Edwin Ruben Hawkins was an American gospel musician, pianist, choir master, composer, and arranger. Born into a musical family on Aug. 19, 1943, in Oakland, California, his father, Daniel, a longshoreman, was also a guitarist. His mother Mamie played the piano. Edwin and his seven siblings began singing at local churches as a family group. By age 7, young Edwin had replaced his mother as their pianist.
At the age of 23, Edwin and a friend co-founded the Northern California State Youth Choir of the Church of God in Christ.
“My family belonged to the Good Samaritan Church of God in Christ,” said Hawkins in an interview. “Each year, the church attended a national Pentecostal church conference but never sent a choir. So in May of ’67, I formed the Northern California State Youth Choir with Betty Watson, a friend. More than 40 young people joined from nearby Pentecostal churches.” 1
The choir finished 2nd in the conference’s competition, inspiring them to put an album together when they returned home.
“One of the eight songs I wrote and arranged for the album,” said Hawkins, “was Oh Happy Day, based on ‘O Happy Day, That Fixed My Choice”— a formal 18th-century hymn with a lovely, simple message. A year earlier I had updated the hymn with new chord voicings and a gospel feel. Our recording was made at Ephesians Church during the summer of 1968. I chose Dorothy Morrison, one of our most experienced vocalists, to sing the lead.”2
Hawkins’ plan was to order 500 copies of the album, which was titled “Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord.” The album rendered songs of praise with a rhythm-and-blues sensibility. Hawkins wanted each choir member to sell copies for $5 each in order to raise money for their church.
“It was never intended for commercial purposes at all,” he told The Modesto Bee in 2008; however, a Bay-area disc jockey got hold of the album and began playing Oh Happy Day.
As lead singer Dorothy Morrison also remembered in an interview, “One Sunday morning in early 1969, I was listening to a gospel radio show on KSAN-FM in San Francisco when our recording of ‘Oh Happy Day’ came on. I froze.” Mrs. Morrison, who had been inspired by James Brown to modernize and punctuate her delivery of the lyrics with an occasional “Good God,” was overcome after hearing the song on the radio. “I said to myself, ‘Oh my God, that’s us…that’s me.’”3
THE TIMES (THEY WERE A CHANGIN’…)
In 1969 when Oh Happy Day was released, America had emerged from the “conservative and innocent” 1950’s into the liberal, explosive, and transformative 1960s, a decade defined by:
- The assassinations of President and Senator Kennedy, Reverend King and Malcolm X
- The mainstream media horrors of the Vietnam War
- Violence and discrimination against African Americans and the birth of the Civil Rights Movement
- The Jesus Movement
- The Sexual Revolution
- The Hippie/drug counterculture
- Women’s Liberation Movement
The rise of both Soul music and Rock N ‘Roll music during this era was met with caution within the church because it often promoted sinful behavior. Yet as the church addressed the need to adapt to changing times, and to broaden its appeal to a changing demographic people, worship music’s arrangements also began to reflect the popular genres of the era.
The resounding message of hope and praise communicated by Oh Happy Day was the much-needed panacea for the turbulent times in which it was released. As a result, the beautiful, soulful gospel single spread in popularity from the west coast to the east. Its lyrical and melodic simplicity seasoned with Mrs. Morrison’s deep, earthy lead vocals, resonated with young and old, and also across all races and cultures.
Oh Happy Day became an inspiration to popular singers in other genres of music, including Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Johnny Mathis and The Four Seasons. The Associated Press reported:
“George Harrison would cite ‘Oh Happy Day’ as inspiration for his hit “My Sweet Lord,” and Glen Campbell reached the adult contemporary charts with his own version of the Hawkins performance.” 4
Record sales of Oh Happy Day rocketed to more than 1million copies within two months. It reached No. 4 on the Billboard pop chart and No. 2 on the US R&B chart. The single was also a success in other parts of the globe. It went to No. 4, UK No. 2, Canada No. 2, No. 2 on the Irish Singles Chart, and No. 1 on the French Singles Charts and the German Singles Charts, selling more than 7 million copies worldwide.
Edwin Hawkins’ Oh Happy Day was ground-breaking in that it was the first gospel song to see such international commercial success. It became a popular music hit which spread around the world a pure, resonant message of praise, while unapologetically teaching and celebrating principles of the Christian faith.
Along with Thomas A. Dorsey, Andrae Crouch, and James Cleveland, Edwin Rueben Hawkins is credited as a founder of modern gospel music.5
The Introduction – written by Dr. Judith McAllister; The History, The Times, The Legacy – written by Karen Lascaris.
DID YOU KNOW?
The original song upon which Edwin Hawkins’ hit “Oh Happy Day” was based had been in the public domain; Edwin Hawkins obtained the rights before he released his updated version. The original lyrics, provided by Dr. Judith McAllister, are as follows:
O happy day that fixed my choice
On Thee, my Savior and my God!
Well may this glowing heart rejoice,
And tell its raptures all abroad.
Happy day, happy day,
When Jesus washed my sins away!
He taught me how to watch and pray,
And live rejoicing every day;
Happy day, happy day,
When Jesus washed my sins away!
1-3 – ANATOMY OF A SONG When He Washed My Sins AwayBy Marc Myers, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 22, 2012. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324556304578123332598062540. Accessed 2/8/2018 REFERENCES:
4 – Gospel star Edwin Hawkins, known for ‘Oh Happy Day,’ dies at 74
The Associated Press, Published 7:13 p.m. ET Jan. 15, 2018. https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/music/2018/01/15/gospel-star-edwin-hawkins-known-oh-happy-day-dies-74/1034705001/ . Accessed 2/7/2018.
5 -“Edwin Hawkins: “Oh Happy Day” Singer Dies”. https://www.grammy.com/grammys/news/edwin-hawkins-oh-happy-day-gospel-singer-dies. Accessed 2/9/2018.
1 – Michael Ochs Archives/GETTY IMAGES
2 – From the Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Rijksfotoarchief: Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Fotopersbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989 – negatiefstroken zwart/wit, nummer toegang 2.24.01.05, bestanddeelnummer 923-2984 – Nationaal Archief, CC BY-SA 3.0 nl, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20070454