SAN FRANCISCO (CBS/AP) — Grammy Award-winning gospel music composer, singer and chorus master Edwin Hawkins, whose arrangement of “Oh Happy Day” for a Bay Area church choir became an international hit, has died. He was 74.
Hawkins died early Monday at his home in Pleasanton. He had been suffering from pancreatic cancer, publicist Bill Carpenter told The Associated Press.
Along with Andrae Crouch, James Cleveland and a handful of others, Hawkins was credited as a founder of modern gospel music. Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and numerous other singers had become mainstream stars by adapting gospel sounds to pop lyrics. Hawkins stood out for enjoying commercial success while still performing music that openly celebrated religious faith.
Hawkins, who co-founded the Northern California State Youth Choir at Ephesian Church of God in Christ in Berkeley, first recorded “Oh Happy Day” as part of an 8-song, self-produced album to help finance his group’s trip to a music competition. Bay Area radio stations began playing the song — a soulful, call-and-response arrangement of an 18th century hymn — and it became a local music phenomenon.
Featuring the vocals of Dorothy Combs Morrison, “Oh Happy Day” was subsequently released as a single — credited to the Edwin Hawkins Singers — and became a million-seller in 1969, showing there was a large market for gospel songs and for inspirational music during the turbulent era of the late 1960s.
Edwin and his brother, Walter Hawkins, who died in 2010, were self-taught keyboard players.
In 1970, the Hawkins singers backed Melanie on her top 10 hit “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” and won a Grammy for best soul gospel performance for “Oh Happy Day.”
“I think our music was probably a blend and a crossover of everything that I was hearing during that time,” Hawkins told blackmusic.com in 2015. “We grew up hearing all kinds of music in our home. My mother, who was a devout Christian, loved the Lord and displayed that in her lifestyle.”
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. Elvis Presley, Johnny Mathis and numerous others also would record it.
Hawkins went on to make dozens of records and won four Grammys in all, including for the songs “Every Man Wants to Be Free” and “Wonderful!” In 2007, he was voted into the Christian Music Hall of Fame. He also toured on occasion with younger brother Walter Hawkins, a Grammy winner who died in 2010.
Hawkins’ last recorded album, “Testify,” was released in 2008 but he continued to perform and write and produce music for other gospel artists.
He last performed in December at the Holiday Soul concert with the San Francisco Symphony with the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, CeCe Winans and Paula West.
Edwin Hawkins is survived by his siblings Carol, Feddie, Daniel and Lynette.
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