Edwin Hawkins, Known for the Hit ‘Oh Happy Day,’ Is Dead at 74
By NEIL GENZLINGERJAN. 15, 2018
Edwin Hawkins in concert in the Allen Room of Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2008. Richard Termine for The New York Times
Edwin Hawkins, a Grammy Award-winning singer who merged gospel and secular sounds in a career highlighted by the accidental crossover hit “Oh Happy Day” in 1969, died on Monday in Pleasanton, Calif., east of San Francisco. He was 74.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, said his publicist, Bill Carpenter.
Mr. Hawkins, part of a musical family, was studying interior design at Laney College in Oakland, Calif., in the late 1960s and working with a group he and his friend Betty Watson had put together, the Northern California State Youth Choir. The group recorded an album, “Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord,” which they intended to sell locally to raise money for a trip to Southern California for a gospel competition.
“It was recorded on a friend’s little two-track machine,” Mr. Hawkins told The Modesto Bee in 2008. “It was never intended for commercial purposes at all.”
The record rendered songs of praise with a rhythm-and-blues sensibility. A disc jockey at the Bay Area FM station KSAN, Abe Kesh, began playing one particular track, “Oh Happy Day.”
Oh Happy Day-Edwin Hawkins Singers
Oh Happy Day-Edwin Hawkins Singers Video by JohannaFavorites
The catchy song spread, and, with the group renamed the Edwin Hawkins Singers, it was released as a single and eventually reached No. 4 on the Billboard pop chart and No. 2 on the R&B chart. More than seven million copies were sold, Mr. Carpenter said, and “Oh Happy Day” won a Grammy for best soul gospel performance.
Mr. Hawkins was born on Aug. 19, 1943, in Oakland to Daniel and Mamie Hawkins. His father was a longshoreman who liked to play Hawaiian steel guitar. Edwin and his many siblings began singing at local churches as a family group. By age 7 Edwin had replaced his mother as their pianist.
The Edwin Hawkins Singers performing in London shortly after the release of their hit single “Oh Happy Day.” Michael Putland/Getty Images
“We would sing at somebody’s church almost every Sunday afternoon,” Mr. Hawkins told Oakland Magazine in 2009. “We didn’t get paid as such, as you pay artists today. That would never happen. Sometimes they would give us what they called a love offering.”
Mr. Hawkins’s singers also backed Melanie on her 1970 Top 10 hit “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain).” If future crossover success proved elusive, Mr. Hawkins was a regular at Grammy time on the gospel side, racking up 19 nominations and three more wins with various projects.
He toured internationally, often with his siblings and other relatives as the Hawkins Family. He performed frequently with his brother Walter, a gospel singer and composer who died in 2010, also of pancreatic cancer. Mr. Hawkins’s survivors include his sisters Carol, Feddie and Lynette and his brother Daniel.
Ben Ratliff, reviewing a 2008 Jazz at Lincoln Center concert by Mr. Hawkins and the jazz pianist Eric Reed, said Mr. Hawkins displayed a “restrained, reassuring, elegant voice.”
Mr. Hawkins was sometimes criticized by gospel purists for sounding too commercial and for unleashing a trend that has only led to more intermingling of styles, like gospel rap. In a 1991 interview with USA Today, he responded to those complaints.
“Some of it sounds very worldly,” he acknowledged of his music and what had come after, “but if the lyrics speak about the Lord, it’s still gospel.”
Over the years, “Oh Happy Day” has been covered by Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Susan Boyle and numerous other artists.
“I wasn’t planning to go into the music business,” Mr. Hawkins once said, adding, “The record’s success decided my fate.”