R.I.P. Edwin Hawkins, 1943-2018

WC is an atheist, but that doesn’t interfere with his appreciation of superb gospel music.

Edwin Hawkins achieved a new synthesis of gospel, pop and rhythm and blues with “Oh Happy Day,” With lyrics that originated in the 1750s by English clergyman Philip Doddridge and a melody line from the 1850s by Edward F. Rimbault, Hawkins moved the tune to 4/4 time, trimmed the lyrics, gave it a call-and-response format and a strong backbeat. The rest is pop music history. Hawkins’ tune – recorded in a church basement on a two track tape recorder – became an international hit, selling more than 7 million copies.

Here’s the original version.

That’s Dorothy Combs Morrison on lead vocal, Hawkins on piano, and a choir of Walter Hawkins, Tramaine Hawkins, Elaine Kelly, Margarette Branch, Rueben Franklin, Donald Cashmere, Ruth Lyons and 40 others. The names of the drummer and bass player are apparently lost. The tune won the Grammy for Best Soul Gospel Performance in 1970.

Edwin Reuben Hawkins was born into a musical family, and was performing in gospel choirs by age 7. He 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. “Oh Happy Day” was the first track on that album.

“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.”

“I wasn’t planning to go into the music business,” Mr. Hawkins once said, adding, “The record’s success decided my fate.” We’re richer for the path his life took. Hawkins went on to win three more Grammys and achieved international fame.

WC is not a Christian, but this is an astonishing tune. It’s the only vinyl gospel album WC ever bought, to the lasting horror of Ray Funk. Even today, it’s the only gospel track on WC’s smart phone.

R.I.P. Edwin Hawkins, 1943-2018. WC hopes your days were indeed happy.


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