Edwin Hawkins, the multi-time Grammy Award-winning Gospel music mind behind such famous songs as “Oh, Happy Day,” has died. He was 74 years old.
Bill Carpenter, Hawkins’ publicist, reported to media that Hawkins died at his home on Monday in Pleasanton, California, the cause being pancreatic cancer.
A native of Oakland, Hawkins was raised with a musical background, having performed with family and church groups throughout his life.
Along with Betty Watson, Hawkins founded the Northern California State Youth Choir, which in 1968 recorded the influential album “Let Us Go into the House of the Lord,” which included the hit song “Oh Happy Day.”
“Among the highlights of Let Us Go into the House of the Lord was the track “Oh Happy Day,” which unexpectedly found a home on underground FM play lists across San Francisco; the single soon began earning airplay on mainstream R&B and pop outlets across the country,” noted AllMusic.
“… in the spring of 1969 it reached the U.S. Top Five on the on its way to selling an astounding seven million copies and taking home a Grammy award.”
A reworking of a 1755 hymn of the same name, the 1968 recording of “Oh Happy Day” was added to the National Registry in 2005.
“What made ‘Oh Happy Day’ resonate is anyone’s guess. The original version by British educator Phillip Doddridge was published in 1755 — four years after the composer’s death — and was sung in a yearning plea similar to some Appalachian songs,” explained Bill Carpenter in an essay published by the Library of Congress.
“Hawkins unintentionally transformed the song from a church hymn into more of a mainstream pop record with a catchier arrangement of the chorus that featured subtle jazz drumming, some Latin percussion and an echoey. upright piano groove that buttressed the slick but passionate choir harmonizing against soloist Dorothy Morrison’s earthy, straight-from-the-church vocal technique.”
Beginning in 1979, Hawkins also oversaw an annual conference known as the Edwin Hawkins Music & Arts Seminar, whose purpose was to help advance knowledge of sacred African-American music.
Alongside his brother Bishop Walter L. Hawkins, who passed away in 2010, Hawkins organized nondenominational conferences along the themes of worship and music.
“In my travels, I meet many talented young folks whose only outlet is in the church. There needed to be ways to help them further develop their skills and abilities, to the glory of God,” explained Hawkins in an entry on the conference’s website.
“I decided to help them find themselves in the arts. I felt it incumbent upon me to marshal the finest artists and musicians, who are able to teach this diverse perspective of music and arts. Happily, it has resulted in a nation and international interest in music and arts.”