Obituary: Edwin Hawkins
Musician and choir leader who helped popularise gospel music with Oh Happy Day
Edwin Hawkins, who has died aged 74, was best-known for his contemporary gospel arrangement of the song Oh Happy Day, which in 1969 became a huge crossover hit and went on to sell more than seven million copies.
Two years earlier, Hawkins had wanted to raise funds to enable the 50-strong church choir which he had co-founded in San Francisco to travel to Washington for a singing competition. Accordingly, he recorded them on simple two-track equipment performing eight songs, intending to have 500 copies pressed and sold locally.
Among the tunes was Oh Happy Day, based on a mid-18th-century hymn written by an English non-conformist minister, Philip Doddridge, whose writings prompted the abolitionist William Wilberforce to turn to Christ. Doddridge took his inspiration from the text of Acts 8:35, in which Philip the Evangelist proclaims the good news to an Ethiopian eunuch.
In the 19th Century, the setting of Doddridge's verses was given a new melody by Edward Rimbault, the celebrated organist of the Swiss Church in Soho, a pupil of Samuel Wesley's.
He also added the refrain. Retaining only this, in a call-and-response style, Hawkins changed the time signature to 4/4 and added a piano line, influenced, he said later, by the bossa nova rhythms of Sergio Mendes. The lead vocalist was Dorothy Morrison.
Recently she revealed that she had largely ad-libbed her performance, throwing in a James Brown whoop at one point for good measure. For safety's sake, she had written the lyrics on the palms of her hands. Neither she nor Hawkins regarded the result as their favourite song from the session, and in the event the records were not ready in time for the trip, although the choir made it to the competition and came second.
Some months afterwards, however, the LP found its way to an underground radio station in the Bay area, which began to play the track.
It soon attracted interest from record companies and was released as a single (with a version of Charles Wesley's Jesus, Lover of My Soul as the B-side). Hawkins's church was unhappy at the commercialisation of sacred music, however, and forced him to change the name of the choir, which was re-baptised the Edwin Hawkins Singers.
Dorothy Morrison was also torn between factions within the denomination, and eventually left to pursue a solo career.
After selling a million copies in two months, the record became a No 4 hit in the US pop charts, benefiting from the mood of the civil rights era, and brought Hawkins a Grammy award. The song also reached No 2 in Britain. It was later performed by acts such as Aretha Franklin, Johnny Mathis and Elvis Presley, and inspired George Harrison to write My Sweet Lord.
One of six children, Edwin Reuben Hawkins was born on August 19, 1943, and grew up in Oakland, California. His father worked on the docks and played the Hawaiian steel guitar. Edwin began to learn the piano at five, and two years later took over from his mother as accompanist in the recitals the family gave at local churches.
Although Hawkins recorded dozens more albums, receiving another 19 Grammy nominations and three wins, he never repeated the success of Oh Happy Day. In 1970 his choir provided backing for Melanie's No 6 hit in the US, Lay Down (Candles in the Rain), about the Woodstock concert, but it may have been that the departure of Dorothy Morrison deprived the group of its most distinctive asset.
Nevertheless, Hawkins continued to perform and tour and in 1982 founded a week-long seminar dedicated to the gospel music industry.
As well as being sung in churches, Oh Happy Day has been heard in films, including Sister Act 2 (1993) with Whoopi Goldberg, and in 2001 it was voted one of the US's 365 songs of the 20th Century.
Edwin Hawkins, who died on January 15, is survived by four of his brothers and sisters.