Oh Happy Day

The most high-profile of all gospel recordings had its unassuming start at Berkeley, California's Church of God in Christ in the spring of 1967. Soprano Betty Watson and 23-year-old pianist Edwin Hawkins formed The Northern California State Youth Choir with more than 40 African-American singers in their teens and early twenties. Teenager Walter Hawkins was a member when his older brother entered the group in a gospel competition in Cleveland, Ohio in the summer of '68. The choir recorded an album, Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord, for Century Records, a label LaMont Bench, the album's producer, founded specifically for the purpose of helping them cover the expense of the cross-country trip. Bay Area singers including Tramaine Davis (who later married Walter), Elaine Kelly, Margarette Branch and Rueben Franklin contributed lead vocals on the album's eight tracks, all featuring Edwin's expert playing on a grand piano loaned to them by a Berkeley music store.

Edwin's Youth Choir placed first in that singing competition. One song from the album, an adaptation of a two-centuries-old traditional hymn, "Oh Happy Day" ('...when Jesus washed...he washed my sins away...'), featured a passionate lead vocal by Dorothy Combs Morrison. In early 1969 the five-minute-long track started getting regular airplay in an unlikely place, San Francisco's "underground" rock station KSAN, on the air less than a year and constantly in search of unique material mainstream radio wouldn't play...yet before long, other stations in the market followed suit. Buddah Records showed interest, the group's name was changed to The Edwin Hawkins Singers, and the company put out "Oh Happy Day" as a single on Pavilion, a label that existed just a few months, enough for the release of a few Hawkins records. By spring the single had become a phenomenon, joyously lifting people's spirits everywhere through widespread airplay on top 40 and other secular radio formats; it reached the national pop top ten near the end of May and was certified for sales of a million copies in early June. No other gospel recording had ever made such an immediate impact with radio stations and record buyers in all walks of life.

A second Pavilion single, "Ain't it Like Him," received a smattering of airplay on non-gospel stations in August, then the act was moved to the main Buddah label. Hawkins was not adverse to performing songs of social commentary in addition to singing the Lord's praises; a version of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" received positive reviews and a fair amount of exposure late in the year. Buddah continued reaping the benefits of the group's crossover popularity with a series of singles and albums over the next few years. When the Grammy Awards for '69 were handed out in March 1970, "Oh Happy Day" won for Best Soul Gospel Recording, a category that had just been established the previous year.

The Edwin Hawkins Singers

Melanie Safka, a Buddah Records artist for several months at the time she performed at Woodstock in August '69, didn't, as of yet, have a hit record, though she had released three singles with the label under her stage name Melanie. Moved by the Hawkins Singers' hit, she approached them with a song she had written in the hopes they would record it with her. Hawkins was impressed with the spiritual essence of "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)" and agreed to be a part of it. Released in the spring of '70 the song, credited to Melanie with the Edwin Hawkins Singers, reached the top ten in June, the hit Melanie had sought that also gave Hawkins' gospel act the unmatched distinction of having two major hit singles in the secular market.

Morrison made the most of her featured role on "Oh Happy Day." Shortening her name to Dorothy Morrison, she signed with Elektra Records as a solo gospel singer, reaching the charts in October 1969 with a Delaney Bramlett-Leon Russell production of the rousing "All God's Children Got Soul," featuring a full band with a brass section. The song, written by Booker T. Jones and William Bell, had been recorded by Bell for Stax Records several months earlier. Dorothy returned to the national charts a year later with her cover of Norman Greenbaum's early 1970 hit "Spirit in the Sky."

Hawkins and his exuberant young choir remained with Buddah through 1974; of note is their 1973 remake of "Jubilation," a song cowritten by Paul Anka and Johnny Harris and recorded by Anka in '72 during his association with the label (Odia Coates, who sang with the Hawkins Singers for a time, went on to duet with Anka on some of his big mid-'70s hits). Other popular artists made contributions; Walter Hawkins' album Do Your Best, released on the Gospel Truth label in 1972, was coproduced by Tom Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival. The Edwin Hawkins Singers continued recording for various companies well into the '90s, winning three more Grammy Awards along the way. The Edwin Hawkins and Walter Hawkins Music and Arts Love Fellowship Conference, an annual workshop held in the Bay area for aspiring young singers and musicians, was founded in 1982 and continues today.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Oh Happy Day