Gospel artist Edwin Hawkins died on January 15th of this year of pancreatic cancer. The 74 year old won four Grammys, produced dozens of albums, was voted into the Christian Music Hall of Fame, and was one of the founders of today’s gospel music.
The Grammy award winning singer was born in Oakland, California in 1943. At the age of seven he started performing as a pianist with his siblings in various churches. His mother was a devout Christian, and his father liked to play the Hawaiian steel guitar.
Along with Betty Watson, Edwin co-founded the Northern California State Youth Choir of the Church of God. By the late ‘60s, Hawkins along with his choir members recorded the album: ‘Let us go into the House of the Lord’. Incredibly a disc jockey in the bay area by the name of Abe Kesh picked up on the song ‘Oh Happy Day’ and started playing it regularly on KSAN. The popularity of the song spread around the nation when it was released as a single. By 1969 the song reached no. 4 on the U.S. (music) charts and no. 2 in the United Kingdom.
During the following year, Hawkins joined with lead vocalist ‘Melanie’ and released the single ‘Lay down (Candles in the rain)’ which again which showed its popularity by reaching No. 6 in the US charts. As a composer, arranger, and pianist Hawkins produced a series of popular gospel albums from the early 1970s to the 1990s.
Hawkins was to also positively influence the lives of those who came within his sphere. Lawrence Hill, for example, was a young man who had left the Hawkins family Northern California State Youth Choir to attend college in Oregon. Struggling to find his way in life, one evening a familiar song came on in his dorm. Initially Lawrence thought it was his college buddies playing Edwin Hawkins’s first album. Much to Lawrence’s surprise it was a local rock radio station playing ‘Oh Happy Day’ which had, by then, become a hit. The young college student decided to move back home to Oakland and rejoin the Hawkins choir after hearing of his mother’s untimely death. This move to join again Edwin’s music group positively altered the course of the young man’s life.
This was just one of many lives that the gospel artist, Edwin Hawkins, ended up affecting for good. Lawrence went on to become a staff music writer for Shelter / Capital records, singing with a number of gospel groups as well as teaming up with Thomas Campbell, music director for the TV show Touched by and Angel. He also recently started a new gospel record label (www.inheritancerecords.com).
Over a period of just four years (from the time his first album was released), Edwin Hawkins received three Grammies, and was later to receive a total of four. Ultimately Hawkins style of gospel music helped open the door for gospel music’s popularity to soar during the 1970s and ‘80s. The immense popularity of ‘Oh Happy Day’ encouraged other young music artists, like Lawrence Hill to embrace the message of the gospel and relate it to their generation.
The loss of Edwin Hawkins on January 15th, 2018 was the loss of a great music legend but it was also heaven’s gain as well. Edwin’s legacy lives on in his music and the lives of those he impacted for good.