The cream of the gospel world was on hand at Harbor Light Church in Fremont Tuesday, to praise the life and art of gospel titan Edwin Hawkins, the force behind the enduring 1967 hit “Oh Happy Day.” Hawkins, an Oakland native known as the father of contemporary gospel music, died Jan. 15 of pancreatic cancer in Pleasanton. He was 74.
The first of two consecutive memorial services fully lived up to its billing as a celebration of life. Stretching over four hours, the near-capacity event was filled with local and visiting celebrants and explored the personal and musical history of Hawkins.
The Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Oh Happy Day” became the first mainstream crossover gospel hit after KSAN DJ Abe “Voco” Kesh discovered and played it. Its popularity quickly spread throughout the country, receiving regular radio play alongside rock bands like the Rolling Stones and the Jefferson Airplane, and R&B and soul artists like Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. The song was cited as an inspiration for the late Beatle George Harrison’s own hit “My Sweet Lord,” and it reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in 1969.
“There’s some Bob Dylan in there, some Sergio Mendes and some Motown,” said jazz pianist and Hawkins authority Eric Reed, who drove up from Los Angeles for both nights of the celebration. “You have this 18th century hymn, which he threw in a bowl and shook up. And out came a hit.”
By adding jazz chords and Afro-Cuban rhythms to gospel, Hawkins expanded the sonic borders of the genre. Those were sounds that hadn’t been heard within the church, several guest speakers acknowledged with knowing chuckles.
It was a night of diverse themes whether emotional (there were moments of both humor and grief from the podium matched by waves of jubilance from the audience and stage); sartorial (some came in their Sunday best while others wore Silicon Valley office casual); or contextual: Clergy read scriptural selections at the beginning and a benediction at the end. But the facilitator of the ceremony, Bishop Yvette Flunder (pastor, City of Refuge United Church of Christ in Oakland) also read a set of concert-style house rules, including “no saving seats” and “no ins and outs.”
This sense of contrast was wholly appropriate for Hawkins, whose multifaceted nature was highlighted. A former child piano prodigy, he later became a keyboardist, arranger, composer, choir master and biblical scholar. In 1994, he and his late brother Walter organized the annual worldwide Edwin & Walter Music & Arts Love Fellowship Conference. The two also ran the DeLite Hawkins Family Cafe in Manteca, and he penned the “Oh Happy Day Cooking with Edwin Hawkins” cookbook. Hawkins was also a 19-time Grammy nominee and four-time winner.
Ola Andrews, Hawkins’ first teacher, recalled his early grade school days when he wanted to sit on the piano bench with her at the Oakland church now known as Good Samaritan Cathedral Church of Christ in God. He quickly revealed himself to be a phenomenal talent who could only play in F-sharp, she said — something she rectified by insisting he learn other scales.
Others praised his early commitment to promoting AIDS research and battling environmental catastrophes through charity singles he wrote and helped produce. Though he had already achieved legend status 50 years ago with the success and impact of “Oh Happy Day,” Hawkins was lauded for his accessibility, empathy and grace.
A grand choir and 10-piece band performed Hawkins’ arrangements throughout the night with featured performances by Donnie McClurkin, Chrystal Rucker, B.Slade and others. The original Edwin Hawkins Singers reunited to sing, and his three sisters, Carol, Feddie and Lynette, appeared for the family expression. And “Oh Happy Day” served as the final selection and recessional.