Christianity Today on How ‘Oh Happy Day’ Gave Gospel a New Beat

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The first time I heard Edwin Hawkins and the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Oh Happy Day” was in June 1969 in base housing at Itazuke Air Base outside Fukuoka, Japan. Every day, I’d race home from school and turn on Armed Forces Radio to tune into the 30-minute block of rock-and-roll.

At first listen, I was mesmerized by Hawkins’s sound. Oh, wow. I loved it. I was hooked.

Growing up in the Air Force (my father a career officer), I was surrounded by gospel music. Unlike the other services, the Air Force was integrated upon its founding after World War II. Our friends and neighbors were African Americans, playing Mahalia Jackson (of course), the Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Pilgrim Travelers, and the rest. Their music became the soundtrack of my life.

But the Sensational Nightingales never sounded like this. “Oh Happy Day” had that throbbing, stuttering, 4/4 beat, the syncopated “He taught me how” section, the low, throaty voice of Dorothy Combs Morrison (which set me up for Mavis Staples, who I wouldn’t hear for another year or two once we’d returned stateside). It didn’t sound like the Top 40 radio I’d been used to.

Oh, I’d been hearing soul music on Top 40 for some time—Aretha, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave … all of whom had deep gospel roots. But this was gospel gospel. On the radio. I fell hopelessly in love with it and trotted down to the Base Exchange (BX) every day until the 45 finally arrived. I still have it, too.

Hawkins never had another Top 40 hit, but he had a long and successful career in gospel music, helping revitalize the gospel choir sound, making choirs cool for kids again.

When he passed on Monday of pancreatic cancer (which also killed his brother Walter in 2010), he was 74, one of the deans of gospel music.

Entire generations of gospel musicians grew up loving “Oh Happy Day,” his R&B-drenched arrangement of an old hymn, often themselves trying to capture that too-often elusive combination of evangelical lyrics and absolute, stone-cold joyof these youthful voices.

To be honest, it would be hard today to reproduce that one-of-a-kind sound: recorded live in a church on a primitive two-track recorder, the bass slightly overpowering the drums, the live vocals, the impromptu, improvised nature of the arrangement sung by gift non-professionals.

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Source: Christianity Today