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The Boundary-Breaking Success Of Edwin Hawkins' 'Oh Happy Day'

Gospel singer and four-time Grammy Award winner Edwin Hawkins died Monday at the age of 74.
Joel Clifton
Courtesy of the artist
Gospel singer and four-time Grammy Award winner Edwin Hawkins died Monday at the age of 74.

Edwin Hawkins' "Oh Happy Day" was an accidental hit. The song, a gospel-style rework of an 18th century hymn, starts with a jazzy drum beat and a kind of blues pop piano groove. Dorothy Morrison, who sings lead on the recording, remembers at first, the pop feel got a lukewarm reception from the church.

"At first the reaction was, 'Well, we're not sure,' " Morrison says.

Hawkins wasn't sure about it either. It wasn't even his favorite song on the album. Only 500 copies were made and sold, but one those copies ended up in the hands of a San Francisco DJ who spread it. By 1969, the song reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. The following year, "Oh Happy Day" won a Grammy for best soul gospel performance.

Singer Donald Lawrence was just a kid when "Oh Happy Day" was released, but he remembers hearing it all the time.

"I enjoyed the way the lead started up, you know, kind of mellow and then it built up and went back down and had dynamics," Lawrence says.

Hawkins never had another crossover hit quite like "Oh Happy Day," but Lawrence, who later became a family friend to Hawkins, says the song's popularity broke boundaries.

"It gave people the idea of doing more with gospel music," Lawrence says. "Meaning that they didn't limit it to what was considered a gospel music sound at that particular time."

Listen to the entire story in the player above.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.

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