Edwin Hawkins, a gospel choir leader who scored a huge hit with Oh Happy Day in 1969, has died aged 74. He was being treated for pancreatic cancer.
Born in Oakland, California, in 1943, Hawkins would go on to found the Northern California State Youth Choir. Their 1968 album, Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord, was privately pressed by a local record label, and contained Oh Happy Day, a stirring, uplifting gospel number that rejoiced in Jesus’s power to absolve sin.
After the song became popular on local radio stations, the choir were renamed the Edwin Hawkins Singers and the track was re-released as a single. It became an international hit, reaching No 2 in the UK and No 4 in the US. Oh Happy Day inspired George Harrison to write My Sweet Lord, was covered by Elvis Presley, Glen Campbell and Aretha Franklin, and influenced mainstream soul music. Its success also helped usher in contemporary gospel styles that embraced pop music.
Oh Happy Day won Hawkins the first of four Grammy awards. He didn’t end up matching its crossover success with later recordings, although the choir backed singer-songwriter Melanie on her Top 10 US hit Lay Down (Candles in the Rain).
Hawkins was involved in founding and developing Love Center Ministries, an Oakland church run by his late brother Walter Hawkins. The pair performed together regularly, including internationally with other family members as the Hawkins Family. His final album, in 2008, was Testify.