Edwin Reuben Hawkins (August 19, 1943 – January 15, 2018) was an American gospel musician, pianist, choir master, composer, and arranger. He was one of the originators of the urban contemporary gospel sound. He (as leader of the Edwin Hawkins Singers) was probably best known for his arrangement of “Oh Happy Day” (1968–69), which was included on the Songs of the Century list. The Edwin Hawkins Singers made a second foray into the charts exactly one year later, backing folk singer Melanie on “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)”.
Hawkins was born in Oakland, California on August 19, 1943. At the age of seven Hawkins was already the keyboardist to accompany the family’s gospel choir. Together with Betty Watson, he was the co-founder of the Northern California State Youth Choir of the Church of God in Christ, which included almost fifty members. This ensemble recorded its first album Let Us Go into the House of the Lord at the Ephesian Church of God in Christ in Berkeley, California privately (on the Century 70 custom label), hoping to sell 500 copies. “Oh Happy Day” was just one of the eight songs on the album. (The soloists in the album were Elaine Kelly, Margarette Branch, Dorothy Combs Morrison, Tramaine Davis (Hawkins), Reuben Franklin, Donald Cashmere, Betty Watson, and Ruth Lyons.)
When radio stations of the San Francisco Bay area started playing “Oh Happy Day”, it became very popular. Featuring the lead vocal of Dorothy Combs Morrison, the subsequently released single (on the newly created Pavilion label distributed by Buddah) rocketed to sales of over a million copies within two months. It crossed over to the pop charts making U.S. No.4, UK No.2, No.2 on the Irish Singles Chart, and No.1 on the French Singles Charts and the German Singles Charts in 1969. It then became an international success, selling more than 7 million copies worldwide, and Hawkins was awarded his first Grammy for it. Hawkins’ arrangement of the song was eventually covered by The Four Seasons on their 1970 album Half & Half.
Their second Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 charts was the 1970 Melanie single “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain),” on which the label listed the performers as Melanie with The Edwin Hawkins Singers. The song peaked at No. 6 in the U.S. In the 1992 movie Leap of Faith, Hawkins is the choir master for the gospel songs.
Hawkins died of pancreatic cancer on January 15, 2018 in Pleasanton, California, at the age of 74.
Photo: East Bay Express0