Edwin Hawkins, gospel singer, and arranger died Tuesday, Jan. 15. Hawkins is best-known for his contemporary arrangement of “Oh, Happy Day.” Hawkins’ version of the song influenced performers across racial and genre boundaries.
The beauty of “Oh, Happy Day”
For decades, I thought that the late Andrae Crouch was the originator of “Oh, Happy Day.” The gospel singer’s version was popular in the early 1980s. But, the song’s roots are deeper than that. “Oh, Happy Day” is actually an 18th-century hymn, the Washington Post, and other sources report.
The song received an update in the late 1960s when a gospel singer named Edwin Hawkins rearranged it. Hawkins recorded the new arrangement with the group of singers that bore his name and included the song on their 1968 album, “Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord.”
“Oh, Happy Day” appeals to Christian audiences because of its simple declaration of the process by which people are saved from sin. Musically speaking, “Oh, Happy Day” is a call-and-response song. Hawkins sings lead and the Edwin Hawkins singers echo the latter portion of his phrasing.
The song exists in a series of almost-hushed tones. The tempo is slow, and the singers’ voices sound as if they spreading slowly across an open plain. The crisp sincerity of the vocal quality adds to the beautiful simplicity of the song. The instrumentation consists mostly of a piano, percussion, and ultimately a tambourine. Different versions of the song contain alternate choices in instrumentation.
Popularity of “Oh, Happy Day” by Edwin Hawkins
That Hawkins was able to take an almost 200-year-old song, turn it into an r&b-flavored gospel song attests to his talent. The song’s appearance on recordings by artists as varied as the late Glen Campbell and 1990s r&b mega group, Club Nouveau, speaks to the universal nature of the song.
The list of performers who found “Oh, Happy Day” influential is quite long. Even if they didn’t perform a version of the song, they sometimes were inspired to record their own spiritual-themed song as a result. The Washington Post reports that George Harrison wrote and recorded “My Sweet Lord” as a result of having heard “Oh, Happy Day.”
The song was also famously included in the film “Sister Act 2.” That placement undoubtedly presented the song to new audiences.
A search for artists who have recorded the song is quite long. The examples here are just some of the more popular ones. “Oh, Happy Day’s” laidback pace and uncrowded instrumentation allow for different interpretations. The changing dynamics from soft and slow to louder and faster reminds faith-oriented audiences of the song’s praise and worship purpose.
According to numerous reports, Hawkins died due to complications of pancreatic cancer. He was 74 years old.