Entertainment

Gospel songwriter's move to Ripon was a happy day; weekend performance set for Modesto

Nationally acclaimed gospel singer Edwin Hawkins, whose Top 10 hit "Oh Happy Day " was a radio staple in the late '60s and early '70s, has recently moved to Ripon. Ted Benson/The Modesto Bee
Nationally acclaimed gospel singer Edwin Hawkins, whose Top 10 hit "Oh Happy Day " was a radio staple in the late '60s and early '70s, has recently moved to Ripon. Ted Benson/The Modesto Bee Modesto Bee

Four years ago, Edwin Hawkins moved into a 6,000-square-foot home in the Ripon area.

Yes.

THAT Edwin Hawkins — the man who composed, arguably, the most popular contemporary gospel song ever written, "Oh, Happy Day."

Millions of copies of the recording have been sold since Hawkins wrote it in the late 1960s.

Still, he was able to land in Ripon without any fanfare, and, where he lives largely in anonymity, both blessings for which he's grateful.

Hawkins also is happy that he and the siblings with whom he shares the house were able to find such a large yet affordable home.

"We couldn't have afforded a place that big in Oakland," Hawkins said of his south San Joaquin County home. "We live down a dirt road — very country for us."

The 64-year-old Hawkins was born in Oakland.

Despite his move to the valley, the East Bay city remains the heart of his music ministry, as well as the home of his house of worship, Love Center Church.

His brother, Walter Hawkins — an acclaimed gospel singer, composer and arranger in his own right — is the pastor and founder of the church.

Teaching the business side

The Hawkins brothers also lead an annual gospel music conference known as the Music and Arts Love Fellowship Conference.

This year's conference is scheduled the week of June 22 at the Radisson Hotel in Sacramento.

Edwin Hawkins said it's a way to help people gain a better understanding of the business side of making and recording gospel music.

"We learned the hard way," he said, "but we learned."

In the late 1960s, Hawkins was an interior design student at Laney College in Oakland when he managed to capture lightning in a bottle.

At the time, Hawkins and Betty Watson had put together the Northern California State Youth Choir. The 50-member group featured some of the Bay Area's best gospel singers.

Hawkins said the group recorded an album to raise money to travel to Southern California for a gospel choir competition.

The recording was to be sold locally; no one imagined, including Hawkins, that album would generate national and international attention.

"We knew nothing about show business," he said. "We were trying to figure out a way to raise money. It was recorded on a friend's little two-track machine. It never was intended for commercial purposes at all."

The album, "Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord," featured songs of praise built upon a rhythm and blues foundation.

So different was the concept, no one was sure what to call the sound.

"Today, with all the rap and hip-hop," Hawkins said, "we're considered to be traditional."

The group's recording of "Oh, Happy Day" seemed to get stuck in everyone's head after a disc jockey at an "underground" radio station in San Francisco began playing it.

People just couldn't get enough of the simple melody.

"And the rest," Hawkins said, "is history."

Soon, "Oh, Happy Day" was being played on mainstream pop and R&B radio stations across the country. By spring 1969, the song cracked the U.S. "Top Five" singles list.

Eventually, 7 million copies were sold, and Hawkins and the Northern California State Youth Choir — reborn as the "Edwin Hawkins Singers" — received their first Grammy Award.

In 1970, the ensemble returned to the pop charts in a supporting role on Melanie's hit recording, "Lay Down (Candle in the Wind)."

Two years later, the Edwin Hawkins Singers won a second Grammy for "Every Man Wants to Be Free." The group also received Grammy Awards for "Wonderful" and "If You Love Me."

Still singing God's praises

Despite those achievements, Hawkins said the group never was able to duplicate the success of "Oh, Happy Day."

That hasn't stopped Hawkins or his ministry, however. He continues to record and arrange and perform the music he knows and loves.

In the early 1990s, a recording of one of the music and arts conference seminar's mass choirs — assembled from seminar participants — was awarded a Grammy for best gospel choir or chorus album.

The 2002 edition of the seminar's mass choir included participants from Europe and Japan, as well as the United States.

With his busy schedule, Hawkins said it's nice to be able to come home to Ripon, where he enjoys life away from the limelight.

It's nice, he said, to be able to go to the grocery store without drawing a crowd, although he conceded that every now and then, someone gives him a "where-do-I-know-him-from" look.

"I had lived in Oakland all my life," he said, "in the downtown area. I love the peace and quiet here. It's very relaxing."

Bee staff writer Mike Mooney can be reached at mmooney@modbee.com or 578-2384.

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