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The Story Of The Edwin Hawkins Singers' 'Oh Happy Day'

Members of the gospel group The Edwin Hawkins Singers pose for a portrait circa 1975.
Michael Ochs Archives
Getty Images
Members of the gospel group The Edwin Hawkins Singers pose for a portrait circa 1975.

Edwin Hawkins, a Grammy Award-winning gospel singer and arranger, passed away this past January at the age of 74. He left behind an unmatched legacy, revolutionizing what it means to be a gospel artist. His crowning achievement was bringing his arrangement of "Oh Happy Day," originally an 18th Century hymn, to wide audiences. The song debuted 50 years ago in 1968 and became the first gospel song to hit the secular charts.

Hawkins' use of contemporary sounds — a Latin groove, synthesizers, a soul-influenced lead vocal performance — created a new model for gospel music. It opened the door for artists like Aretha Franklin, The Winans and Richard Smallwood to bring the Good News into the secular realm. "Oh Happy Day" has become a gospel standard. It's been covered by hundreds of artists across genres.

WXPN's Gospel Roots of Rock and Soul producer Alex Lewis brings us this piece on the history and legacy of Edwin Hawkins' gospel classic. Hear the story of "Oh Happy Day" in the player and watch the 1969 Big Sur Folk Festival performance below.

Gospel Roots of Rock and Roll has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

Copyright 2018 XPN

Alex Lewis is an independent radio producer based in Philadelphia. He's written and produced longform audio documentaries including The Gospel Roots of Rock & Soul (nominated for a 2020 Peabody Award) - with WXPN and NPR Music - and Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio (winner of a 2015 National Edward R. Murrow Award).