From obscurity to worldwide recognition…the rise of ‘Oh Happy Day!’

First appear in Sunday, March 18th edition of the Philadelphia Tribune.

The power of music was clearly demonstrated in the late 1960’s when a simple song recorded in a church basement became an unlikely social phenomenon. An old gospel song had been revamped by Edwin Hawkins and recorded live with the Northern California State Youth Choir as two-track-recording of 500 copies. Street buzz in the Bay Area lead to the track being picked up by a local DJ and subsequently released commercially. The initially humble recording of “Oh Happy Day” would within months transform the worldwide definition of gospel music, soar into the US Top 5, win a Grammy and secure massive sales worldwide. On an international level, you can guarantee that audiences know the lyrics to “Oh Happy Day” just as well as other merry sing-alongs like “Happy Birthday” and “Jingle Bells.

The funky, soulful and R&B infused gospel sound of “Oh Happy Day” single-handedly ushered in the Contemporary Gospel sound that resonate four decades later. The song also introduced us to the vocals of Tramaine Hawkins, the then-16 year old granddaughter of Bishop E.E. Cleveland, one of the founders of the Church of God in Christ. “When they took it underground and they started playing it on secular radio and it caught on, we went on our first tour to New York,” recalled Hawkins. “It was about 60 of us. And we had chaperones, baby! Some of us had never been out of Oakland. We’d never been out of Berkeley.”

“Oh Happy Day” became an instant classic and propelled the Edwin Hawkins Singers to unexpected major cross over success. “That song opened the door for us,” Hawkins said. “We opened for Diana Ross. We were on with the Jackson 5 singing ” ‘Oh Happy Day.'”

By the 70’s Hawkins had become the lead singer for the best-selling “Love Alive” series (spearheaded by her former husband Walter Hawkins) and quickly became a popular solo artist. She would go on to be inducted into the International Gospel Hall of Fame, win two Grammy Awards, two Dove Awards, an NAACP Image Award and a Gospel Music Excellence Award. With 10 solo albums to her credit and a self-imposed hiatus behind her, Lady Tramaine, as she is now known, has just released her latest CD, “I Never Lost My Praise (Zomba Gospel, $17.95) to rave reviews. Many critics are heralding her reinterpretation of “Oh Happy Day,” which Hawkins recorded solo for the first time in her career. She says it was not only time to memorialize her version of the song, but it was also time to honor the creator of the masterpiece. “I felt it was time to give tribute to Edwin,” said Hawkins. “He started all of this before any of us. Edwin is the one who penned ‘Oh Happy Day’ and put the contemporary sound on the map. It’s time, I feel, to allow him to know how much I appreciated his walk with the Lord. Edwin is the same today as he was in 1968 when we all fell in love with the Edwin Hawkins sound.”

The Hawkins Sound allowed Tramaine to travel the world with her musical ministry. “I’m one of the busiest artists out there without having any material or a CD out there,” said Hawkins, who had in recent years lost both parents, suffered health crises and faced “life altering personal challenges.”

She said it was during the 2000 recording of her last CD, “Still Tramaine” that she “could sense that things were really changing in the music and recording industry. And that wasn’t so comfortable in feeling that I had the kind of passion and desire to deal with all that stuff. I come from a different era, so to speak. I’m grateful for the true pioneers: The Caravans, Mahalia Jackson and all of them. They really put Gospel on the map and they were my mentors. I grew up listening to those trailblazers.”

One of the challenges Hawkins faced was fitting into a new music marketing world where focus groups and chart position determines airtime, and ultimately overall recording income. “I been through some real rough places and had some major disappointment, even with this industry and my own record company,” Hawkins sighed. “After six or more years of not recording and becoming, honestly, real, real disenchanted–uninspired–with the industry. Feeling like there is so much now that is totally different from the heydays of the (“Oh Happy Day”) recording I was a part of, the ‘Love Alive’ series and even my earlier albums. It was about the real music. It was about relationships. Now, what I’m told it’s about, is the real business of it with focus groups, this that and the other, making decisions.”

Hawkins also knows that an underground DJ would stand little chance of revolutionizing music genre. Today, the focus is on branding, not cultivating. “Announcers that lived and breathe the music were responsible for some of the airplay that the Hawkins family has received down through the years. Songs that people even continue to sing now, they just continued to play and it didn’t matter if it wasn’t in the top 10 or 30.”

During her recording interim, her producer son Jamie Hawkins, introduced her to praise and worship material. Then the younger Hawkins and gospel hit maker Kurt Carr team up to produce “Praise.” For Lady Hawkins, the timing of her and Carr’s teamwork could not have been better. “He collaborated with my son and just did his thing.”

As the organist of the late Rev. James Cleveland and a skilled performer in is own right, Carr had been a longtime fan of Hawkins. Hawkins said she took one of Carr’s initial calls about the project while she was in the midst of a prayer service. “‘I got a song for you,'” Hawkins recalled Carr saying. “‘God told me to call you and sing it to you over the phone.'” Hawkins sheepishly acknowledged that while she shouldn’t have had the phone on during service she was glad it rang. On the other end, Carr sang what would eventually become the title song of the collection: “I lost some good friends along the way/Some loved ones departed in heaven to stay.”

“Tears began to stream down. I listen to the whole song and afterwards I was just about speechless because I was so emotionally in tune to the song because it was just what God had been allowing me to go through since my hiatus from the recording industry.”

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