Behind the Hit

 
Updated February 20

The following features interesting facts and stories behind classic singles from the past. Songs are chosen arbitrarily.

 

Oh Happy Day - Edwin Hawkins Singers (1969)

UK Charts - #2 .. U.S. Charts - #4

 

"Oh Happy Day" is a 1967 gospel music arrangement of an 18th-century hymn. Recorded by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, it became an international hit in 1969, reaching No. 4 on the US Singles Chart, No. 1 in France, Germany and the Netherlands and No. 2 on both the UK Singles Chart and Irish Singles Chart. It has since become a gospel music standard.

 

single

The recording is notable for the muted piano, drum and bass backing and the dominant use of the left-hand stereo channel which features the performance of lead singer, Dorothy Combs Morrison. Notable also for clean sound given powerful ensemble captured by modest equipment, the recording was made at Hawkins' church, the Ephesian Church of God in Christ in Berkeley, California.

 

Ephesian Church of God in Christ

Edwin Hawkins' gospel style arrangement of the hymn "Oh, Happy Day" has a long pedigree. It began as a hymn written in the mid-18th century ("O happy day, that fixed my choice") by English clergyman Philip Doddridge (based on Acts 8:35) set to an earlier melody (1704) by J. A. Freylinghausen. By the mid-19th century it had been given a new melody by Edward F. Rimbault, who also added a chorus, and was commonly used for baptismal or confirmation ceremonies in the UK and USA. The 20th century saw its adaptation from 3/4 to 4/4 time and this new arrangement by Hawkins, which contains only the repeated Rimbault refrain, with all of the original verses being omitted.

The B-side of the single was Hawkins' own modern arrangement of "Jesus, Lover of My Soul" originally written by Charles Wesley in 1740.

 

B-side

Hawkins' arrangement quickly became a "standard" and has been recorded by hundreds of artists. It was included on the RIAA Songs of the Century list and won Hawkins a Grammy Award for Best Soul Gospel Performance in 1970 (performed by the Edwin Hawkins Singers).

 

Grammy Award

In live performances and acoustic versions of the Nick Cave song "Deanna" (1988), portions of "Oh Happy Day" are included, revealing the inspiration for Cave's song. George Harrison has stated the song was a primary inspiration in the writing of his 1970 international hit single "My Sweet Lord."

 

George Harrison

The song has appeared in many movies, beginning with the German film Seventeen and Anxious in 1970, but most notably Whoopi Goldberg's Sister Act 2, with then-17-year-old Ryan Toby singing lead. The song also appears in Big Momma's House, Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, David LaChapelle's 2005 movie Rize, Robin Williams's 2007 movie License to Wed, and in 2010 biographical film produced by Walt Disney Pictures: Secretariat.

 

"Secretariat"

The song is regularly performed by space-rock band Spiritualized as the last song of their live sets; their version can be heard on the 1998 live album Royal Albert Hall October 10, 1997.

 

Marvin Gaye's "Can I Get A Witness" and The Impressions' "People Get Ready" are among the songs with a gospel feel that made the pop charts in the '60s, but "Oh Happy Day" was the first pure gospel to cross over. Recorded in a church with a choir and church musicians, it is based on "Oh Happy Day, That Fixed My Choice," a Protestant hymn that dates from 1755 and is included in the standard Baptist hymnal.

Edwin Hawkins was a pianist at Ephesian Church of God in Christ in Berkeley, California when he came up with the popular Latin/soul version of this song that he recorded there in the summer of 1968. In an October 23, 2009 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, he explained that "Oh Happy Day" was one of eight arrangements he put together for his Northern California State Youth Choir, which was made up of 46 singers ages 17 to 25, and the plan was to sell an album of the songs to finance a trip to a church youth conference in Washington, D.C.

 

California State Youth Choir

The tracks were quickly recorded live in church on a two-track tape machine (industry standard at the time was eight-track), but the records weren't pressed in time for the trip. They did attend the conference, and the choir placed second in a singing competition, where they performed two of Hawkins' arrangements, but not "Oh Happy Day," which Hawkins said was "not our favorite song."

The female lead is Dorothy Morrison, who had been singing at her church in Richmond, California when she joined Hawkins' choir. She also sang at some local R&B clubs, but kept that quiet because the church frowned on such activity. When "Oh Happy Day" became a hit, she signed her own deal with Buddah Records, which issued her album Brand New Day in 1970. Her solo career didn't last, but she became a popular backup singer, appearing on albums by Chicago, Boz Scaggs and Simon & Garfunkel. She later sang in a group called The Blues Broads.

 

Morrison

This song was recorded for the gospel market, and its secular success didn't go over well with everyone at the church. Local officials of the denomination circulated a petition asking secular radio stations to stop airing the song and wouldn't let Hawkins use the name of the choir. Buddah Records responded by rechristening the Northern California State Youth Choir "The Edwin Hawkins Singers."

There was a 2004 movie called Oh Happy Day that used the song. It appeared in these films as well:

Roadside Prophets (1992)
Big Momma's House (2000)
Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (2000)
The New Guy (2002)
Bruce Almighty (2003)
Parental Guidance (2012)
Madea's Witness Protection (2012)

TV series to use it include Six Feet Under, Queer as Folk, House, Big Love, 90210 and The Good Wife.

The Edwin Hawkins Singers reached #101 in 1969 with "Ain't It Like Him (That's Just Like Jesus)" and #109 with a cover of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind." They had a much bigger chart impact backing another Buddah artist, Melanie, on her 1970 track "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)," which reached #6.

Edwin Hawkins died on January 15 of this year. He was 74.

 

Edwin Hawkins

Lyrics:

Oh, Happy Day

Oh, happy day, oh, happy day
When Jesus washed, when my Jesus washed
When Jesus washed my sins away
Oh, happy day, oh, happy day
When my Jesus washed my sins away

He taught me how
To watch and pray
To watch and pray
Every hour and every day

Oh happy day, oh happy day
When Jesus washed my sins away
Oh, happy day, oh, happy day
When my Jesus washed my sins away

He gave me light
That I might be, I might be
He gave me light
That I might see, I might see

Oh happy day, oh happy day
When Jesus washed my sins away
Oh, happy day, oh, happy day
When my Jesus washed my sins away...

 

 

 

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