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Gospel star Edwin Hawkins known for the hit classic “Oh Happy Day” is dead

Edwin Hawkins, the gospel star best known for the crossover hit “Oh Happy Day” and as a major force for contemporary inspirational music, died Monday at age 74. 

Hawkins died at his home in Pleasanton, California. He had been suffering from pancreatic cancer, publicist Bill Carpenter told the Associated Press. 

Along with Andrae Crouch, James Cleveland and a handful of others, Hawkins was credited as a founder of modern gospel music. Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and numerous other singers had become mainstream stars by adapting gospel sounds to pop lyrics. Hawkins stood out for enjoying commercial success while still performing music that openly celebrated religious faith.

Hawkins was a composer, keyboardist, arranger and choir master. He had been performing with his family and in church groups since childhood and in his 20s helped form the Northern California State Youth Choir. 

Their first album, Let Us Go into the House of the Lord, came out in 1968 and was intended for local audiences. But radio stations in the San Francisco Bay Area began playing one of the album’s eight tracks, “Oh Happy Day,” an 18th century hymn arranged by Hawkins in call-and-response style. 

“Oh Happy Day,” featuring the vocals of Dorothy Combs Morrison, was released as a single credited to the Edwin Hawkins Singers and became a million-seller in 1969, showing there was a large market for gospel songs and for inspirational music during the turbulent era of the late 1960s. 

Hawkins went on to make dozens of records and won four Grammys in all, including for the songs “Every Man Wants to Be Free” and “Wonderful!” In 2007, he was voted into the Christian Music Hall of Fame. He also toured on occasion with younger brother Walter Hawkins, a Grammy winner who died in 2010. 

Edwin Hawkins is survived by his siblings Carol, Feddie, Daniel and Lynette. 

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Written by Victor Jones