'Oh Happy Day': A Pop Godsend

The traditional gospel song is a mainstream radio hit

Credit: twentyfourworks/Getty

By one of those peculiar quirks of fate, a gospel tune recorded in a church on an old two-track stereo tape machine has become the pop sensation of the year.

The song is "Oh Happy Day," a traditional gospel number performed by a 46-piece ensemble called the Northern California State Youth Choir as part of an album, Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord.

Latest market reports indicate heavy nationwide sales for both the single and the LP. "Oh Happy Day" was the most requested tune on every rock station in Los Angeles last week; it has hit the top ten in San Francisco; the influential Bill Drake stations around the country are airing it, and first orders for the records, being distributed through Buddah, were for 250,000 albums and 350,000 singles.

Like no other song in recent memory, "Oh Happy Day" has transcended all radio "formats." In San Francisco, where the song was first aired, it is being played not only on the Top 30, "progressive rock," and soul stations, but on the Bay Area's middle-of-the road and jazz outlets as well.

All this for a package that came out-of a two-and-a-half-hour session at Berkeley's Ephesian Church of God in Christ last June.

At that time, choir director, pianist, and music arranger Edwin R. Hawkins had no idea that his singers were headed for fame and fortune in the top of the pops.

He and co-director Betty Watson assembled the choir in mid-1967 to be a traveling musical representative of the Church of God in Christ, a national religious organization.

On that day last June, he was rushing to get an album together so that the choir could raise funds for itself by selling the record at the National Youth Congress convention later that month in Cleveland.

So he called in LaMont Bench, proprietor of Century Custom Recording Service from nearby Oakland, chose eight members from the choir's repertoire (all traditionals he'd re-arranged), and left it all in the hands of the Good Lord. Bench's two-track Ampex PR-10, and his hastily-collected bank of Tele-funken and Sony mikes.

What came out was a beautifully mixed and miked package of spiritual soul. The choir is the epitome of "gettin' it together"–—"it" being 46 well-trained, well-directed voices that create a solid wall of sound. A band——piano, organ, percussion, and amplified guitar——adds rarely needed back-up punch. And featured soloists—like Dorothy Combs Morrison on "Oh Happy Day"—help assure the world that Aretha Franklin is indeed not alone. (All together, you might try and imagine Spector, Gospel, and the Ronettes multiplied by 15.)

Still, Hawkins considered the finished LP no more than another entry into the limited gospel market. The choir sold 600 copies at that Cleveland convention, and everyone was pretty satisfied.

Then in mid-March, John Lingel, rock promotion director at Chatton Distributors in Oakland, was going through some gospel product lying around when he stumbled onto the Hawkins LP, issued on Bench's own Century label. He gave it to Abe "Voco" Kesh at KSANFM, who, he says, "immediately flipped," and the rush of phone calls confirmed gospel –fan Lingel's hunch: "Oh Happy Day" was hit material.

Today, although the first level of dust has settled, there's a lot still in the air. Dorothy Morrison, the adept singer of both the high and low leads on "Happy Day," is being boosted–—mostly by her husband and would-be-manager, Isadore—as a solo gospel act, to be backed by her five Combs Sisters. So far, she is unsigned.

Director/arranger Hawkins, who has since changed the choir's name to "The Edwin Hawkins Singers" (as a separate entity from the Church of God in Christ), hopes to keep Mrs. Morrison among his group.

Meanwhile, Buddah Records has signed the Edwin Hawkins Singers, having given them a $50,000 advance against royalties on their first product, and the principal figures connected with this most unlikely hit are agreed on at least one thing: The record is not being taken as a novelty (as the Singing Nun might have been considered).

"We hope to leave the sincerity of the group behind us wherever we go on concerts," Hawkins says, "and we hope to show the world that gospel can be respected."

Dorothy Morrison, like the other choir members, is a devoted churchgoer, calls the religious song's popular acceptance "a miracle," and KSAN's Alan Stone, the second disc jockey to air "Oh Happy Day," says people are digging it "due to the obviousness of the singers' belief and sincerity."

Commercialization complexities aside, "Oh Happy Day" is a joyous thing.