Gospel legend Edwin Hawkins was in Chicago recently, hosting the 29th Annual Edwin and Walter Hawkins Music and Arts Love Fellowship Conference.

Gospel legend Edwin Hawkins was in Chicago recently, hosting the 29th Annual Edwin and Walter Hawkins Music and Arts Love Fellowship Conference. The Defender caught up with him during his time here and reflected on the one song that catapulted him to one of the most esteemed artists in the gospel industry. Hawkins is currently celebrating the 40th anniversary of the 1969 hit "Oh Happy Day,” a song that has become a classic in contemporary gospel music. But his entry into performing gospel music came even years before that. Hailing from Oakland, California, at the age of 7 Edwin Hawkins began playing the piano for the Hawkins Family, which released its first recording in 1957. Then he started singing at several churches. In 1967, with assistance from Betty Watson, he started the Northern California State Youth Choir. They recorded their debut album, "Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord" in late 1969. "We recorded that album on a two-track machine live at our church in Berkley, California," Hawkins told the Defender. The project included the songs "Joy Joy", "Come Into My Father’s House" and “Oh Happy Day.” A radio station in San Francisco began playing "Oh Happy Day" and the song skyrocketed in sales and popularity. The record had a mixture of traditional gospel music fused with elements of R&B, and Hawkins was credited with creating the urban contemporary gospel sound. It’s a notion he rejects. "That record was heard before some of the other artists that were doing some things that were on the edge at that time. One of them being, Andrae Crouch, who was an extraordinary talent," Hawkins said.   "Oh Happy Day" climbed the gospel, R&B and pop music charts and went on to sell seven million records and garner Hawkins his first Grammy Award. As popular as the song was when it was first released and remains today, ironically, it wasn’t the choir’s favorite recording, Hawkins revealed. "God does what he does. We had no idea that the song would take off," Hawkins said. And the gospel recording, songwriting and producing icon is still amazed at the reception he gets from people. During the festival, he surprised the audience and gave an unscheduled performance of “Oh Happy Day.” The audience raved and the performance became a highlight of the festival. Hawkins seems a bit surprised. "It’s amazing,” he said. “All that for just that song. I feel honored. God could have used anybody, but he happened to choose me.” Over the years, the Hawkins family name has been synonymous with moving, talented and award-winning gospel music. Along with his brother, Walter, and his former sister-in-law, Tramaine – who was married to Walter ¼– the Hawkins command an audience and garner industry respect wherever they. Edwin Hawkins has racked up many awards including four Grammys and 10 Grammy nominations, and still has a passion for singing. "I’m putting together the new Edwin Hawkins Singers. It’s a small group but we’re going to add a few more voices. We’ve already recorded two tunes," Hawkins said. He is regarded as a valued voice in the gospel music industry and dispenses advice to new artists: "Remain focused. We’re on a course we don’t always know, but we’re winners before we start," he said. Copyright 2010 Chicago Defender.

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