Edwin Hawkins is amazed that God would take a simple little song like that and do what he’s done with it. Hawkins first heard the old-time Baptist hymn as a child listening to the legendary Philadelphia-based gospel group The Davis Sisters. He later rearranged the song and taught it to the Northern California State Youth Choir, a community choir of teens and young adults he founded with friend Betty Watson. On a bus ride home from a Church of God In Christ youth convention, the group decided to keep singing together. Oh Happy Day” was one of eight songs on a album. Hawkins said that “Oh Happy Day was not our favorite song to perform It just happened to be one of the songs we sang.” The song soared in 1969 after a DJ played it on the radio. “Oh Happy Day” became a major crossover hit, reaching No. 4 on the U.S. pop singles chart. The newly christened Edwin Hawkins Singers were invited to perform on shows like American Bandstand, and in churches, festivals and clubs. Then came the church complaining that the song was too contemporary. A group of local pastors petitioned to have it pulled from rock radio, and many Christians criticized the group for performing in mainstream venues. Hawkins said why would we spend our live singing to each others? “Those that don’t know Jesus are the ones we should be singing to and telling about Jesus Christ.”
Today, Hawkins trains choirs and musicians through his annual Edwin Hawkins Music & Arts Seminar, encouraging younger artists whose work challenges traditional boundaries.