Edwin Hawkins, a Grammy Award-winning gospel star best known for the crossover hit “Oh, Happy Day” and who was a major force for contemporary inspirational music, died Jan. 15 at his home in Pleasanton, Calif. He was 74.
The cause was complications from pancreatic cancer, said his publicist Bill Carpenter.
Along with Andrae Crouch, James Cleveland and a handful of others, Mr. 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. Mr. Hawkins stood out for enjoying commercial success while still performing music that openly celebrated religious faith.
A native of Oakland, Calif., and one of eight siblings, Mr. 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” (1968), intended only as a local recording, interpreted gospel music with a rhythm-and-blues flavor. 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 Mr. 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. The song’s left-field success — it reached No. 4 on the Billboard pop chart, No. 2 on the R&B chart and became a million-seller in 1969 — was an unusual instance of gospel music selling to pop audiences.
George Harrison would later cite the recording as inspiration for his hit, “My Sweet Lord.” Glen Campbell,Elvis Presley, Johnny Mathis and numerous others also would record the song.
In 1970, the Hawkins singers backed Melanie on her top 10 hit “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” and won a Grammy for best soul gospel performance for “Oh, Happy Day.”
Mr. 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-winning gospel singer and composer who died in 2010, also of pancreatic cancer.
Survivors include his sisters Carol, Freddie and Lynette and his brother Daniel.