Walter Hawkins, 61

Walter Hawkins, Grammy Award-winning gospel artist, dies at 61

Grammy Award-winning singer Walter Hawkins, 61, was a prominent figure in the gospel music industry for much of his life.
Grammy Award-winning singer Walter Hawkins, 61, was a prominent figure in the gospel music industry for much of his life. (Harry Naltchayan/the Washington Post)
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By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Walter Hawkins, 61, a Grammy Award-winning singer, preacher and composer whose popular recordings and performances made him one of contemporary gospel music's most prominent figures, died July 11 of pancreatic cancer at his home in Ripon, Calif.

An ordained bishop in the Church of God in Christ denomination, he won a Grammy Award in 1980 for his performance of "The Lord's Prayer." He made recordings with artists as varied as Irish singer Van Morrison and Danish harmonica player Lee Oskar, and his compositions were covered by musicians including soul singer Aretha Franklin and American Idol winner Ruben Studdard.

Bishop Hawkins was a member of one of modern gospel's leading families, which in the 1960s created a sound that reached beyond church walls onto the radio and into secular concert venues.

The Hawkins family often performed in bellbottoms and loud colors, using drums, guitars and unbridled emotion to kindle an interest in gospel music among a wider audience, especially young people.

Their single "Oh Happy Day," an 18th-century hymn arranged by Bishop Hawkins' brother Edwin, became the first gospel song to climb the mainstream charts and won Edwin a Grammy Award in 1970 for best soul gospel performance. In the early 1970s, Bishop Hawkins emerged from his brother's shadow to found the Love Center Church in their home town, Oakland, Calif.

He served as pastor and formed a choir whose "Love Alive" series of recordings -- often featuring the soaring soprano of his former wife, Grammy winner Tramaine Hawkins -- sold millions of copies in the 1970s, '80s and '90s and consistently topped Billboard's gospel charts. As a lead vocalist, the preacher was known as an operatic tenor who could start a song velvet-voiced and calm and then build to full-throated passion, reaching impossibly high notes as he sang in praise of God.

"He had a voice that would make you want to know who he was," said the Rev. Dr. Jerome Bell, who represents Tramaine Hawkins and is a pastor at the Maryland Family Christian Center in Forestville. Bishop Hawkins's last performance was at the Kennedy Center in April. Clearly weakened by his illness, he nevertheless gave a rousing, emotional performance as a soloist with the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington Performing Arts Society's Men and Women of the Gospel Choir.

'Oh Happy Day'

Walter Lee Hawkins was born in Oakland on May 18, 1949, the seventh of eight children who grew up in the projects. His father was a longshoreman who liked country music; his mother was a pianist who encouraged her children to sing.

Walter grew up playing the piano at local churches. In 1968, he sang with a youth choir in Berkeley, Calif., under his brother Edwin's direction. They recorded an album and expected to sell a few hundred copies as a fundraiser for an upcoming trip to the District, but one of their songs -- "Oh Happy Day" -- caught the eye of a local DJ, who played it on the radio.

Almost overnight, "Oh Happy Day" became an international hit, selling an estimated 7 million copies. The Hawkins family, including Edwin, Walter and younger sister Lynette, toured widely and took its church music into nightclubs.

"They were the first gospel group to travel like rock stars," Bell said. "They traveled with lights and sound, they traveled with a show -- wardrobe cases would come off of the truck and you knew something was getting ready to happen."

In addition to changing the perception of gospel, the fame that followed "Oh Happy Day" launched Bishop Hawkins's career.

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