Two years after entering Laney College in California as an anonymous freshman, Edwin Hawkins was an international gospel music celebrity, riding the popularity wave of "Oh Happy Day," the first gospel hit to reach the top-40 charts.
Even though his fame has receded since those heady days of the late 1960s, he -- and the Hawkins Singers -- rode the surge of that hit to establish themselves as big draws on the gospel circuit. Since then they've toured all over the country, Europe and Asia. Tonight they will perform their contemporary gospel fare with the National Symphony.
In the 10 years since the hit was recorded, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, a nine-person group that includes six family members, have performed it thousands of times.
"At one time we got tired of singing it so much," he said. "But we've gotten used to it. We put it in a medley."
Hawkins, who will only say his age is mid-30ish ("I think people in the public eye should be allowed some privacy"), picks at his omelet in a restaurant near the Kennedy Center as he talks about his music. He's wearing a sleeveless and collarless brown shirt, beige slacks and oyster Charles Jourdan buckle shoes.
He says that although the Hawkins group will perform "Oh Happy Day" with the National Symphony, most of its program will consist of new Hawkins compositions -- "Gift of Song," which he describes as having a "light jazz feel," and "All of My Heart," which is classical.
Like many gospel artists of his generation, Hawkins performs a blend of several diverse sources -- pop, jazz, folk and classical. It's contemporary gospel, sung mostly by choirs featuring snappy soloists and string ensembles and wind instruments, all packaged in the latest recording techniques.
Sometimes it's hard to distinguish what they perform from the sound of Earth, Wind and Fire or Johnny Mathis, except that the lyrics sing the praises of Jesus, God and the Kingdom of Heaven.
The audience for contemporary gospel is primarily young and urban, Hawkins says, and "it's constantly growing. People don't think it's second-rate music. They identify with these new sounds."
The National Symphony is the second symphonic group with which the Hawkins singers have performed. They appeared -- and recorded -- with the Oakland Symphony last fall. And now talks are under way with 20 other symphony organizations for future concerts.
They've also appeared in 10 different countries in Europe and the Middle East in the last decade. "Oh Happy Day," featured on radio stations all over the world, gave them a celebrity status they still enjoy.
As Hawkins posed for a photographer yesterday, a group of German tourists inquired who the celebrity was. Then they were told, an excited murmur flashed across the table. "So happy to meet you," several said. "Well, 'Oh Happy Day.' We know it."
The Hawkins Singers are at home in Oakland, Calif., where they started, tending to the Love Center Church. They founded the 350-member East Oakland house of worship several years ago and it's pastored by Walter Hawkins, Edwin's younger brother and husband of Tremaine Hawkins, the star vocalist in the choir.
They call it an independent congregation in the mold of the Church of God in Christ, the fundamentalist church in which they grew up.
"We're talked about and ridiculed in our general area by the established churches," Hawkins noted. "I don't know if they fear us or think we're a cult movement."
As a young churchgoer, Hawkins was taught that movies, social dancing, painting and secular music were all sinful. But his father, a non-church member until shortly before death, took him to the movies. Now he averages a movie a week, especially on the road. "But they must have fresh popcorn," he declares.
To combine the study of music, fashion design, painting, interior design and photography among Christians, Hawkins recently launched a music and arts seminar. More than 300 persons attended in April in Oakland. He is scheduling the next seminar for Washington in March 1980.
"There were talents given to us by God, and we need to cultivate them," he says. "If they're talents, they could not be sinful."