When I was 9, exactly three decades ago, my mother directed a church choir that rarely ventured from hymns, anthems or Negro spirituals. Every Sunday, things were predictable: three songs, the preacher's thundering sermon, the closing hymn.
But then one day, my mother, Barbara Rodgers, brought home a new record album from Gussie's Record Shop in Pensacola, Fla. The group was called the Edwin Hawkins Singers. The album featured young people with bell bottoms and big Afros and a soulful hymn called "Oh Happy Day."
From northern California down to north Florida, "Oh Happy Day" became a hit to the tune of 7 million copies sold. And overnight, a musical family from an Oakland church called the "Love Center" became stars. These musical pied pipers, who gave new form to gospel music, prompted choirs across the country to toss their hymn books, embrace the new style and become a bigger draw on Sunday morning than the preacher.
The Hawkins family, still based in Oakland, has embarked on a national 25th anniversary tour to commemorate the success of "Oh Happy Day." On July 24, family members parked their big bus outside National Church of God in Oxon Hill, walked into the pulpit and captivated more than 1,300 people with three decades of music.
"Turn it up. God said make a joyful noise," Walter Hawkins admonished a sound technician just before his group launched into a high-octane package of gospel from its "Love Alive V: 25th Anniversary Reunion" album. It features a number of hits still climbing the charts like "I'm So Thankful" and "Marvelous."
The Rev. Jerome Bell, pastor of the Maryland Family Christian Center in Capitol Heights, was the concert promoter. Bell told the crowd they were listening to history.
"The Hawkins were responsible for bringing us gospel Hollywood. They were traveling with lights and sound before the other singers came along."
After the Hawkins family left the stage and the backup singers changed into their travel clothes, the crowd refused to leave. Somehow Walter Hawkins rounded up his voices and, in jeans and T-shirts, they kept on singing without missing a beat.
"I'm past the stage of trying to do formal concerts; I just want to have church," Walter told the crowd that had grown up listening to his family's music.
The Hawkins family singers got their start when Mamie and Dan Lee Hawkins wanted to get their children involved in singing as an alternative to life in Oakland's Campbell Village public housing complexes. By age 5, Edwin was playing the piano for a Church of God in Christ, and by 16, he had formed the Northern California State Youth Choir and had his own gospel radio show.
In 1957, the group released its first recording. Then the group embarked on another project of rearranging church hymns for an album titled "Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord." One of the songs was named "Oh Happy Day."
Edwin said the family's goal was to make 500 copies that they would sell on the streets. But then a disc jockey at radio station KSAN in the Bay area began to play "Oh Happy Day," and almost overnight, the song became a hit. On Easter 1969, the Hawkins family signed a $5,000 recording contract. "Oh Happy Day" rose to No. 4 on the pop charts in the United States and No. 2 in England.
In 1970, Edwin Hawkins received a Grammy for the album "Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord." Over the next three decades, Walter and Tramaine Hawkins launched careers that landed them several gold records (representing more than 1 million records sold) and developed huge followings in the United States and Europe.
In the early years, the Hawkins family was criticized by traditional church folks as being too secular, but Edwin says their wardrobes were a byproduct of their extensive travels in Europe, where they had a huge following that crossed racial lines. Ironically, the Hawkins family now is considered a traditional group in the age of Kirk Franklin and other hip-hop gospel artists.
"I think we need to be careful in our performances that we not carry the body language a little bit too far," said Edwin Hawkins, issuing a word of caution to the new generation of artists. "That sometimes disturbs me because people lose focus on the message [of Jesus] and start focusing on what you are doing with your body."
Although Edwin says he has enjoyed success, that's not what he was seeking three decades ago. " 'Oh Happy Day' was just one song in a project of eight other songs. We had no idea it would launch so many careers," he said.
Walter Hawkins, the no-nonsense musical director of the family, said the group has been successful because he has always demanded excellence. "I don't think God should have just anything. He requires your best. What I want is for things to be right. Whether it is music, sound or lights, it should be right."
Edwin, 55, is considered the foundation of the Hawkins family, but little brother Walter, 50, is clearly in charge and directs all of the music when the family is on stage.
But the Hawkins brothers say they could not have been successful if it had not been for the efforts of their cousin Shirley Miller, the lead vocalist on "Oh Happy Day," their little sister Lynette Hawkins Stephens and their newest star, Yvette Flunder.
Tramaine Hawkins, a Grammy award-winning diva, has truly been the most popular Hawkins of the 1990s. She first came to prominence in the 1970s with songs like "Change," "Going Up Yonder" and "What Shall I Do."
Although Walter and Tramaine are no longer married, they still share much more than grown children. After the concert, Walter sat on the floor at Tramaine's feet backstage at National Church of God as both talked about performing together again.
Walter said that when it comes to directing and singing with Tramaine on stage, "I know my role. Tramaine has no problem when she is working with me or when I work with her in situations where she is in charge."
"Just like we sang on stage, just for us to be back together is marvelous," Tramaine said. "On stage, I really began to get teary-eyed. It is a blessing to have the kind of legacy that we have had. It is a blessing to be able to come back together and still enjoy one another."