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This is the only traditional Gospel song ever to crossover and become a hit on the Pop charts. "Oh Happy Day" is a Protestant hymn that dates from 1755. It is included in the standard Baptist hymnal.
Edwin Hawkins was a pianist at Ephesian Church of God in Christ in Berkeley, California when he came up with the popular Latin/Soul version of this song in 1968. In an October 23, 2009 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, he explained that "Oh Happy Day" was one of eight arrangements he put together for the Northern California State Youth Choir, which was made up of 46 singers ages 17 to 25, and the plan was to sell an album of the songs to finance a trip to a church youth conference in Washington, D.C. The tracks were quickly recorded live in church on a two-track tape machine (industry standard at the time was eight-track), but the records weren't pressed in time for the trip. They did attend the conference, and the choir placed second in a singing competition, where they performed 2 of Hawkins' arrangements, but not "Oh Happy Day," which Hawkins said was "Not our favorite song."
500 copies of the album were made, and one of them found its way to the popular DJ Abe "Voco" Kesh at KSAN-FM in San Francisco. Other stations followed, and Buddah Records signed Hawkins to a record deal, rechristening the Northern California State Youth Choir "The Edwin Hawkins Singers" for their reissue of the album, which became a huge hit.
The female lead is Dorothy Morrison, who signed her own deal with Buddah Records when this became a hit.
This song was recorded for the Gospel market, and its secular success didn't go over well with everyone at the church: local officials of the denomination circulated a petition asking secular radio stations to stop airing the song. Hawkins had a different take. He told The Chronicle: "I think they thought they were doing the right thing. What confused me about it was they were teaching us all our lives that we were to take the message everywhere."
Dan Sorkin, who was a famous DJ on radio station KSFO in San Francisco, was a big supporter of this song and gave it a huge push on his morning show. He even interviewed Dorothy Morrison and Edwin Hawkins.
This won a Grammy Award for Best Soul Gospel Performance.
This is the song that the late Beatle George Harrison claimed he got the idea for "My Sweet Lord
," not The Chiffons' "He's So Fine" which he was blamed for. (thanks, Jeff - Boston, MA)