Marvin Gaye's "Can I Get A Witness
" and The Impressions' "People Get Ready
" are among the songs with a gospel feel that made the pop charts in the '60s, but "Oh Happy Day" was the first pure gospel to cross over. Recorded in a church with a choir and church musicians, it is based on "Oh Happy Day, That Fixed My Choice," a Protestant hymn that dates from 1755 and 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 that he recorded there in the summer of 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 his 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 two of Hawkins' arrangements, but not "Oh Happy Day," which Hawkins said was "not our favorite song."
Five hundred 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, who put it in rotation. Other stations followed, and Buddah Records signed Hawkins to a record deal, putting the album and the "Oh Happy Day" album in wide release.
The female lead is Dorothy Morrison, who had been singing at her church in Richmond, California when she joined Hawkins' choir. She also sang at some local R&B clubs, but kept that quiet because the church frowned on such activity. When "Oh Happy Day" became a hit, she signed her own deal with Buddah Records, which issued her album Brand New Day in 1970. Her solo career didn't last, but she became a popular backup singer, appearing on albums by Chicago, Boz Scaggs and Simon & Garfunkel. She later sang in a group called The Blues Broads.
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 and wouldn't let Hawkins use the name of the choir. Buddah Records responded by rechristening the Northern California State Youth Choir "The Edwin Hawkins Singers."
Hawkins felt the church was misguided. 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."
At this time, church officials all over the country often discouraged congregation members from performing outside the church. The Chambers Brothers are among the acts that faced similar resistance when they began performing for a secular audience.
The song is an expression of joy and worship for Jesus, but it connects with a wider audience. "Audience reactions are always strong," Dorothy Morrison said. "People want to have a happy day, and that song helps them do it."
The hymn this is based on has four verses, starting with:
O happy day that fixed my choice
On Thee, my Savior and my God
Well may this glowing heart rejoice
And tell its raptures all abroad
The Edwin Hawkins arrangement strips the verses down to:
Oh Happy Day
When Jesus Washed
My Sins Away
The choir comes in for the chorus, offering more praise. Then, unlike the hymn, the first verse repeats, then does so again with Dorothy Morrison interjecting over the choir. She ad-libbed most of it, including a part near the end where she shouts, "good God" (which she got from listening to James Brown), but some of the lyrics she wrote down, just not on paper.
"The lyrics were simple and they rhymed, but they were a lot to remember," she said in Anatomy of a Song. "At the church I wrote two sections on my palms with a pen. The third section I memorized. During the recording, I put up my hands, with my palms facing me. Everyone thought I was feeling the spirit. I was - but I also was reading the lyrics."
Glen Campbell's cover version reached #40 in 1970. Other artists to cover it include The Statler Brothers, Etta James and Bobby Womack.
Two of the mightiest voices in music joined forces when Aretha Franklin and Mavis Staples recorded it for Franklin's 1987 gospel album, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.
This is showstopper in the 1993 movie Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit
. It appeared in these films as well:Roadside Prophets
(1992)Big Momma's House
(2000)Nutty Professor II: The Klumps
(2000)The New Guy
(2012)Madea's Witness Protection
There was also a 2004 movie called Oh Happy Day
that used the song.
TV series to use it include Six Feet Under
, Queer as Folk
, Big Love
and The Good Wife
This won a Grammy Award for Best Soul Gospel Performance.
The music of the Brazilian musician Sergio Mendes was an influence on Hawkins' arrangement. "I liked how he alternated between major and minor keys and created rhythmic patterns on the keyboard," he explained in Anatomy of a Song. "My piano intro was along those lines."
The song reached #22 on the Adult Contemporary chart and reached #2 R&B, held off the top spot by Marvin Gaye's "Too Busy Thinking About My Baby."
In America, the song entered the Hot 100 on April 26, 1969 and peaked at #4 on May 31. The UK wasn't far behind; on their official chart, it placed at #39 on May 27 and climbed to #2 on June 24, where it stayed for two weeks.
The Edwin Hawkins Singers reached #101 in 1969 with "Ain't It Like Him (That's Just Like Jesus)" and #109 with a cover of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind
." They had a much bigger chart impact backing another Buddah artist, Melanie, on her 1970 track "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)
," which reached #6.
This is the song that George Harrison claimed gave him the idea for "My Sweet Lord
," not The Chiffons' "He's So Fine," which he was sued over.
Jeff - Boston, MA
Dan Sorkin, who was a popular 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 on the air.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds incorporated parts of this in live performances of their 1988 song "Deanna."
The song was performed twice at the first day of Woodstock, first by Sweetwater, which was the second act to go on, then by Joan Baez, who was the last performer of the day. Baez released her version on her 1971 album Carry It On.