Thursday, January 17, 2019

In Memoriam: Yvonne Staples & Edwin Hawkins

Edwin Hawkins Singers: Oh Happy Day

The elephant in the room here is Aretha Franklin, a musical titan who died last year, and who I suspect will not be discussed during this theme on the theory that her passing has gotten its due elsewhere. Franklin, of course, started out in gospel music, before expanding her audience to many styles of secular music. When Franklin, who grew up in Detroit, was a young woman on the gospel circuit, she would often stay in the Chicago home of Pops Staples, where she became friendly with his children, including Mavis and Yvonne who were a few years older. Yvonne Staples passed away in April, at the age of 80.

Like Franklin, the Staple Singers started in gospel before branching out. Yvonne, the third Staples child, was a wonderful singer, but did not seek the limelight, deferring to Mavis’ extraordinary gift. Although Yvonne was always willing to be part of the family act, she often dropped out of performing, focusing on the group’s business matters, or her other interests. However, if Pops called, she returned. As she once said, “When Daddy asked us to do something, we did it. No questions asked.”

Yvonne and younger sister Mavis were very close, and when Pops died in 2000, Mavis became depressed and stopped performing. As Mavis recalled, her big sister let her have it: “Yvonne said, ‘Mavis, your daddy would want you to keep singing. You’ve got to get up. You’re daddy’s legacy.’ … And that’s when she started with the other words: ‘Damn it, Mavis,’ and worse. It woke me up.” Yvonne toured with her sister for years, contributing harmonies and often sitting regally in a chair while Mavis played to the crowd. And apparently, Yvonne was the one who cracked the whip to make sure that the band performed at their best.

According to Mavis, as Franklin’s and the Staples’ careers took off, they grew apart. But when Pops died, Franklin invited Yvonne and Mavis to visit her in the Hamptons, and Yvonne’s death led to Mavis and Aretha reconnecting for some phone calls before Franklin’s death.

In 1987, Franklin released a gospel album, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, on which she and Staples performed a version of the hymn “Oh Happy Day,” which became a hit in 1969 in a version by the Edwin Hawkins Singers. Arranged by Hawkins, from an 18th Century hymn originally by Phillip Doddridge, the song was a surprise worldwide hit, and featured the powerhouse vocals of Dorothy Combs Morrison, who also toured with, among others, Van Morrison and Boz Scaggs.

Hawkins, who died just over a year ago at 74, was backing his family’s gospel group on keyboards by the age of 7. He was co-founder of the Northern California State Youth Choir of the Church of God in Christ, which recorded “Oh Happy Day” as a fundraiser, but in early 1969, it came to the attention of Abe “Voco” Keshishian, an influential DJ at underground station KSAN in the Bay Area, who started to play the song. You can see the original album packaging here.   Then, Dan Sorkin, a morning DJ at influential AM station, KSFO began pushing the song. It generated enough buzz that a bidding war to release the song broke out, with Buddah Records getting the rights.

Released under the shorter, less gospel sounding name of the Edwin Hawkins Singers, the song became a crossover hit, and won a Grammy for Best Soul Gospel Performance. Apparently, the song's departures from tradition was divisive in the gospel community, but eventually became influential both by opening the door for other gospel musicians to include more pop sounds in their music and by making gospel-based music more palatable to secular music fans. Thus paving the way for both Franklin and the Staples to become successful mainstream artists.

In 1970, the Singers, along with Melanie, had another hit, "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain),” but basically that was in for the pop charts, although Hawkins won a total of four Grammys in gospel categories, the most recent in 1993.

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