My Pop Life #199 : Oh Happy Day – The Edwin Hawkins Singers

Oh Happy Day – The Edwin Hawkins

he washed my sins away…

It’s the piano, echoing like some dark shadow from a cavern, rolling along with a loose stride, moving up, moving along, but the voice the voice the voice, rich and deep and strong.  Always thought it was a woman then learned it was the Edwin Hawkins Singers and wondered at his range especially when the handclaps start and we take off to heaven.  When Jesus Walked, Oh when he walked, he washed my sins away.  Later, years later it became apparent that the lyric was When Jesus Washed, Oh When He Washed, He Washed My Sins Away (Oh Happy Day).  There’s a fantastic rhythmic ripple on the word Jesus which makes him Je-ZER-us.  The chord change on the second line swallows me every time, the response choir, the gospel chorus takes the word “day” into a new space, a lifting up of the heart occurs and I swoon into being and nothingness.  Hypnotic.  Spiritual.  Massive.  The first time I had heard the word ‘Jesus’ outside of  a church or a bible class.

It is 1969 and I am living in the village, travelling on the bus to Lewes Grammar in my dark blue and sky blue school uniform complete with cap, a new bug in a new world of rules, bells, prefects, lessons with different teachers.  I’m watching Top Of The Pops on Thursday evenings at 7pm.  This is my religion.  I can’t remember seeing the Edwin Hawkins Singers on the show, or whether Pan’s People danced or there was a film, but the record got to number two.  Not even certain if we bought it, but fairly sure we did, and my mum, who was the 45 purchaser in 1969, had always been a religious woman, certainly in her teens had been a bit of a holy roller.  Church didn’t move me in any way though and I stopped all church-related activity once I left primary school.  My dad (who lived in Eastbourne) was what he called a ‘confirmed agnostic’ which always felt to me like sitting on the fence.  I suppose he wanted to look at both sides from up there.  I was fairly certain that there was no God, anywhere in the Universe.  Jesus had certainly existed and had been clearly an interesting radical, but he had constantly related his life to his Father, God, so I could only go so far with that story.   But I never had any issues with this song, which is right on the nose.  He Taught Me How To Wash, Fight and Pray (Fight and PRAY!).  Then another mistake : IN HIM rejoy… sing… ev….ery day.  Apparently it is :

and living rejoicing every, every day

Doesn’t Matter.  It was the first gospel tune that I responded to.  It didn’t convert me to Jesus, or God, but it converted me to gospel music.  A choir, a rhythm, a call, a response.  Apparently it encouraged George Harrison to write My Sweet Lord, another spiritual groove from the era.  I have a handful of key gospel tunes that move me, sometimes to tears and this was the first.

We currently live in Brooklyn and our back garden is up against a huge church wall inside which is the Institutional Church of The Living God.  They rehearse Thursday evenings usually and have a service or two on Sundays, starting around 10.30am.  When we first moved in 30 months ago I swore that I couldn’t live with the noise, especially in the summer when all the windows are open !  Then as the months passed I realised that my objections were narrowing down and starting to find a focus- the choir were good, the keyboards were fine, the preacher sounded powerful.  It was the drummer.  The bloody drummer !!  He was atrocious.  Just whacking away at the snare and bass drum like a metronome.  No rhythm.  No feel.  Just whack whack whack.  Like a military drummer without the skill.  Shockingly bad.  Eventually I confided my hatred for this non-musician to my dear neighbour Libby, who has a piano in her apartment next door.  We often play at the same time !  She told me that the neighbourhood has had long run-ins with the Pentecostal church, asking on numerous occasions for double glazing over the stained glass windows – or are they just pieces of coloured paper over the glass – anyway it looks pretty at night and doesn’t stop the sound of the shit drummer from penetrating my apartment or my brain.  Libby also told me that the drummer was the grandson of the pastor so we are all doomed to eternal metronomic whacking unto infinity (and beyond!)

I’ve wondered about visiting the church for a service, but I’d feel like an intruder, an imposter, a spy.  Christmas Eve I like to go to the local Emmanuel Baptist Church on Lafayette Avenue & Washington where the band and the choir are first class and the drummer is ace, as are all the singers, hairs on the back of the neck stuff.  Where a Church Service is close to being a concert.  But they make us all feel welcome, they know it’s the only day we even think about going to church, and I’m there for the band and the singers, for the gospel music, not for the message.

Although – when everyone turns and greets their neighbours with ‘bless you’ – the sign of friendship – it is extremely moving.

So Edwin Hawkins passed away yesterday, aged 74.  The song was recorded on a two-track machine with Dorothy Combs Morrison singing the lead vocal.  So that was a woman, I finally accept.  It sounded like a woman.  Edwin was on the piano, with all the feel.  That is how you play the piano.  Aretha knows.

It was the happiest song of my youth bar none.  Oh Happy Day it was called.  We chose it for our wedding, discussed a few times already in this blog (see My Pop Life #126   and My Pop Life #56  ).  We had a choir and a few solo singers which we rehearsed in our flat in Archway Road.  Here is a picture of a rehearsal :

Antonia, Maureen, Jenny, Millie, Beverley, Paulette

In the end we picked Oh Happy Day to play us out of the church – St Joseph’s on Highgate Hill – instead of the usual cascade of organ chords by Mendelssohn from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  On the day, Maureen Hibbert was our lead singer and the choir of angels – our nearest and dearest (who could sing !!) which included my dad John and his wife Beryl, Paulette and Beverley Randall, Antonia Coker, Sharon Henry, Millie Kerr, and Maureen Hibbert, all marshalled by our M.D. and choirmaster Felix Cross.  They made quite a good racket for such a small choir – but here’s the thing : we walked out of the church so damn fast and so full of excitement that we missed the legendary rendition of Oh Happy Day by Maureen who apparently according to all reports, absolutely flipping Smashed It !

Since those glorious days in 1969 when this song reached number 2 in the Pop charts, I have learned that you don’t need to believe in God to appreciate religious music, and that it has a great deal of power & emotion & beauty, and is of course some of the greatest music ever written – some of which has made its way into these pages, notably Bach‘s St Matthew Passion and Fauré‘s Requiem, both Christian, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan who I was privileged to see sing twice, who was a Sufi.   And then there is the song of my namesake Ralph Vaughan Williams – To Be A Pilgrim from 1908, collected from an old hymn and re-birthed as an inspirational song (see My Pop Life #127 ).

When we went to see Aretha Franklin live a couple of years ago she had a gospel element to the show when she sang Old Landmark off the Amazing Grace album which she made with her father in 1972, testifying over her backing singers about her cancer and her faith, and it was the best part of the evening, quite stunning.  For years after Al Green stopped singing pop music in the mid-70s I went to see him every time he came over to England, it was a pure gospel show.  Electrifying as only Al Green can be.   Saw Mavis Staples in LA, absolutely fantastic.  But all of them – Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Sam & Dave, James Brown they were all schooled in gospel.  It’s simply the root of all soul music and R’n’B.

Oh and that chord change – simple like all the best ones, but brilliant.  We’re swinging from C sharp to F sharp until that second vocal line.  Then we suddenly drop from C# to Bb7.  So only one note changes -the C sharp goes up a semitone to D while the bass moves from C sharp down to B flat.  Glory ensues.

I always used to separate gospel out, because of God.  Now I join it all up.

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