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.

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Singer of Oh Happy Day Dorothy Morrison – her 1st LP cover

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.  By the time the record came out she’d left Edwin Hawkins and was recording her own LP called Brand New Day, which came out in 1970 and which I recently found.  Wonderful stuff.   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 (see pic above) was our lead singer and the choir of angels  was 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 (see My Pop Life #76) and Fauré‘s Requiem (My Pop Life #24), both Christian, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (My Pop Life 135), 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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My Pop Life #128 : A Whiter Shade Of Pale : King Curtis

A Whiter Shade Of Pale   –   King Curtis

1987 Wardour Street W1.  A basement screening room in Soho, Central London, which serves as the centre of the British Film Industry – in other words : A small group of overwhelmingly decent men and women in smallish offices talking on the telephone, often to each other.  Of course we have Pinewood and Shepperton Studios out on the M25, but this is our Hollywood:

De Lane Lea on Dean St.  Palace Pictures used to be in Wardour Mews off D’Arblay Street, near Fish where I used to get my haricut.  Working Title.   Mike Leigh’s office is in Greek Street.  The Groucho Club.  Soho House.  Century.  Blacks.  The Sound Studios.  The Edit Suites.  The Distributor’s offices.  Old Compton Street.  Marshall Street.   Meard Street.  Frith Street.  Lexington Street.  Berwick Street.  Soho Square.   The Dog and Duck.   The Coach and Horses.  The French House.  Kettners.  Ronnie Scott’s.  Bar Italia.   Oxford Circus tube.  Shaftesbury Avenue.  Lunch in Chinatown if you fancy.  A small tight and dedicated community squashed into the narrow lanes next to prostitutes walk-ups, strip clubs, pubs, bars and gin joints.   And more recently : chichi hotels and Japanese restaurants as the seedy down-at-heel glamour of the area turns into another monied area of the capital of the world’s capital.  Oh well.  Everything changes right ?

The British Film Industry has been described as a cottage industry, as a few people on the phone, as punching above its weight, as a contradiction in terms.  I’ve worked with many of these dedicated and frankly faintly insane people over the years.  It’s been my honour to have done so.  To make a film in the United Kingdom you need to be more than a little mad.  It takes years of hopeless and often unrewarded effort to get the money, the group of people, the script, the whole thing to work, and often the  punishment is a sniffy review by a critic who prefers the latest Hollywood offering to your carefully nurtured baby, your precious flower on which you have spent weeks, months, years, lunches, breakfasts, dinners, blood, sweat, tears, rages and sleepless nights to bring to the general public.   Only to have it shat on.  And for you to come back for more.  It’s like a drug and we can’t get enough.

 

On this particular day, this auspicious day, one of the better days, it was exciting to be rolling up at 2pm to an underground screening room in a hallowed Soho with a handful of actors : Richard Griffiths, Richard E. Grant, and Paul McGann and a director, Bruce Robinson, a producer Paul Heller, a composer David Dundas and one or two other faces for the first showing of Withnail and I, a film we’d all worked on 18 months earlier in 1985.   I was excited, nervous, worried, hopeful and frankly thrilled to bits.  I hadn’t done that many films at that point.   In fact aside from The Hit, in which I scarcely spoke, this was my first film.  I was almost 30 years old, done a bit of TV and walked off The Bill because I wanted to do films.  This had been the first one that turned up.  It had been a blast to make  but that’s for another story.  Here I am now sat next to lovely Richard Griffiths in the second row of the tiny theatre and the lights go down.  Only friends in here.

The first image on the screen is Paul McGann looking utterly wasted, fading drugs seeping through his pores as he smokes a roll-up. He wears John Lennon glasses and his hair is wavy.   A kind of pained exhausted beauty.  And as he sits and smokes we hear King Curtis playing that saxophone cover version of A Whiter Shade Of Pale, the huge Procol Harum hit single from 1967.  I’d never heard it before.  The saxophone seemed to be be sweating and feeling queasy and unsteady on its feet and then it found its purpose again and magnificently reaffirmed its point before spinning into a personal journey of emptiness and beauty that was so clearly a live version played by a person who was solid gone.  I mean crazy.

I enjoyed the film.  I though Paul and Richard were fantastic.  I laughed.  I loved them.  Then I came on, wearing shades and holding a fucking saveloy.  I was speaking    s  o      s  l  o  w  l  y     that I cringed inside with embarrassment.  All that lovely vibe that Richard and Paul had built up to that point had been thrown away – I was so totally off the pace it was like I was in a different film altogether.  Excruciating.  Rich Griffiths next to me patted my leg with enthusiasm :  “Marvellous dear boy, marvellous“he whispered.  I looked at him quickly in alarm.  “I’m talking too fucking slowly” I hissed at him.  “Nonsense dear boy, wonderful” he replied and we shut up to concentrate on the next scene.

Richard Griffiths in Withnail 

There were other musical highlights that day, but all involving songs I already knew really well.  I loved the movie.  It was the one I had read in my flat in the Archway Road a couple of years earlier.  Funny, well-written, and sad.  I though everyone was great except me.  It was a reaction that would come back to haunt me on a regular basis every few years, most recently in Bristol in early 2014 when Paul and I attended a Comedy Festival screening of Withnail and were interviewed on the stage afterwards by Phil Jupitus.  I made the mistake of watching the film again, and once again fell into the pit of finding myself wanting.  I have enjoyed my own performance on one or two occasions, and I still enjoy doing ‘the voice’, although I have rationed its professional use.  But I will never watch it again I suspect.

We retired to a bar afterwards and I found that Richard Grant’s reaction had been even stronger than mine – I believe he vomited and subsequently vowed to never watch one of his own performances ever again.  We enjoyed each other’s acting however and Bruce was happy and the mood was bright and happy so we drank some drinks and cheers’d ourselves and clinked and drank some more and went home glowing and happy.

The rest was a slow burn to infamy.

King Curtis had the kind of career as a saxophone player that I could only dream of.  When, at the age of 27, I was considering whether to be a professional saxophone player or an actor, I tried to imagine what a successful horn player’s life would be like.  At best I could imagine being a good session player, doing a solo on a Pink Floyd LP or Listen To What The Man Said, maybe being in a pop band for a few years like Madness or UB40, shagging loads of birds, taking drugs, becoming unpleasant and sad by the time I was 40 or disappearing into the jazz world and becoming a brilliant elusive junkie.  Curtis was the king of the instrument all right, starting as a jazzman with Lionel Hampton and others before making his mark in the pop world from The Coaster’s Yakety Yak, to John Lennon’s It’s So Hard,   LaVern Baker’s I Cried A Tear, Clyde McPhatter’s A Lover’s Question and co-writing Reminiscing with Buddy Holly.

King Curtis, Percy Sledge, unknown, Jimi Hendrix

In the mid-sixties he played in a soul band with Jimi Hendrix on guitar backing Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett and  Cornell Dupree.  He also had his own band The Kingpins who opened for the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965 and cut sides for Atlantic Records including the hits Memphis Soul Stew, Games People Play and Ode To Billy Joe before opening for and arranging  Aretha Franklin at the Fillmore West which became two live albums (one by Aretha, one by King Curtis) and from which A Whiter Shade Of Pale is taken.  Much loved by the Rock Establishment – Duane Allman, Eric Clapton, Lennon and others, he was murdered in an altercation with junkies outside his apartment in New York five months after this concert.

On the DVD for Withnail & I (which Paul McGann and I did a commentary on for the special edition) I make a spurious claim, now crystallised for all eternity, that Curtis died on the night of the Fillmore West gig, just after recording the emotional genius of Whiter Shade Of Pale.  I can be wrong tha knows…

In the end the art of film-making hopes for a similar end result to the musician – to affect the audience.  To move you in mysterious or obvious ways.  Language is often a blunt tool, but in this opening sequence to the film that changed my life, there are no words, either on screen or in the sobbing song which accompanies it.  A man of quintessential loquacious eloquence like writer and director Bruce Robinson knew when to let the music and the actor do the work.