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 #106 : A Wedding In Cherokee County – Randy Newman

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A Wedding In Cherokee County   –   Randy Newman

…maybe she’s crazy I don’t know

maybe that’s why I love her so…

The Old Market, Hove, Sussex August 13th 2005.   Not quite Cherokee County but it’s a universal tale isn’t it ?   Hmm maybe not.   Anyway.   Cherokee County could refer to Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, South or North Carolina or Texas.   The song is written by Randy Newman and is off his 5th LP entitled “Good Old Boys” and the LP has a theme – the South of the USA.   All of the songs are concerned with life, history or the mentality of living in the South.    When he plays live he compares it to Quadrophenia.   He’s joking.   In case you missed the debate, The South or The Confederacy, finally lost the Civil War in 1865 when Reconstruction began and the abolition of slavery was final.   However, the effects of that war have never disappeared as is only too obvious.    President Abraham Lincoln was shot dead on April 14th 1865 just as hostilities had ceased, a victim of his support for the abolition of slavery,  The South was poor (relatively speaking) for at least 100 years afterwards, voting rights weren’t granted finally until 1964 (Selma) and the Confederate Flag – the flag of the six breakaway states (the ones with the most slaves) – was finally taken down from the Town Hall in Columbia South Carolina this month in July 2015.  But this song isn’t about slavery.  Or Civil War.  It’s about marriage.

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Randy Newman was born in Los Angeles to musical parents.  His first self-titled LP came out in 1968 and it was immediately clear that he was a distinctive and original songwriter.  Mordant, satirical, ironic, witty, irreverent and clever, there is no other writer like Randy Newman.  Instead of attacking he goes underneath and makes you smile.  I bought his 4th LP Sail Away in the 1970s after hearing it at Simon Korner’s house (or so I thought, Simon has since denied this) – it contained one of my then favourite songs Simon Smith and The Amazing Dancing Bear which I knew from the pop charts and Alan Price.   Randy wrote it.   The entire LP is a masterpiece and I’ll blog it another day – we’re inside the next one – from 1974.   ‘Good Old Boys’ is what men from the south call each other.  “Them good ole boys was drinkin’ whisky and rye singin’ this will be the day that I die..”   That line is a perfect example of the stereotypical sentimental self-pity of the southern man in art and song, a strange mixture of pride and defiance, racism and whisky.  “I sang Dixie as he died“.   I think this LP is also a masterpiece and I will definitely be blogging five of the songs on it so I won’t go on and on.   But just to note in passing that the opening track Rednecks goes where few songs dare and calls out both the southern racism and the northern hypocrisy faced by black people in America.

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Meanwhile, Keith & Yarra were getting married.  They had a beautiful boy called George who had been born the previous January.  But they decided to tie the knot,  get hitched,  get wed, do matrimony, nuptials, get spliced and legalise publicly and forever their cohabitation and love, and they wanted me to do a reading at the ceremony.  Did I have any suggestions?  And could I suggest any music?

They both worked in the music business so I was sure they had everything they needed, but I made a few suggestions : Aaron Neville’s Ten Commandments Of Love,  Elvis Presley’s Hawaiian Wedding Song,  A Wedding In Cherokee County by Randy Newman.  The last song wasn’t a great choice to be honest because is it incredibly disrespectful, intentionally hilarious and pretty likely to get the relations kicking off especially if they’ve had a few.   Check the lyrics :

There she is : sittin’ there
Out behind the smoke house in her rockin’ chair
She don’t say nothin’, she don’t do nothin’
She don’t feel nothin’, she don’t know nothin’
Maybe she’s crazy, I don’t know
Maybe that’s why I love her so

But of course Keith and Yarra loved it, and not only did they love it they decided that they wanted me to read it out as a poem at the wedding.  Jeepers Creepers !   Not for that first verse, which is funny, but for verse two particularly.  I’d never met either set of parents, and now I was expected to stand up in my nice sky blue suit and read :

Her papa was a midget, her mama was a whore
Her granddad was a newsboy ’til he was eighty-four
What a slimy old bastard he was
Man don’t you think I know she hates me
Man don’t you think I know that she’s no good
If she knew how she’d unfaithful to me
I think she’d kill me if she could

They both assured me that it would be fine, that the parents would find it amusing, and that even if they didn’t that was what they wanted me to read.   I was honoured to be asked of course so I agreed.   I was also a little thrilled.   How daring !

..I’m not afraid of the grey wolf
Who stalks through our forest at dawn
As long as I have her beside me
I have the strength to carry on…

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Extensions from Nighty Night – me and Lyndsey

Keith and Yarra I’d met via Mark Williams when Jenny and I moved down to Brighton in 1996, they were part of the great loose endless party by the sea that seemed never-ending and full of cider and cocaine.  Keith unusually was a Manchester lad who supported Chelsea.  He has a streak of decency that is immediately recognisable and very welcome in a seaside town, and Yarra is similarly precious to me.    I think he used to work in rock and roll promotion in the biz, but he graduated to design later – for example designing the whole package of Paul Steel’s first LP April and I (see My Pop Life #1) which was like a Mr Men book.  I bought four of them to hoard.  It’s a brilliant record and a brilliant package.  But Keith has done tons and tons of stuff.  Not least been a  great Dad to George and Milla (who was born a few years later).

Today we will be married
And all the freaks that she knows will be there
And all the people from the village will be there
To congratulate us
I will carry her across the threshold
And I will make dim the light
And I will attempt to spend my love within…

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Yarra, Keith and George

So the day of the wedding came and all was well.   They’d planned it down to the inch.  I knew many of the guests but by no means all – but our Brighton and Hove gang were well represented by Andy Baybutt, Jo Thornhill (then married and together), Lyndsey, Louise Yellowlees,  Erika Martinez, Alex Campbell & Natasha, Lorraine and John and Mark, Emma, Josh, Patrick surely and Adam Mellor must have been there and when I just looked at my crap pictures I could swear that the bass player of Elbow is there, and he might well be because they are mates of Keith’s from Manc-land and I met them all one night in Pool Valley in Brighton after a gig.  It was a good wedding needless to say.  A good mixture of rock ‘n’ roll and class, flowers, nice clothes and drink and drugs.  The congregation were very welcoming when I arose to read out the Randy Newman poem, but the following third verse got a laugh and in the end we were all rather moved :

…though I try with all my might
She will laugh at my mighty sword
She will laugh at my mighty sword
Why must everybody laugh at my mighty sword?
Lord, help me if you will
Maybe we’re both crazy, I don’t know
Maybe that’s why I love her so

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Randy Newman ‘sometime in the 1970s’

Randy Newman’s songs sound like they were written 100 years ago.  They have an incredible weathered quality, the key changes, the simple choices, some of them sound like hymns, some like campfire songs, some like Tin Pan Alley or early vaudeville.   I’m not sure how he achieves this stardust 78rpm quality, I’ve watched him very carefully playing piano both live and on the TV and he scarcely moves his fingers up and down the keyboard – everything is bunched together and one new note and a shift of bass line and he achieves miracles.   Very little guitar – all strings and brass and piano.  Now and again a lick of slide.   Only the lyrics give away the non-historical nature of these songs – they are all massively contemporary even when he is pastiching older musical tropes.   And just listen to the drum on the first verse of Cherokee County.  It’s so late it almost misses the bus.

With a song that somehow expresses the opposite of its subject, which talks about hate, stupidity and mistrust and yet makes you feel sentimental and weepy-eyed about getting married I think Randy Newman had hit the motherlode of genius – but all of his songs are like this.  Short People.  Sail Away.  Political Science. On and on.

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Yarra, Keith, Milla & George

Happy Anniversary Keith and Yarra – ten years in a couple of weeks.  And I wouldn’t have dared have this song played or read at my wedding.  Are you kidding ?  Have you met Jenny’s Mum ?  So respect…

This never fails to bring a tear to my eye.

a taste of the man himself playing live in 1978 :

My Pop Life #105 : Come Rain Or Come Shine – Ray Charles

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Come Rain Or Come Shine   –   Ray Charles

…days may be cloudy or sunny….

….we’re in or we’re out of the money…

I first heard this song on my wedding day, 23 years ago July 25th 1992.   Dear Ken Cranham (who has graced these pages before) made Jenny and I a ‘wedding tape’ which we played at home after the church ceremony in Holy Joe’s, Highgate Hill (St Joseph’s) and reception afterwards in Lauderdale House, Waterlow Park (next door).   I actually carried Jenny over the threshhold of 153 Archway Road N6  like you’re supposed to, much to the amusement of the two ladies opposite who ran the sweet shop who waved at us, beaming.   I smiled.   I didn’t have a free hand as I recall.    Jenny waved – she was still in her golden frou-frou wedding dress and we were both drunk on champagne and love and words and Chopin and wedding cake and delirious happiness abounded.  There was a huge reception in the evening at the Diorama, and dear gorgeous departed friend Neil Cooper was sorting that side of things, so we had a few hours to change and feed the cats etc.   Ken’s cassette (of course) had a wonderful selection of wedding songs and love songs which will be forever associated with the day, and I’ve done similar tributes on CD, paying that moment forward to other couples about to get hitched.  Nothing more glorious than a wedding playlist, and no better party than a wedding party.  Please, whoever is reading this, invite Jenny and I to your wedding !

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Ray Charles was always there somehow.  I must have heard Hit The Road Jack on the radio in 1961 when I was 4 yrs old, living in Portsmouth, & the Hoagy Carmichael evergreen Georgia seems to be made of earth and stone it feels like it has been around forever.   The other big hit from the early 1960s was I Can’t Stop Loving You off the LP Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music, syrupy choir singing backing vocals, smooth like chocolate sauce, it’s almost too sweet.  But not quite.   But it was lounge music to me as I became sentient.   I would have to grow up a bit and grow some ears before I understood the genius of Ray Charles.

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Like Frank Sinatra or Elvis, he is a giant of music and in particular of interpretation and arranging of other people’s songs.   Not to say he didn’t write music – he did – unlike Elvis or Frank,  Ray Charles wrote plenty of music including some stone-cold red-hot classics :  I Got A Woman, Hallelujah I Love Her So, A Fool For You and the monster What’d I Say, which may or may not have been improvised live (as the film Ray would have it).   It’s difficult to encapsulate the full breadth of his work in one blog, so I won’t even try.  But if a martian were to land in my room today and say “One artist will represent pop music” it would have to be Ray Charles.  He’s played every kind of music from blues and jazz to soul (which he invented some say) gospel and country, big band and ballad to funk and pop.  It’s the phrasing in the end which is so astonishing – the phrasing and the arrangements are impeccable rhythmically, melodically, all delivered with taste, groove and soul.  Plenty of imitators, but only one Ray Charles.

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When I was going through my soul education period in 1978-9 (see My Pop Life #98 for example) I bought a large box set called Atlantic Rhythm & Blues 1947-1974.  It remains “the answers” for anyone seeking to understand American music of the 20th century.   I guess it’s a CD box set now – I have five double LPs squished into a box.  It sounds like a lot – but it’s actually a surface skim of a huge period of artists and tunes, from race-music and blues 78s through R&B, soul, Stax/Volt right up to Roberta Flack.

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Ray turns up on Side Two and Three and Four with classics including I Got A Woman, the mighty Mess Around and the searing genius of Drown In My Own Tears which so many great artists have covered.  I had hit a golden seam of fantastic music and next I bought a triple LP box called The Birth Of Soul  now available on CD :

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which covered the same period as Sides 2,3 & 4 of the Atlantic collection but also had all the other songs they missed out – so many favourites but I’ll briefly mention What Kind Of Man Are You? which features one of the Rae-Lettes miss Mary-Ann Fisher on lead vocals, and which was a highlight of  the film Ray.  The story about the Rae-lettes is that they all had to Let Ray or they’d be out of the band.  The line-up changed frequently.

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 left to right : Gwen Berry, Merry Clayton, Clydie King, Alex Brown

Next I purchased Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music from 1964 – the smooth silky sound which includes the heartbreaker You Don’t Know Me, one of my all-time favourite songs,  Ken then turned me onto Ray Charles & Betty Carter (1961) which is a completely fantastic LP –

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Betty Carter is a wonderful jazz vocalist with sensational phrasing too and together they did the ultimate versions of quite a few songs including Baby It’s Cold Outside and Alone Together.    Then there was What’d I Say (1959) – pure R&B grooves, and Genius + Soul = Jazz (1961 again!) an instrumental big band jazz LP.  And then I probably sat down and patted myself on the back for buying loads of Ray Charles albums whom by now I completely adored.  But you see the thing with Ray is, he keeps on coming.  He was clearly prolific, just looking at what came out of 1961 for example it’s almost impolite how much music was produced.

Featured imageSo then came the wedding tape in 1992 and there was Come Rain Or Come Shine.   What a beautiful song.  The muted trumpets at the beginning are so romantic and late-night New York nightclub.   Lyrically it reminds me loosely of the wedding vows themselves which I guess is why it works as a wedding song.  And then there’s that middle eight :

I guess, when you met me
It was just one of those things
But don’t ever bet me
‘Cause I’m gonna be true, girl if you let me…

Pictured : composer Harold Arlen

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Johnny Mercer, lyricist extraordinaire

Written by the wonderful Johnny Mercer with music by ‘Over The Rainbow‘ composer Harold Arlen in 1946, it became a jazz standard almost immediately and has been covered by many artists both vocal and instrumental including Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, James Brown, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.   I can’t imagine any of them being better than this version though.   Although I can be wrong tha’ knows.Featured image

Come Rain or Come Shine appeared on an LP from 1959 called The Genius Of Ray Charles where he takes a stroll through the Great American Songbook and sings Sammy Kahn, Irving Berlin, Hank Snow (!) and others, stretching out from his R&B and gospel roots.  He would continue to stretch until he passed away.  There is still so much to discover – I recently heard his take on The Beach Boys’ Sail On Sailor and it was – like his Eleanor Rigby – a revelation.  Yes he was a musical genius.   Once you’ve heard him sing a song, his phrasing feels like The Way to Sing It.   Elvis and Frank also have this gift, yes it’s true.   As do others.  Ray Charles always felt to me like one of those bedrock people in music, you know when people talk about standing on the shoulders of giants, he is one of those giants. He may be the giantest giant.

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One of the Brighton Beach Boys felt the same way as me about Ray – notably Rory Cameron, now moved away from Brighton (as have I) – he would enthuse regularly on his timing and impeccable choices.

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I chose this song today because last night I was sitting alone in the local pub here in Prague, The James Joyce, nursing my third vodka and tonic, and thinking about my wedding anniversary, which was yesterday, and all the lovely Facebook family and others who took time to send Jenny and I love on our day of love.  And then this song came on.