"I had been singing at my Pentecostal church in Richmond, California and at local R&B clubs — secretly, because the church would have frowned on that," admits Dorothy Morrison, the booming lead voice behind the majestic gospel hit single "Oh Happy Day."
There was another issue that Morrison faced on the day of the recording.
"The lyrics were simple and they rhymed, but they were a lot to remember. 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 was also reading the lyrics. I ad-libbed on ‘When Jesus washed, oh, when he washed my sins away,’ and I threw in a James Brown ‘good God!’ toward the end."
Edwin Hawkins was the driving force behind the now-classic song. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, he played the piano at Berkeley’s Ephesian Church of God in Christ. It was at his church in May 1967 that Hawkins formed the Northern California State Youth Choir, which was comprised of people ranging in age from 17 to 25 who had been recruited from other nearby Pentecostal churches.
In 1968, Hawkins brought in Dorothy Morrison, then contracted with a local label — Century Records — to create an album of songs by the choir to use as a church fundraiser.
"One of the eight songs I wrote and arranged for the album was ‘Oh Happy Day,’ based on ‘O Happy Day, That Fixed My Choice,’ " Hawkins said.
Composed as a Protestant hymn in 1755, the lyrics were based on Acts 8:35.
The LP was recorded at Hawkins’ church on a two-track tape machine. Hawkins, who titled the album "Let Us Go into the House of the Lord," had Century Records manufacture 500 copies.
Then, something unexpected — and delightful — happened. The album track of "Oh Happy Day" found its way into heavy rotation on San Francisco’s hip KSAN-FM radio station. Soon, Hawkins’ phone was ringing nonstop with offers from several major record labels, including Buddah Records, with whom they eventually signed.
Not all went smoothly, though.
"The church thought what we were doing was sacrilegious and insisted we remove the choir’s name from the record," Hawkins said. "So Buddah renamed the choir the Edwin Hawkins Singers."
In early 1969, "Oh Happy Day" was released on Pavilion Records, a Buddah label established as a gospel music outlet. By May, the tune had rocketed to No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100. The following year, the Edwin Hawkins Singers won a Grammy for Best Soul Gospel Performance.
More gospel-influenced singles soon found their way onto the radio airwaves, including Simon and Garfunkel’s "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and Melanie’s "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)." And while ex-Beatle George Harrison was often vilified for stealing the melody to the Chiffons’ "He’s So Fine" for "My Sweet Lord," he eventually admitted that "Oh Happy Day" had actually been his main influence.