Edwin Hawkins, a Grammy Award-winning singer who merged gospel and secular sounds in a career highlighted by the accidental crossover hit “Oh Happy Day” in 1969, died on Monday in Pleasanton, Calif., east of San Francisco. He was 74.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, said his publicist, Bill Carpenter.
Mr. Hawkins, part of a musical family, was studying interior design at Laney College in Oakland, Calif., in the late 1960s and working with a group he and his friend Betty Watson had put together, the Northern California State Youth Choir. The group recorded an album, “Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord,” which they intended to sell locally to raise money for a trip to Southern California for a gospel competition.
“It was recorded on a friend’s little two-track machine,” Mr. Hawkins told The Modesto Bee in 2008. “It was never intended for commercial purposes at all.”
The record rendered songs of praise with a rhythm-and-blues sensibility. A disc jockey at the Bay Area FM station KSAN, Abe Kesh, began playing one particular track, “Oh Happy Day.”
The catchy song spread, and, with the group renamed the Edwin Hawkins Singers, it was released as a single and eventually reached No. 4 on the Billboard pop chart and No. 2 on the R&B chart. More than seven million copies were sold, Mr. Carpenter said, and “Oh Happy Day” won a Grammy for best soul gospel performance.
Mr. Hawkins was born on Aug. 19, 1943, in Oakland to Daniel and Mamie Hawkins. His father was a longshoreman who liked to play Hawaiian steel guitar. Edwin and his many siblings began singing at local churches as a family group. By age 7 Edwin had replaced his mother as their pianist.
“We would sing at somebody’s church almost every Sunday afternoon,” Mr. Hawkins told Oakland Magazine in 2009. “We didn’t get paid as such, as you pay artists today. That would never happen. Sometimes they would give us what they called a love offering.”