"„Amazing Grace“, eines der bekanntesten Kirchenlieder der Welt hat eine erstaunliche Entstehungsgeschichte, die zu den Ursprüngen der afrikanisch-amerikanischen Musik führt. Den Text dieses Liedes verfasste ein Mann namens John Newton. Sein abenteuerliches Leben führte ihn von seiner Heimat in England schon in jungen Jahren in ferne Länder. Er wurde im Laufe der Jahre Kapitän von Sklavenschiffen, bevor er sich dann zum Christentum bekehrte, Geistlicher wurde und sich am Ende seines Lebens den Abolitionisten anschloss und sich gegen die Sklaverei aussprach. Seine Lebensgeschichte führt von England, über Afrika nach Nordamerika, wo unter anderem eine neue Art von Musik entstehen sollte, die viele Elemente afrikanischer und europäischer Traditionen in sich trägt und doch ganz eigen ist. Eine Musik, die zu den grössten kulturellen Leistungen zählt, die Amerika hervorgebracht hat.
In den folgenden Kapiteln verfolgen wird der Weg zurück zu den Ursprüngen und schauen, was für Auswirkungen die Verschleppung der Afrikaner für sie hatte; entwurzelt, völlig auf sich alleine gestellt, fern der Heimat in einer für sie unbekannten Umgebung war die Erinnerung an das kulturelle Erbe ihres Volkes, Stammes usw. das Einzige, woran sich die Afrikaner festhalten konnten. Durch den Verlust ihrer Heimat büssten sie die Kontinuität ihrer Geschichte, ihrer Kultur und ihrer Religion ein. Dieser Bruch mit den eigenen Traditionen und „Gedächtnisorten“ musste irgendwie gefüllt werden. Die Entwurzelung und das Schicksal, als einzige Bevölkerungsgruppe Amerikas unfreiwillig in dieses Land gekommen zu sein, übte auf die Entwicklung einer eigenen afrikanisch-amerikanischen Kultur grossen Einfluss aus. In der Musik lässt sich diese Sehnsucht nach der Heimat, nach einer eigenen Geschichte von den Spirituals und Gospels über den P-Funk von Parliament Funkadelic bis hin zur Hip Hop Kultur aufzeigen. "
Die Lebensumstände, in denen sich die Menschen befinden, bestimmen in einem grossen Mass das Denken und Fühlen, aus dem das hervorgeht, was wir Kultur nennen. Was das für die afrikanisch- amerikanische Musik, ihre Stile und ihre Entwicklung bedeutete und bedeutet ist das Thema meines Buches, an dem ich seit Jahren schreibe. Die Auseinandersetzung mit dieser Thematik führte mich in den vergangenen Jahren zwei Mal nach Oakland CA (USA). Dort traf ich den vierfachen Grammy Award Winner Edwin Hawkins, den Komponisten des wohl berühmtesten Gospelsongs - "Oh Happy Day". Ich durfte ihn und seine Band mehrere Tage begleiten, bei Proben und Konzerten zuschauen und ein langes Interview mit Edwin Hawkins führen. Im Juni 2015 konnte ich mit Edwin Hawkins & His New Edwin Hawkins Singers und meinem Schülerchor zwei grosse Konzerte durchführen können (siehe OSW-Chor). Durch meine Klavierlehrerin rad. (Rose Ann Dimalanta Kirsch), die ursprünglich auch aus Oakland stammt, konnte ich den legendären Sideman von James Brown und George Clinton - Fred Wesley - nach seiner Show im Moods im Herbst 2013 in Zürich interviewen.
Transcription of the interview with Fred Wesley (James Brown, George Clinton...) coming soon!
All pictures © by zoltán szalatnay
Parts of the interview with Edwin Hawkins (30.09.2013) Love Centre Church, Oakland CA
Z: First of all, thank you so much ...
Z: ....for taking your time for this inteview! I would like to start with your family background music wise first, then talk a little bit about the social, political background of Oakland in the 40ties and your religious background, your musical career and the incredible story of „Oh Happy Day and what happened then.
Now, there's a book from Francis Bebey, a french musician and writer who has his roots in Cameroon, titeld African Music: A peoples art. And there he writes that music in Africa is a part of the everyday life experience, something that can't be seperated from the rest of the other activities. All your siblings, including you and a lot of relatives are or were great musicians or singers. You influenced the sound of contemporary gospel music, you are credited "being the bridge between old school and contemporary gospel". Now, how is this possible, that a whole family is so incredibly talented? Can you tell me how all that started? Was music also a part of the everyday life experience in your family?
Part I Family Background & Beginning
E: It was part of everyday. The musical background really comes from my grandfather - my mother‘s father....His name was Marcellus Matthews and he played classical and gospel piano. And then all of his children - he had a son by the name of Otis Matthews who played jazz and he played - I guess way back - he played some with Count Basie for one of the big names and other - just a band around the bay area, Oakland and San Francisco bay area. Now, there were eleven children born to my grandfather Marcellus and all of there children -his sons and daughters- I think there were five sisters or five brothers and six sisters and all of the children were musically talented taking after my grandfather - the Matthew‘s side. So we heard all kinds of music in our house growing up. My father was from the south as my mother was as well. And for some reason, he liked country and western music, so we heard like traditional country and western back in the day. And so we heard that, we heard...
Z: He played also an instrument?
E: Mmh....he played a little bit of guitar, he wasn‘t that talented in music. He played a little bit of steel guitar. My mother played piano a bit and so she bought like almost every gospel artist that was out back in the day. So we had the 78 records, you know before the 33 records came out..
Z: I have some...
E: You have some 78?
Z: Yeah. The heavy one‘s
E: If you drop them, they will break. She bought groups such as the Angelic Singers, Roberta Martin Singers, Sallie Martin Singers, Brother John May , Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson - of course Thomas Dorsey, Clara Ward Singers, the Caravans and a host of others. The Davis Sisters, Dorothy Love Coates and The Original Harmonettes to name a few. And you know as children - they were eight siblings in my family.
There were five boys and three girls. So we heard gospel music all the time in our house. My mother was playing the records. And we always had a piano from day one - when I was born the piano was there. All the boys (...) would play piano. The girls didn‘t play that much. They tried a little bit but the boys became keyboard players. Except my oldest brother was a guitar player. But myself, my brother Walter and Daniel - all three of us played piano. We were always - in the evenings after homework - we would gather on the piano and sing gospel music.
Z: With your mother?
E: Sometimes - well - first with my mother yes. And later with myself.
Z: Great. And do you grew up in Oakland?
E: Oakland, California.
Z: So, when did you start to sing and play with..
E: Probably (with) the age of five I started trying to play piano and we sing and our family would became known as the Hawkins Family. The churches in the bay area, Pentecostal Church, Methodist Church, Baptist Church they all like had musicals after the morning service like three o‘ clock in the afternoon on sunday. So as young children we were at one of those churches almost every sunday in the month.
Z: Wow. With the age of five, you were on stage..
Z: ... and these were like concerts?
E: Well not just us. It would be a musical with other groups. We were always a part of it.
Z: I read somewhere that the Stewart Four featuring the later superstar Sly Stone, they were also a gospel group.
E. They from the church, yes.
Z: You met him once?
E: Briefly, yes.
Z: Do you have memories ?
E: Strange, we didn‘t know each other well but we were from the same church organisation.
But he lived in Vallejo, we lived in Oakland which is like maybe 30 miles apart. His oncle became one of the pastors and bishops in San Francisco. So there was always a meeting I think twice a year, there was like a district meeting or an annual meeting and there was a convocation which included more churches - so we would see each other but never really knew each other that well.
Z: And when was this group founded, the Hawkins Family?
E: The Hawkins Family? Oh, we started singing together I guess probably around.. (thinking)I would say around 1949 or 1950 we started singing as children.
Part II Political and Social Situation
Z: Now, before I continue with your musical career I would like to ask you some questions about the social and political situation.You were born in 1943. You just turned 70.
E: That‘s correct.
Z: Happy Birthday!
E: Thank you.
Z: And in many U.S states, most of them in the South there was the "seperate but equal doctrine", terrible things like the murder of Emmet Till happended in 1955. In the same year, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in a bus. The following Montgomery Bus Boycott helped to increase the significance of the civil rights movement...The term "black" for black people wasn't popular until 1968, when James Brown made it popular with his hit "Say It Loud,I'm Black And I'm Proud" .
Z: How was the living as a black person in California, especially Oakland? Was there also separation everywhere? Like separated neighborhoods, restaurants or was it more liberal in California?
E: Aehm, I think it might a little bit - I know that it was more liberal that it was in the South. The South, they were very blatant about the separation. Schools, restaurants and public transportations.
Z: Is this one of the reasons that your parents moved to California?
E: I don‘t think so, I‘m not sure. Both my parents, my mother came to California at the age of five. And maybe her parents maybe wanna to escape, but I‘m not sure.
Part III Musical Career
Z: As you said before, you had this Family Group the Hawkins Family and I read somewhere that with seven years - you were seven years old and you took over the piano. And I wish I could hear you singing and playing at that time! Did you sing in harmony?
E: Oh, yeah.
Z: And did you practise every day? Did you have piano lessons or...
E: No, I didn‘t had piano lessons. I did some months I started to take piano lessons that‘s my parents wanted me to - especially my mother - and I had such a great ear to been able to hear harmonies and melodies. As a musical teacher often would play a piece first on the piano and then ask you to sit down and read it and play - I didn‘t - In never read but played what I heard her play. And so she thought i was reading. But i never gonna to read. I wish I had. I wish i had.
Z: Until today, you just play by ear.
Z: When did you start to play the organ and the piano regulary during ministries?
E: Yeah, I became the organist of aehm - I guess our home church before we started Love Centre - we were at Ephesian Church of God in Christ. I became the organist at the age of sixteen. And so i played the organ for some years with the choir and for church. An then I became - we did‘t use the title „minister of music“- but I became that, took over that job training the choir, teaching the choir and playing for service in the choir. Shortly after that.
Z: Bishop E.E. Cleveland from the Ephesian C.O.G.I.C in South Berkley was a great inspiration for you. How and when do you met him first?
E: I was probably about the age of fourteen when I first met him. And he was a gentleman, in fact he is Tramaine‘s grandfather, Tramaine Hawkins, that‘s her grandfather. I was really drawn to him cuz there were a lot of young people at his church. Probably he had the largest youth departement and he really loved working with young people. And that drew me so I left the home church and worked at his church and that‘s where I became the organist.
Z: And what was special about the sermons of him?
E: Aehm. I think it was more his openess not so much the sermons - he was a good preacher - but it was more his being open to young people and loving young people. He really embraced and made space in the church program for young people.
Z: I read somewhere that choir director at Ephesian C.O.G.I.C Ola Jean Andrews sang and played a more progressive style of gospel. What exactly was "new" in her music in comparison to the old school gospel music ?
E: Aehm, I don‘t agree.
Z: You don‘t agree?
E: No, she was a very good musician and she was at the Ephesisian Church when I went there to work. She was already there, so I did play with her. I think those of us here on the west coast were really influenced by the artists I mentioned earlier. We were really influenced by those talents we heard on record. And that‘s what we learned to play and to sing harmonies as they did and to play chords as they did. So that came from those artists.
Z: When she left, you took over the choir, is that right?
Z: And when was that?
E: Oh, I don‘t know the excact year that she left, probably in the early 60ties, I would say by 61/62 she was gone.
Z: And then you took over. And is this the time when you did to start to arrange and compose?
E: Not right away.
Z: Not right away
E: Not right away. No, I was still working with my family and also played for another family group and that group actually sing one of my very first compositions which is „My Lord Is Coming Back“ and the name of that family was the Gills - The Gill Family, they sing my very first composition and from that point on I begin to do some writing and rearranging.
Z: Was your intention always to be a musician?
E: No, when - after High School I went to Junior College and studied Interior Design.
Z: Ah, really?
E: I was going to be an iterior designer (he laughs)
Z: And then you made the other direction?
Part IV Oh Happy Day and beyond
Z: And in 1967, you formed the Northern California Youth Choir...
Z: along with Betty Watson.
Z: What was the idea behind it and how do you choosed the members of this choir?
E: The idea or the reason I should say behind that was , the C.O.G.I.C had a what we called back then „Youth Congress“. It was just a meeting of the youth departments from the different churches around the country, all around the country, and we‘d come together. And they had a series of services every day, every night and one of the things that they‘ve did would have a competiton on the pre-musical night - the first night of the week - all the choirs from across country would compete and they would judge on who was the better choir. So with Betty Watson, I had the idea to do the Northern California State Youth Choir and that was actually my first time going I think to this congress. What I know it was the first time we took a choir from Northern California. And aehm - we didn‘t win. We didn‘t come in first place, we came in second place. And on the return of home, we decided that we‘ll stay together cuz we just really organised just for that reason. So we came back. In 68 we did the recording.
Z: did you made this recoring before you...
Z: ...went to the competition or afterward?
Z: How many people were in this choir?
E: There were actually about 40 - between 42 -45 voices.
Z: And they were really young?
E: Yes. They were alll very, very young then between 16 and 25 at that time.
Z: This was recorded live on 2 track?
E: Yes, at Ephesian Church.
Z: Was that common in the gospel scene that choirs made records?
E: No, well I wouldn‘t say it was common. There were some churches they did. One of the church choirs that influenced us at Ephesian was „Institutional Church of God in Christ“ with J.C. White...
Z: So, this was really special?
Z: What happened after you released this album? How exactly did "Oh Happy Day" made the way into the pop charts?
E: Well, in distribution. Because it was a custom label. We ordered - we had to order the amount of albums that we wanted to take with us and to sell around the bay area ..... And coming through a warehouse, the shipman of the album, a young man heard it who worked as a shipman, or shipper and he took it to a friend of his at a rock underground station and he played „Oh Happy Day“ for some reason, who knows why, till today I don‘t know why and it hit on an underground station (and) became very popular. On a rock station.
Z: On a rock station?
E: And then (...) I guess a sister station in New York got hold to it and played it in New York and (it) kinda merged across country and then on gospel (radio) they start to play it, cuz first, they wouldn‘t play on gospel and that‘s what happened.
Z: Cuz it was..
E: ..it was a little bit to as they called it to „worldly“ (laughing)
Z: You said once, "Oh Happy Day" wasn't even your favorite song.
E: No (it) wasn‘t. Was not.
Z: When you look back, what do you personally think: Why was it just that song that had this tremendous success? Was it your hip arrangement with this latin flavour, the percussion and all that stuff? Did the Hippie Movement and the Summer Of Love had an impact on the success of "Oh Happy Day" ? The wish of a better world - or at least a happy day?
E: You know, I don‘t know if anyone really has a correct answer that‘s to why it succeded or had success. Maybe all those that you just said, hippies, the time of life. One of the things (was) it had a very HAPPY feel to it. In fact it had the lyric of the „happy day“. It may people feel good, so I think that‘s one of the reasons why they played it and of course it had kind of a latin feel so it was easy to play on radio at THAT time. When you think about it now, But I don‘t know if anyone has a real reason. And it just what God intended to happen
Z: There is this great live version on the "Isley Brothers -Live At Yankees Stadium" record. This version has so much energy, the audience is thrilled. How was that, to cross over into popular music, to play in front of huge audiences, to play in a secular setting? I think you played in American Bandstand, in TV - how was that?
E: It was very different. You know when you‘re not prepared or it‘s not planned or you - I mean you‘re just not used to gospel being in that setting , so it was quiet different for us as young people. there was exciting..
Z: Because you started from nowhere to..
E: Yeah, it was very exciting. So we were excited that we‘ve played so many secular - cuz it was not the common thing that gospel would be played or would invited to perform live on stage with the secular groups, or even in rock festivals as we did many of those.
Z: And who played organ on that live version, you know?
E: My brother Daniel.
Z: People like Ray Charles were attacked by the church, when they started to incorporate gospel music influences in their music. His first hits were in fact gospel songs with different lyrics and some new music. What happened with our music after you crossed over? Did you have also „ememies“ who didn‘t like this in the gospel scene?
E: They didn‘t like the cross over. Yeah, it was mainly the religious community. They didn‘t think that we should take gospel to the secular venues. It was kind of a struggle because we always been thought that you supposed to take the gospel everywhere.
E: So, we wondered: „Why did you teach us that?“ You know (both laughing). So it was kind of a contradiction in terms of their response to what we were doing cuz we thought it was a great opportunity...
E: ...to take the gospel everywhere.. So I think some of that had to do with - probably several things - some being jelaous that we had some success out of the church world. Others - some people really did not think that it was the right thing to do and they didn‘t know why, they just thought it because they heard it that we shouldn‘t do that. So I don‘t know but it was quiet a challenge and what it did for me - it makes you I guess re-evaluate your motives, why you do what you do, why you wanna do what your doing. Why do you wanna sing the gospel out of the church you know - it was good, good for me. It‘s very good for me.
Z: When I look at pictures of you and the Edwin Hawkins Singers- your clothes, your hair, your style was very similar to that of - let's say Motown stars. Was that exceptional in the gospel scene or quite common?
E: That wasn‘t common at all, but no we weren‘t nearlly as flashy as Motown artist were. They wore a lot of sparkle we didn‘t wore so much sparkle. I think one of the costumes that shows on there (points on the album I brought), that was the least of the sparkle around the neck.
Z: Around the neck.
E: That was about it, no other than that. No, we did colorful outfits cuz i like color (laughs). And most of the costumes that we wore - I designed them.
Z: Ah, really?
E: I hope to like them..
E: So I didn‘t think that it was so flashy. But I always wanted to be unique. Do something a little bit different.
Z: You did it.
E: Yeah I did ! (both laughing)
Z: Oh Happy Day is based on an old Hymn, is this right?
E: It is, yes from the 17th century.
Z: Where I find the Original? This hymn is unknown, I think outside the countries, who don't speak english. Could you explain to me, what you did with this old hymn? Why did you choose this hymn?
E: Aehm (thinking) I can‘t say the reason that I chose that hymn but before I was writing so much of my own material I would take older hymns. In fact on that very first project- most of those are hymns that I re-created..
E: ..so „Oh Happy Day“ was just one of those I re-created. Joy, Joy (looks at the album that I found at Amoeba) was not a hymn necessary. That was done by Raymond Rasberry and I just rearranged that one. I‘m Going Through“ was an older black hymn that I did recreate.
Z: And „Oh Happy Day“...this was also the name of the old hymn?
E: It is (...) So you‘ve got what you needed?
© by zoltán szalatnay