Edwin Hawkins passed away last week at the age of 74. If his name sounds familiar, it’s probably because you are a boomer who recalls Hawkins’ one hit, Oh Happy Day, from 1969.
He wrote the song as part of an album intended to be sold as a fund-raiser for his church to attend a gospel competition. A local San Francisco radio station began playing the song and it got the attention of listeners. The song was re-released under the group’s new name, the Edwin Hawkins Singers. It sold more than seven million copies and won a Grammy Award for best soul gospel performance. Though it was the group’s only Top 10 hit, they toured, sang gospel and in 1970, backed up Melanie on her hit, Lay Down (Candles in the Rain).
Rock music was always an amalgam of gospel, rhythm & blues and jazz from the start. Many of rock’s earliest stars — including Elvis Presley — got their start singing gospel in their churches. The country had self-identified as predominantly Christian for a few decades before the Boomer Generation. According to a Gallup poll published in 2005, the U.S. Christian population peaked in the mid-50s at around 92 percent. So it should come as no surprise that gospel-tinged tunes found their way into the charts during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Here are a few of the many that got the attention of boomers listening to their transistor radios and 45 RPM records:
Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)
Written by Pete Seeger in the 1950s, it was first released on an album by the Limeliters in 1962, then by Seeger himself, then the Byrds had a Number One hit with it in 1965. The lyrics were adapted from the English version of the first eight verses of the third chapter of the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes. No boomer collection of Byrds tunes would be complete without it.
People Get Ready
Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions recorded this tune in 1965. The soul and gospel-tinged song has an overtly Christian religious theme but Mayfield himself said he wrote it as a response to what was happening in the Civil Rights Movement after he attended the March on Washington, heard Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech, and the subsequent church bombings in Alabama. Ultimately, it was a song about redemption and triumph over evil. Mister Boomer always enjoyed the melody and Mayfield’s soulful voice.
Sympathy for the Devil
The Rolling Stones released this rock classic in 1968. Mick Jagger sang as the devil in this song about temptation. The lyric content took a back seat to an incredibly danceable beat.
Spirit in the Sky
It was the infectious and memorable fuzz-guitar theme that propelled Norman Greenbaum’s one-hit wonder to the charts for sixteen weeks spanning the two decades between 1969 and ’70. It sold over two million copies. Mister Boomer’s sister bought the 45 RPM, and it is now in Mister Boomer’s collection.
Put Your Hand in the Hand
Written by Gene MacLellan, it was first recorded by Canadian artist Anne Murray for her third album, Honey, Wheat and Laughter in 1970. It became a hit for fellow Canadian band, Ocean, in 1971. A slew of popular recording artists released their version of the song in the years that followed, including Bing Crosby, Joan Baez and Loretta Lynn, to name a few.
Jesus Is Just Alright
The Byrds released the tune in 1969, but most boomers will remember the re-recorded 1975 version by the Doobie Brothers. As with all of the spiritually-themed music of the era, it was the music and not the lyric content that caught the ear of boomers. Catchy tunes climbed the charts, regardless of whether they had any spiritual message.
There were dozens of other songs that mentioned God or the Christian religion in some way, by almost all of the popular recording artists of the day. As the stream of these tunes on the charts started to fade in the late sixties, some say the excesses of “free love” and “turn on, tune in, drop out” culminated with the rock musical Hair in 1968. That counterculture was then countered itself with more religious-themed rock of the 1970s. As art imitates life, it brought us the Broadway musicals, Jesus Christ Superstar in 1970 and Godspell in 1972. Anne Murray’s version of the title song Jesus Christ Superstar was on the charts in 1971 and then was followed by covers by several people. I Don’t Know How to Love Him from JC Superstar was also on the charts in 1971 and the Broadway cast performance of Day by Day from Godspell hit Billboard’s #13 in 1972.
The numbers of almost all religious denominations has been steady falling since the end of the Boomer Generation. The number of people in the U.S. identifying as Christian has dropped to around 70 percent as more people are checking the “no religious affiliation” box these days. It is Mister Boomer’s contention that it was always the criteria that kids used on American Bandstand to rate records that indicated which songs made it to the Top 10: is it a catchy tune and can you dance to it? Nonetheless, you’ll find predominantly Christian religious-tinged tunes still hitting the Top 10 from time to time, on the Rock, Rhythm & Blues and Country charts.
Do you own any of the religious-themed records from the fifties, sixties or seventies, boomers? Did you buy them for the music or religious content?