Along with his brother Edwin and fellow Californian Andrae Crouch, Walter Hawkins was one of the chief architects of contemporary gospel music.
Walter Lee Hawkins was born on May 18, 1949, in Oakland, California, to Mamie and Dan Lee Hawkins. He sang in the youth choir that his older brother, Edwin Hawkins, directed at the Ephesian Church of God in Christ in Berkeley.
Walter also sang in the Northern California State Youth Choir of the Church of God in Christ. This denominationally based community choir, which Edwin co-founded in 1967, aspired to attend the COGIC Annual Youth Congress in 1968. To raise the funds needed to get there, the choir recorded and sold a privately pressed album, Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord. The opening song was a softly rocking remake of the hymnbook staple Oh Happy Day, with lead vocals by Dorothy Morrison. Oh Happy Day garnered widespread interest when a San Francisco disc jockey began playing it on the radio. Soon other stations added the song to their playlists and Oh Happy Day became a national hit. The album was reissued on Buddah Records’ Pavilion imprint and the choir, renamed the Edwin Hawkins Singers, became an accidental crossover attraction.
Walter traveled with the Edwin Hawkins Singers until the early 1970s, when he earned a master of divinity degree from the University of California at Berkeley and entered the ministry. In 1973, he and Edwin established the Love Center Church in Oakland.
The Love Center Choir, which featured Walter’s sister Lynette and wife, Tramaine Davis Hawkins, recorded Love Alive (Light, 1975). The album introduced Changed and Goin’ Up Yonder to the sacred music lexicon and became one of the biggest selling gospel albums of the 1970s. It sat on the Billboard Top Gospel Albums chart for three consecutive years. Like the Edwin Hawkins Singers, the Love Center Choir set sacred and inspirational lyrics to arrangements that fused soft rock, jazz, soul and gospel. This changed the traditionally churchy feel of gospel to something more like pop music.
The overwhelming success of Love Alive led Hawkins to record a series of Love Alive albums for Light Records: Love Alive II (1978), the million-selling Love Alive III (1990, featuring vocalists Daryl Coley and Bishop Yvette Flunder), Love Alive IV (1993) and Love Alive V (1998), the latter celebrating the Love Center Church’s silver anniversary.
Walter also founded the Hawkins Family, a singing ensemble that author and publicist Bill Carpenter called “gospel’s most successful family act.” It featured Tramaine, Lynette, Edwin and cousins Shirley Miller and Lawrence Matthews. Their several albums for Light, which introduced songs such as What Is This, He’ll Bring You Out and Jesus Christ Is the Way further cemented the Hawkins name in gospel music history. The Hawkins Family’s crossover sound drew sacred and secular music fans to their concerts.
To give back to the music industry that nurtured them, Walter and Edwin organized the Music & Arts Love Fellowship. The annual workshop trains and educates artists on a variety of aspects of gospel music and the gospel music industry.
Walter Hawkins died of pancreatic cancer at his home in Ripon, California, on July 11, 2010. He was 61. In his lifetime, he earned a Grammy Award and eight Grammy nominations, three Dove Awards and a host of other accolades. His songs continue to be sung internationally by church choirs, professional choirs, gospel groups and soloists, and are especially beloved by a generation of singers and musicians for whom Walter and Edwin Hawkins were as important an influence as James Cleveland and Roberta Martin were to the generation before them. [Edwin Hawkins died on January 15, 2018, also of pancreatic cancer, at the age of 74.]
—Robert M. Marovich