Hawkins died at his home in Pleasanton, California. He had been suffering from pancreatic cancer, publicist Bill Carpenter told the Associated Press.
An Oakland native and one of eight siblings, Hawkins was a composer, keyboardist, arranger and choir master. He had been performing with his family and in church groups since childhood and in his 20s helped form the Northern California State Youth Choir.
“Oh Happy Day,” featuring the vocals of Dorothy Combs Morrison, was released as a single credited to the Edwin Hawkins Singers and became a million-seller in 1969, showing there was a large market for gospel songs and for inspirational music during the turbulent era of the late 1960s.
“I think our music was probably a blend and a crossover of everything that I was hearing during that time,” Hawkins told blackmusic.com in 2015. “We grew up hearing all kinds of music in our home. My mother, who was a devout Christian, loved the Lord and displayed that in her lifestyle.
“My father was not a committed Christian at that time but was what you'd call a good man,” he said. “And, of course, we heard from him some R&B music but also a lot of country and western when we were younger kids.”
In 1970, the Hawkins singers backed Melanie on her top 10 hit “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” and won a Grammy for best soul gospel performance for “Oh Happy Day.”
Meanwhile, George Harrison would cite “Oh Happy Day” as inspiration for his hit “My Sweet Lord,” and Glen Campbell reached the adult contemporary charts with his own version of the Hawkins performance. Elvis Presley, Johnny Mathis and numerous others also would record it.