A Blues for Walter: Remembering a Gospel Legend

“We know who we are by the way we walk. We know who we are by the way we talk. We know who we are by the way we sing. We know who we are by the way we dance. We know who we are by the way we praise the Lord on high.”

— Ralph Ellison, Juneteenth

“What is this, that I feel deep inside and it keeps setting my soul on fire?”

— Walter Hawkins, “What Is This”

No musical genre means more to me than gospel. No disrespect to my 30-something contemporaries who proudly identify themselves as members of the hip-hop generation, but given my tangential relationship to the world of rap music, such identification has always been rather difficult for me. Notwithstanding my profound respect for a cultural movement whose impact on our contemporary world remains singular, the rhythmic narratives emerging out of the boroughs of New York City were neither my story nor my song. Instead, talented musicians committed to updating the gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John captured my imagination and my devotion for much of the 1980s.

Much of this had to do with my rearing in a working-class household in which the artistic brilliance of Reverend James Cleveland and the Caravans was discussed with the same reverence and intensity as the musical genius of James Brown and Marvin Gaye. In fact, as a result of rearing and personal temperament, my deepest, adolescent allegiance was reserved for three gospel groups: the Clark Sisters, the Winans, and the Hawkins family. Comprised of sisters Jacky, Denise, Elbernita (“Twinkie”), Dorinda, and Karen, the Clarks dazzled me with their idiosyncratic harmonic structures, deft improvisational skills, and remarkable showmanship. Likewise, another Detroit-bred group, the Winans, pulled me in with their slick harmonies, polished production, and socially relevant lyrics deeply rooted in the struggles and possibilities of post-industrial America. And then there was the legendary Hawkins clan, the Oakland-bred family whose ascension to gospel superstardom coincided with the meteoric rise of another California-based musical entity (Sly and the Family Stone) whose sonic interventions transformed America’s cultural landscape.

Twenty-five years have passed since my first serious encounter with the Hawkins’ transformative music, but the memories of that experience are as lucid as ever. A couple of months after my father’s passing, a family friend decided that a drive around town would provide a much needed release for an eight-year old presumably still in mourning and shock. A few minutes into the drive, the local gospel station played the latest single from Walter Hawkins’ highly anticipated, 1985 release, Love Alive III. I was quite familiar with Walter Hawkins’ classics like “Goin’ Up Yonder”, “Be Grateful”, “He’s That Kind of Friend”, and “Never Alone”. Yet, the lyrics on his latest release pushed me into unknown territory:

When you’re burdened with the cares of life and your striving seems in vain

Hold your head up high for the deliverance is nigh

When the battle is over

We gon’ shout Hallelujah

Full comprehension of the lyrics’ complex meaning escaped me at the time, but the song’s transcendent message coupled with the impassioned vocals of Lawanda Scroggins and Carol King struck a resonant chord. That otherworldly moment marked the beginning of a love affair that refuses to loosen its grip.

So, gentle reader, forgive me for the rather long-winded introduction to what constitutes a modest attempt to celebrate the life and artistry of one of the leading architects of the contemporary gospel sound: Bishop Walter Hawkins. As many readers are well aware, Walter Hawkins’ passing this month after his courageous battle with pancreatic cancer leaves a void that will never be filled. The greatness of his musical career cannot be gauged solely by counting Grammy, Stellar, and Dove Awards or even records sales — though he excelled in all those categories. To get a sense of his impact on the religious community and the world at large, travel to a storefront church on Sunday morning and witness the ways in which classic Hawkins’ compositions like “Be Grateful” or “Changed” put worshipers on another spiritual plane. Or consider how the playing of “Goin’ Up Yonder” can instantly turn a “funeral” into a “homegoing service”. Only through an engagement with his music at the level of the “everyday” can one arrive at some understanding of the spirit, the genius, and the legacy of Bishop Walter Hawkins. Obviously, no single essay can capture Hawkins’ broad contributions, but this shouldn’t stop us from taking time to give due praise to his amazing accomplishments.

Over the course of his storied career, Hawkins gained international recognition for his artistic vision, his impeccable skills as an arranger, his songwriting gifts, and his heartfelt vocals — which at times seemed strong enough to open the pearly gates of heaven. Conversant with various styles in the black music tradition, Hawkins had unbelievable artistic range in terms of his ability to fuse the best of gospel, rhythm and blues, soul, funk, and even disco. Equally impressive was Hawkins’ commitment to capturing the broad range of the black religious experience. Here’s a man responsible for the majestic elegance of “Be Grateful” as well as the gutbucket, bass and drum funk of “Until I Found the Lord”. No easy feat, I’d say. To his credit, Hawkins not only built an impressive discography, but he created a body of work that has become central to the black liturgical experience.

To fully appreciate Hawkins’ expansive musical mind, one must begin with his regional and family background. A native of Oakland, California, Walter Hawkins was born and reared in the working-class neighborhood of Campbell Village. Nurtured by loving parents who instilled within their eight children a strong sense of self-confidence and purpose, young Walter benefited immensely from his parents’ broad musical palette. Valuable lessons learned as a member of the Church of God in Christ would be complimented rather than compromised by the sounds of the secular world. “Music ran in my family,” Walter’s older brother Edwin once relayed in an interview. “My mother and most of her brothers were musical…One of her brothers was even a jazz musician. So we heard some of that in our home. My mother didn’t close any music out just because she was a Christian. She wasn’t like some Christians we knew that wouldn’t allow jazz to be listened to at home. We listened to it all.” Strong evidence of the family’s wide-ranging musical influences surfaced in 1969, when Edwin Hawkins captured national attention with the crossover hit, “Oh Happy Day”. Certified gold not long after its release, “Oh Happy Day” introduced the world to a family, who in the opinion of many critics, exemplified “a new awakening” in the gospel sound.

One might say that the Hawkins family stood at the center of a regional revolution in black music. Only one year before the release of the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord , which featured “Oh Happy Day”, Bay-area artist Sly Stone put the recording industry in revisionist mode with A Whole New Thing. No doubt, the Hawkins stayed abreast of his rise, since Walter’s future wife, Tramaine Davis, had been in a gospel group (the Heavenly Tones) with Sly’s sister,Vaetta Stewart, during their high school years. Out of the Bay area also came important music by such acts as the Chambers Brothers (whose seminal, “Time Has Come Today” assumed anthem status in ’68), Tower of Power (who, along with members of Earth, Wind, and Fire, would be featured on the 1980 recording, The Hawkins Family Live) and Marvin Holmes and the Uptights.

On the sacred side of black music, the growing popularity of California’s Andrae Crouch, who in 1968 created a stir among the “Jesus Movement” with Take the Message Everywhere , was changing the way people viewed the area West of the Mississippi. Moreover, James Cleveland further tilted the balance of power within the gospel industry with his move from Chicago to Southern California. His relocation to Los Angeles was especially important given the significance of his Gospel Music Workshop of America (GMWA). Founding the historic GMWA in 1968, Cleveland established an institutional structure that brought together artists, record labels, disc jockeys, radio station owners, and churches. Thanks to the training and networks provided by the GMWA, black gospel artists had a venue through which to develop as well as market their talents.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, gospel was making important strides, and the Hawkins family would play a vital role in ensuring the genre’s growth and development. Leading the charge, in many respects, was Walter Hawkins. Not long after concluding divinity studies at the University of California at Berkeley, Hawkins founded the Love Center Church in Oakland in 1973. Over the next five years, he released two recordings which would solidify his status as one of the most innovative singer/songwriter/producers in the gospel field. His critically acclaimed 1975 release, Love Alive, set the world on fire with its judicious blend of Pentecostal fervor, R&B, classic jazz, and soul-drenched funk inspired by interventions within California’s diverse musical world. On full display was Hawkins’ unerring eye for talent, his willingness to absorb the varied rhythms of the African and Latin diaspora, and his insistence on pushing the sonic boundaries of gospel beyond the comfort zone of the genre’s traditionalists.

So far as the product Hawkins put on stage? Nothing in gospel compared sonically, lyrically, or visually. Consequently, Hawkins shows sold out at a remarkable rate and Love Alive flew off the record shelves of mom and pop stores across the country.

Needless to say, tremendous pressure was on Hawkins to duplicate the commercial and artistic success of Love Alive. He didn’t disappoint. Thanks to superb contributions from Tramaine Hawkins, Barbara Rhodes, Edwin Hawkins, Francis Pye, and Lynette Hawkins Stephens, Walter Hawkins laid to rest any doubts about his artistic gifts with Love Alive II, which ranks as one of the most spectacular recordings in gospel music history. Certainly deserving mention in any discussion on the great albums of the 1970s, Love Alive II boasted the stunning opener, “Come by Here, Good Lord”, Tramaine Hawkins’ scorcher, “He’s That Kind of Friend”, Edwin and Walter’s duet, “I’m Goin’ Away”, and the high-stepping, “Right On”. An entire essay could be devoted to this masterful recording, but for time sake let me focus on a song that in my view best represents Walter Hawkins’ uncanny ability to render the complex simple: “Be Grateful”.

Truly a family affair, “Be Grateful” showcases the Hawkins family’s broad talents. Setting the mood for a song that embodies what it means to turn tragedy into triumph, pianist Edwin Hawkins introduces the song’s gorgeous melody, which brother Daniel builds upon with his sweeping strokes on organ. Somewhere around the one minute mark, the choir adds another layer of sonic coloring with the simple yet powerful refrain: “BE-EE-EE-EE-EEEE GRATEFUL.” And then enters Lynette Hawkins Stephens, whose angelic voice beautifully conveys the dignity of a people who have learned to smile amid the tears and never lose sight of the possibility of a brighter tomorrow:

God has not promised me sunshine

that’s not the way it’s going to be

but a little rain mixed with God’s sunshine

a little pain, makes me appreciate the good times

So much more than an amazing collection of songs, Love Alive II provided the blueprint for Hawkins’ contemporaries and his predecessors. Together with Andrae Crouch, Hawkins proved that artistic excellence, craft mastery, and commitment to a much larger spiritual mission were not mutually exclusive. This partly explains why the death of Bishop Walter Hawkins marks the passing of an artist who left us not only with an expansive body of work, but a standard of excellence to which we should all aspire.

Rest in Peace, Brother Hawkins.