Hawkins was born in Oakland and began singing in gospel choirs as a teenager, along with his brothers. In 1967, as a member of the Edwin Hawkins Singers, he recorded “Oh Happy Day,” which would become one of the first gospel-leaning songs to cross over to the mainstream, winning a Grammy and being named one of the RIAA’s Songs of the Century.
Following the success of “Day,” Hawkins enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied for his divinity degree. While at the university, he also recorded his first solo album, titled Do Your Best, in 1972. The following year, he became a pastor and founded the Love Center Church in Oakland, where he also formed the Love Center Choir.
With the choir, he recorded a successful series of albums called Love Alive, which topped the Billboard Gospel Albums charts from the 1970s until the ’90s. The fourth installment, released in 1990, stayed at #1 for an astonishing 33 consecutive weeks. As a songwriter and composer, Hawkins worked with the likes of Van Morrison and Diahann Carroll and was responsible for more than 100 hit songs on the gospel charts.