Tramaine Hawkins is the reigning diva of gospel music. Serving God through her voice since childhood, Hawkins has made it a mission to reach more than just black Christian audiences with her music. In the mid-1980s she made serious progress reaching that goal when her song “Fall Down” reached Number One on Billboard’s dance chart. Emerge characterized her stature thus: “Tramaine Hawkins doesn’t just sing a song, she lives it… Heralded as a living gospel legend, she’s been touching the souls of millions for more than 30 years.”
Born Tramaine Aunzola Davis on October 11, 1951, in San Francisco, California, Hawkins began singing at age four when her family relocated across the bay to Berkeley. She spent summer vacations with her aunt, evangelist Ernestine Cleveland Reems, performing at churches and revival meetings around the country. Hawkins recorded her first single at age ten, singing “He’s All Right” with the Heavenly Tones for the Music City label. Two years later gospel legend James Cleveland produced the Heavenly Tones album I Love the Lord for Savoy’s Gospel label. The album sold well enough to support a small tour of California. When Hawkins was 15, the Heavenly Tones—which included funkateer Sly Stone’s sister Vaetta Stewart—accepted an offer to tour with Sly and the Family Stone. Hawkins decided to finish high school rather than join the tour.
During high school and afterwards, Hawkins sang with Walter Hawkins’s Praises of God and with the Edwin Hawkins Singers (she would later marry Walter Hawkins). In 1970 she moved to Los Angeles to join Andraé Crouch and the Disciples, singing lead on the group’s Grammy-nominated Liberty single “Christian People.” After her time with Crouch, Hawkins returned to the San Francisco Bay area, briefly rejoining the Edwin Hawkins Singers. She then became the star soloist of her husband’s Love Alive Choir, singing on the first three Love Alive albums recorded by the group for Light Records. “Changed” and “Going Up Yonder,” from Love Alive 1, the group’s best-selling 1975 debut, became radio staples thanks to Hawkins’s powerful vocal presence.
But it was for an all-star performance of “The Lord’s Prayer” in 1980 that Hawkins won her first Grammy Award. She also made her solo debut with the album Tramaine that year, following it up in 1983 with Determined. Both albums were produced by Walter Hawkins and both received Grammy nominations.
For the Record…
Born Tramaine Aunzola Davis, October 11, 1951, in San Francisco, CA; daughter of Roland Duvall Davis and Lois Ruth Davis; married Walter Hawkins, early 1970s (divorced); children: Jamie, Trystan.
Began singing in church at the age of four; recorded first single, “He’s All Right,” with the Heavenly Tones, Music City Records, c. 1961; sang with Walter Hawkins’s Praises of God; as member of Edwin Hawkins Singers, recorded “O Happy Day,” 1969; recorded with Andraé Crouch and the Disciples, beginning in 1970; recorded with Walter Hawkins&the Love Alive Choir, beginning in 1975; signed as solo artist with Light Records and released album Tramaine, 1980; signed with Rejoice/A&M, 1985, and released The Search Is Over, 1986; signed with Sparrow Records and released The Joy That Floods My Soul, 1988; signed with Columbia Records and released To a Higher Place, 1994. Appeared in theater productions God’s Trombones and The Gospel Truth and television program Gabriel’s Fire, ABC-TV, 1991.
Awards: Grammy awards for single “The Lord’s Prayer,” 1980, and album Tramaine Hawkins Live, 1990.
Addresses: Record company —Columbia Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022-3211.
In the fall of 1984 former RCA Records executive Robert Wright approached Hawkins with the techno-funk-flavored “Fall Down (Spirit of Love).” Although she worried that people would call her a “sell-out”—wrongly perceiving that she had abandoned gospel for pop-Hawkins decided to record the song. “I finally decided that people will always criticize you when you do something they’re not accustomed to,” she told Billboard’s Nelson George.
In 1985, on the strength of her demo recordings of “Fall Down” and two other Wright-produced songs, A&M’s Rejoice imprint signed Hawkins to an album deal. “Fall Down,”” which A& M released as a single, became a huge crossover hit, topping Billboard’s dance chart. Hawkins was not new to crossover success, though— she appeared on the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ fluke 1969 hit, “Oh Happy Day,” which hit Number Five on the pop chart and was one of the first songs to present an uncompromising Christian message to a Top 40 audience. Still, Hawkins could not have been prepared for the controversy surrounding “Fall Down.”
The cut was considered too secular by many and caused a rift in the gospel community. Hawkins told James Earl Hardy in Emerge that the work she and the rest of the Hawkins family have done, as well as that of other contemporary gospel acts, has been “’raked over the coals for years by die-hard churchgoing folk’ who disagree with how the Hawkinses present gospel music to the masses.” She went on to point out, “Church people tend to be very picky about things that they consider sacred. But even though some of the work may have offended some people, the music has brought souls to Christ.”
After recording two albums for Rejoice, Hawkins began looking for a record label that would actively spearhead her mission to spread gospel beyond its traditional marketplace. In an interview with Bob Darden in Billboard, she said, “[I’d] gone to a number of record companies because I [had] a desire to try and create and market gospel music that could reach the masses. But they were satisfied to sell the same number of records each time…. They were content with their audience in the Christian bookstores. And that audience, more often than not, didn’t include any young people… both theother artists and the record labels just assumed that the secular audience didn’t want what we were offering or that it wouldn’t appeal to them.”
In 1988 Hawkins signed with Sparrow Records. She recorded two albums for the label. The first, The Joy That Floods My Soul, was nominated for a Grammy, and the second, Tramaine Hawkins Live, won the coveted award. Though it featured such greats as rock guitarist Carlos Santana, jazz organist Jimmy McGriff, and jazz saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, it made few waves outside the gospel community. Undaunted, Hawkins continued to pursue a wider audience.
At the 1991 American Music Awards Hawkins opened the show with its host, Hammer, performing aversion of “Saviour, Do Not Pass Me By” that was featured on Hammer’s best-selling album Too Legit to Quit. Maintaining her increasingly mainstream profile, she was a major participant in Reprise Records’ Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration and performed at the 1992 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. In addition to her work as a vocalist, Hawkins has tried her hand at acting. She appeared with Ossie Davis in a Philadelphia presentation of God’s Trombones and later worked with Johnny Brown in Chicago and Baltimore productions of The Gospel Truth. In 1991 Hawkins made her television debut as a featured guest alongside James Earl Jones in ABC’s Gabriel’s Fire.
In 1994 Hawkins signed with Columbia Records in what was perhaps the most significant label pact with a gospel artist since Mahalia Jackson joined Columbia in 1954. Hawkins’s To a Higher Place featured both semi-classical and pop overtones. It boasted a version of “Amazing Grace” and a duet with the late Jackson on “I Found the Answer,” made possible by modern digital recording technology. “She treats the timeless ‘Amazing Grace, ’” opined Vibe, “with a mixture of passion and restraint worthy of Whitney Houston’s best ballads.” (In fact, Billboard’s Darden once allowed, “Before there could be a Whitney Houston, there had to be a Tra-maine Hawkins.”) About the duet with Jackson Vibe reported, “If the concept smacks of exploitation— especially considering that the two share little more than the same label—Tramaine manages to pull it off with aplomb by lowering her register and toughening her tone; it’s sometimes difficult to tell the two voices apart.”
Hawkins told Lisa Collins in Billboard that To a Higher Place was her best work to date, venturing, “I think that I’ve finally come into my own, and I’m capable with this kind of production to reach a massive audience without losing the integrity of gospel. The Bible says to praise Him on the high sounding cymbals…. I think it takes gospel to a higher place, and that’s good.”
“I was placed on this earth to sing music that uplifts, that soothes, that consoles,” Hawkins told Emerge’s Hardy. “I am just doing what God wants me to do.” And if Hawkins can spread the gospel—and the guidance and joy she finds in it—beyond where it has thus far reached, she’s happy tooblige. “There’s a certain place when I’m performing onstage where it’s almost like I know that God is listening to me,” she wrote in Essence. “It’s like His presence, His Spirit, is sitting right there, and He’s saying, ‘Go on, girl—go this way, say this, now just stop right there,’ you know? And when I think about it, it brings tears to my eyes, It has a spirit. And it’s awesome.”
Tramaine, Light, 1980.
Determined, Light, 1983.
Fall Down” (Spirit of Love),” A&M, 1985.
Tramaine: Treasury, Light, 1986.
The Search Is Over, A&M/Rejoice, 1986.
Freedom, A&M/Rejoice, 1987.
The Joy That Floods My Soul, Sparrow, 1988.
Tramaine Hawkins Live, Sparrow, 1990.
(Contributor) Hammer, “Saviour, Do Not Pass Me By,” Too Legit to Quit, Capitol, 1992.
(Contributor) Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration, Reprise, 1992.
To a Higher Place, Columbia, 1994.
Also recorded I Love the Lord with the Heavenly Tones, Gospel/Savoy, c. 1963; “O Happy Day” with the Edwin Hawkins Singers, 1969; “Christian People” with Andra6 Crouch and the Disciples, c. 1970; and three albums with Walter Hawkins&the Love Alive Choir, beginning with Love Alive 1, 1975, among other recordings.
Billboard, November 2, 1985; September 17, 1988; September 24, 1988; December 10, 1994.
California Voice, September 19, 1986; April 4, 1986; October 28, 1988.
Cash Box, July 15, 1989.
East Bay Express (Oakland, CA), May 18, 1990.
Emerge, April 1993.
Essence, May 1995.
Jet, May 6, 1991; September 9, 1991.
Vibe, November 1994.
Village Voice, October 8, 1985.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Columbia Records press materials, 1994.
Hawkins, Tramaine 1951–
Tramaine Hawkins 1951–
For more than twenty-five years, Tramaine Hawkins has delivered the message of the Gospel through her professional career in gospel music. She began singing when only four years old, in the Ephesian Church of God in Christ in Berkeley, California where her grandfather was pastor. Though Hawkins developed her passion for gospel music during childhood, her career accelerated in 1969 when the Northern California State Choir—which she had joined—recorded, “Oh Happy Day.” The secular world was enthralled with the two-hundred-year-old gospel song and it was indeed a happy day for Hawkins. Her first performance with the choir after the song’s success was at Madison Square Garden.
As a child, Hawkins sang with the Sunshine Band and later with the Heavenly Tones, a group of four girls. After eleven years together, the Heavenly Tones began to get offers to sing at secular jobs, but Hawkins felt her calling was still gospel music. This sense of vocation has always been what motivated her to change any barrier to that goal. In 1995, she told Essence magazine, “The real purpose, I feel, for my being here is not just to sing gospel, but to minister gospel.” When the Northern California State Choir’s name was chaged to the Edwin Hawkins Singers and the choir started to do a lot of club dates for entertainers, such as the Jackson Five and Diana Ross, Hawkins chose to leave the group.
For eleven months, she sang with Andraé Crouch’s Disciples, later admitting to Twila Knaak, of Christian Herald, “The Lord really has a way of planning your life. That experience broadened my feel for gospel music and now I think I have more to offer.” Yet Hawkins missed her old group and rejoined it. In 1970, after touring Europe with the Edwin Hawkins Singers, Walter Hawkins—who played the piano even when Tramaine sang with the Heavenly Tones and the brother of Edwin—proposed and Tramaine accepted. During their many years of marriage, Tramaine worked side by side with Walter, also a singer, recording artist, composer, arranger, producer, and the pastor of the Love Center Church in Oakland, California.
Eventually they divorced and Tramaine married Tommy Richardson. On occasion, Walter and Tramaine still work together. In 1990, Walter quoted in East Bay
Born Tramaine Aunzola Davis Hawkins, October 11, 1951, in San Francisco, CA; daughter of Roland Duvall Davis and Lois Ruth Davis; married Walter Hawkins, 1970, divorced; children: Jamie, Trystan; married Tommy Richardson; children: Demar, Religion: Church of Hope Community Church. Gospel artist. Vocalist with the Heavenly Tones, the Northern California State Choir, Andraé Crouch and the Disciples, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, and the Walter Hawkins Love Center Choir.
Selected awards: Two Grammys, two Dove Awards, two Communications Excellence to Black Audiences Awards, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Image Award, Stellar Award, British Gospel Music Award, several awards from James Cleveland’s Gospel Music Workshop of America; Gospel Music Excellence Award, Tramaine Hawkins Live, 1991.
Addresses: Office —Gospel Singer, c/o Sony Record, 1 Sony Dr., Park Ridge, NJ 07656.
Express saying of other gospel song writers, “They can’t write for Tramaine like I can.” Lee Hildebrand, in the East Bay Express, explained, “What makes her so special is the rich quality and sheer strength of her voice, the urgency of her delivery, and the clarity of her enunciation. To her, the message of her songs is all-important and she never allows purely musical devices to dilute it.” Hawkins has a controversial, contemporary style that has been criticized over the years. According to Hildebrand, Hawkins raised suspicion in 1985 within the gospel community when her techno-funk hit, “Fall Down,” from the Spirit of Love album, topped the dance charts despite the religious content of its lyrics. After the uproar, Hawkins felt that everyone but her family and church family had turned their backs on her.
In a 1990 concert, still daring, Hawkins brought in musicians and singers from outside the gospel field to participate in a live-recording project, including rock guitarist Carlos Santana, jazz organist Jimmy McGriff, and jazz tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine. Jazz and gospel share common roots, but it is rare for them to cross paths since many churchgoers view jazz as “the devil’s music.” Jon Michael Spencer, an authority on African American hymnal music and music history, challenged that concept with his book, Blues and Evil. He explained how spirituals were a “precious gift squeezed out of the toils and tears of our ancestral afflictions,” and how the blues were like them. Carolyn M. Jones, in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, notes, “The blues is a form of prayer, concerned both with life in the world and with the after life, and the blues can also be eulogy, mourning loss in times of tragedy. The performance, the preaching, of the blues lays bare the theological meaning of African-American life.” Tramaine Hawkins’s success with her mixing of traditional gospel, blues, jazz, and other singing styles helped create what is called contemporary gospel.
Contemporary gospel has broad appeal. In 1996, when the Lincoln Center Festival committee in New York City decided the music for that year would be gospel music, Tramaine Hawkins was one of the artists chosen to perform. Jon Pareles, in the New York Times, described Hawkins as, “Like other current gospel singers, she keeps one foot in old gospel styles while testing possibilities. Her set included a Mahalia Jackson song along with a quasi-country tune and a pop-soul ballad, all with proselytizing lyrics.” Pareles claimed Hawkins could turn a song into a “fervent, flamboyant testimonial.”
Those knowledgeable about the gospel music scene continue to recognize Hawkins’s influence. In 1997, Anne Elletson of the British Broadcasting Corporation, and one of the producers of “The Story of Gospel Music,” part of the Great Performances documentary series in which Hawkins appeared, commented, “In many ways, the story of gospel music is the story of black America.” According to Fletcher Roberts of the New York Times, “Gospel grew out of traditional spirituals and hymns and the Pentecostal revivalism that was taking place at the turn of the century. It is as peculiarly American a hybrid as are jazz and blues, with which it has shared a sometimes uneasy relationship.” Gospel’s biggest commercial breakthrough, according to Roberts, came with the release of “Oh Happy Day,” a song Hawkins continues to perform. Hawkins remarked in the “Story of Gospel Music” production, “We’re singing the words of life in accordance with what we believe in.”
Hawkins has recorded at least nine solo albums and won numerous awards, including two Grammys, two Dove Awards, and two Communications Excellence to Black Audiences [CEBA] Awards. Awards are not what ignites Hawkins, though. She explained to Essence, when asked about the source of her magic, “There’s a certain place when I’m performing onstage where it’s almost like I know that God is listening to me. It’s like His presence, His Spirit, is sitting right there, and he’s saying, ’Go on, girl—go this way, say this, now just stop right there,’ you know? And when I think about it, it brings tears to my eyes. It has a spirit. And it’s awesome.” Awesome is certainly one way to describe Tramaine Hawkins when she has the spirit.
Tramaine, Light Records, 1980.
Determined, Light Records, 1983.
Spirit of Love, Light Records, 1985.
Tramaine: Treasury, Light Records, 1986.
The Search Is Over, World Records, 1986.
Freedom, World Records, 1987.
The Joy That Floods My Soul, Sparrow Records, 1988.
Tramaine Hawkins, Live!, Sparrow Records, 1990.
All My Best to You, Sparrow Records, 1994.
Higher Place, Columbia Records, 1994.
Vocalist on numerous other albums, such as the first three Love Alive albums recorded by Walter Hawkins.
Spencer, Jon Michael, Blues and Evil, University of Tennessee Press (Knoxville), 1993.
Christian Herald, October 1980, pp. 36-38.
East Bay Express, May 18, 1990, pp. 24-25.
Essence, May 1995, p. 60.
Jet, May 6, 1991, p. 57; September 9, 1991, p. 54.
Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Spring 1996, pp. 181-85.
New York Times, July 19, 1996, sec. C, p. 23; July 24, 1996, sec. C, p. 14; February 2, 1997, sec. 12, p. 3.