Music Thursday: Crossover Recordings

January 24, 2013

File: Record albums.

"Oh Happy Day" by The Edwin Hawkins Singers

If you were around in 1969, it’s unlikely that you missed hearing a recording by the Edwin Hawkins Singers called “Oh Happy Day.” It’s said to be the first traditional gospel song to ever cross over and hit the pop chart’s top 5. And it happened by accident. Hawkins was a gospel pianist and arranger in Berkeley, Calif. “Oh Happy Day” was one of several arrangements he put together for an album recording session for his choir with Dorothy Morrison on lead vocals. The group used an old two-track machine to record the songs in the church sanctuary. They hoped to sell a modest 500 copies, enough to finance the choir’s trip to compete in a competition in Washington D.C. They didn’t win, but when they got back home, they discovered that a San Francisco DJ was playing the record. It caught fire locally and then across the country. There was a bit of local controversy about the record: Some members of the denomination circulated a petition asking secular radio stations to stop playing it, though their efforts were unsuccessful. Over the years, there have been several versions of “Oh Happy Day.” One of those was featured in the 1993 movie Sister Act II with Whoopi Goldberg.

"Be My Love" by Mario Lanza

Mario Lanza was an operatic tenor who became a Hollywood movie star in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. During his early years in opera, he took on a major role in a New Orleans Opera’s presentation of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. He also starred in a hit movie called The Great Caruso about the life of opera great Enrico Caruso. I became aware of Mario Lanza when I was about 10. I loved listening to the radio and absorbed everything I heard. It was 1951, so I wasn’t distracted by “too much television.” All the pop music programs consistently played a recording called “Be My Love” from Lanza’s second film. He had a great voice, and I was impressed. As it turns out, I was not the only one. The record hit number 1 on the Billboard pop chart and sold more than 2 million copies. There was no official category called crossover in 1951, but if there had been, Mario Lanza’s recording of “Be My Love” would have defined it perfectly.

"Stuck On You" by Lionel Richie

Lionel Richie is perhaps best known as a founding member of the very successful soul/funk band, the Commodores. He’s also a Grammy-winning solo artist and songwriter with an astounding track record of writing and recording credits. On his 1993 album release called Can’t Slow Down, the fourth single called “Stuck On You” had a decidedly country flavor. In fact on the cover of that single release, there’s a photo of Richie wearing a cowboy hat and a western shirt. “Stuck On You” did well on the country music charts and hit number one on the Adult Contemporary chart. Richie had success last year with the release of a country album called Tuskegee with a number of guest performers, including Tim McGraw, Willie Nelson and Kenny Chesney.