Oh Happy Day

One of the most well-known spirituals in the gospel music tradition. It dates back to an 18th century hymn, written a clergyman named Philip Doddridge. It was refreshed in the 19th century by English organist Edward Francis Rimbault, who gave the song it’s chorus.

But “Oh Happy Day” found it’s place and prominence in gospel through an arrangement performed by the Edward Hawkins Singers in 1968. That arrangement, created in 1967, quickly became a standard in popular music. The list of notable artists that have performed the arrangement is long and diverse, and Aretha added her name to that list in 1987.

On her third and final gospel LP, 1987’s One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, Aretha returned to her home parish, her father’s New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit and recorded 3 nights of services. She included “Oh Happy Day” in the program, and performed it alongside fellow gospel luminary Mavis Staples.

The two legends trade lines and soul-stirring runs over a notably slowed-down arrangement of the song. The choir is mixed way back, leaving room for Aretha and Mavis to unleash. Their collaboration is stellar, and they vibe off of each other so well. Yet the vocals heard on record are not the ones recorded in the New Bethel Baptist Church on that fateful July day.

In fact, the vocals released on “Oh Happy Day” on One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism were recorded in the studio. Aretha didn’t like the takes and off they went to re-record. That wasn’t uncommon. When Aretha recorded Amazing Grace in 1972, they went back into the studio and heavily edited those recordings, for time and for polishing purposes. However, David Ritz  painted a different picture in 2014’s Respect: The Life Of Aretha Franklin. Aretha’s sister Erma recalled that Aretha

was convinced that (Mavis’) voice overwhelmed hers. Singing with the one other gospel singer who could rightfully be called her equal, Aretha felt threatened… she had nothing to worry about, (and)… the two of them sounded great together. The voices were completely complimentary. But Aretha didn’t hear it that way. She put Mavis’ voice so low in the mix that you could barely hear it. It became an ordeal and caused a serious falling-out.

But to my ears, Mavis sounds nearly even with Aretha in the mix. Perhaps the mix was re-done before the album was released.

I’ve been asked to keep the original take to myself (for now) but I’m hoping it will reach you all soon.

Listen to Aretha & Mavis converge for “Oh Happy Day”:


“In The Storm Too Long.” Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, by David Ritz, Little, Brown & Company, 2014, pp. 376–377.

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