The Blues Broads: Dorothy Morrison, Angela Strehli, Annie Sampson, and Tracy Nelson: playing The Freight on Thursday June 26. Photo: Blues Broads
The Blues Broads: Dorothy Morrison, Angela Strehli, Annie Sampson, and Tracy Nelson: at The Freight on Thursday June 26. Photo: Blues Broads
The Blues Broads: Dorothy Morrison, Angela Strehli, Annie Sampson, and Tracy Nelson: at The Freight on Thursday June 26. Photo: Blues Broads

As a young gospel singer, Richmond-raised Dorothy Morrison was used to people catching the spirit in the pews. But nothing prepared her for the lightning strike of gospel’s biggest hit ever, “Oh Happy Day,” which she recorded in 1968 with the Edwin Hawkins Singers at Berkeley’s Ephesian Church of God in Christ. These days, she’s bringing sacred music to the rough-and-ready repertoire of the Blue Broads, the powerhouse foursome that returns Freight & Salvage Thursday June 26 featuring church-proven belter Annie Sampson, blues great Tracy Nelson, and Texas tornado Angela Strehli.

Growing up in a large family suffused with music — two of her nine siblings were in the original Broadway production of Hair — Morrison had recently joined Edwin Hawkins and Betty Watson’s Northern California State Youth Choir when they assembled for the “Oh Happy Day” session. Hawkins brought the new ensemble to the Ephesian Church at Alcatraz and Grove (now Martin Luther King Jr. Way) because he played piano for the congregation, which was led by Reverend E.E. Cleveland (grandfather of the future gospel star Tramaine Hawkins, who was also a member of the Edwin Hawkins Singers).

“We were brand new and getting ready to do an LP,” Morrison recalls, speaking by phone from her home near Sacramento. “The plan was to have some records printed up to sell to members of churches all around us to help fund a trip back east to compete with some other gospel choirs. That was all we were trying to do. But the record caught on fire. It started on the radio and then all the companies heard about it and it just got bigger and bigger. We even got a letter from one of the Beatles saying how much he liked it.”

That Beatle was presumably George Harrison, who has always maintained that he that “Oh Happy Day” inspired him to write “My Sweet Lord” and not The Chiffons hit “He’s So Fine” (though a court ruled otherwise). Adapted by Hawkins from an 18th century hymn, the song features Morrison’s deep contralto and a buoyant piano part designed to get worshipers up and swaying.

“One of my influences at the time was pianist Sergio Mendes,” Hawkins told the Wall Street Journal’s Marc Myers. “I liked how he alternated between major and minor keys and created rhythmic patterns on the keyboard. My piano intro was along those lines.”

With the song taking off on radio and Hawkins besieged by record labels looking to purchase the recording, he sought advice from Mel Reid, who ran Berkeley gospel music store Reid’s Records. Hawkins cut a deal with Buddha Records, but when church elders got wind of what was happening they insisted he drop the name Northern California State Youth Choir, so the Edwin Hawkins Singers were born.

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It’s hard to overstate the influence of the recording, which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Released on Buddha’s new gospel label Pavilion, “Oh Happy Day” peaked at number 4 on the Billboard pop charts in April of 1969. A few months before Joan Baez sang it at Woodstock, Morrison delivered her signature tune with the Edwin Hawkins Singers at Yankee Stadium with the Isley Brothers.

Recorded more than a dozen times, including a version by Glen Campbell that reached the top 40 on three different charts in 1970, “Oh Happy Day” sparked a wave of pop gospel projects. According to Myers, “the song’s rousing gospel spirit paved the way for” Melanie’s “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” featuring the Edwin Hawkins Singers, the 1971 off Broadway hit “Godspell,” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which also featured Morrison on background vocals. Hollywood has also used the song repeatedly.

“In Secretariat it caught me be surprise,” Morrison says. “I went to the movies and I didn’t know my soul was there. I stood up like a little kid, that’s me singing!”

Morrison’s burnished contralto is what makes the original recording such a standout. She credits her brother Bill Coles with encouraging her to explore her lower range when she was about 12 years old.

“I didn’t know I had that low voice,” she says. “My brother was the one who told me that’s what you need to use, because very few ladies have that low voice. When Edwin Hawkins asked me to sing ‘Oh Happy Day,’ I brought my low voice in there, that’s when I started using it. At the end I mixed a ‘good God’ in there, and I got that from James Brown. I was stealing from everybody.”

Morrison went on to have quite a career, bringing gospel fervor to tours with Van Morrison, Boz Scaggs, Delaney and Bonnie, and many others. Her performance with her siblings in the Combs Sisters of “All God’s Children Got Soul” at the 1969 Big Sur Folk Festival was documented on the concert film Celebration at Big Sur. The song was her only solo single to crack the Billboard Top 100.

She had been doing most of her singing in the North Richmond congregation her brother Bill Coles took over from their father, Green Pastures Independent Faith Church, when Strehli approached her joining the Blues Broads with Annie Sampson and Tracy Nelson several years ago.

Sampson also came up singing in church, though she crossed over to secular music early on. She played one of the leads in the original San Francisco production of Hair in the late 1960s and went on to help found the communal band Stoneground, which she stayed with until the end in 1982, long after other founders spun off to launch Pablo Cruise. A sought-after back up singer, she’s recorded with Taj Mahal, Elvis Costello, Maria Muldaur, Journey, Eddie Money, Elvin Bishop, and Jerry Garcia, among many others.

A key figure on the San Francisco music scene in the mid-1960s, Nelson founded the blues rock combo Mother Earth, which played along side of Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Before the end of the decade she had relocated to Nashville, where she collaborated with artists like Willie Nelson. No stranger to sharing stages with fellow female stars, Nelson earned a Grammy nomination for Sing It (Rounder), her 1998 collaboration with Marcia Ball and Irma Thomas.

Strehli earned her stripes on Austin’s hothouse music scene in the 1970s, where she helped turn the club Antone’s into an essential creative hub as artistic director. Mentored by many of the artists she booked, such as blues giants Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, and Albert Collins, she gained confidence to take the stage herself.

When Sampson and Strehli first tried to convince Morrison to join the new endeavor she was more than hesitant. “I was brought up not to sing secular music,” she says. “Angela had a hard time convincing me it would be okay. I went by her place in Marin, and I loved her voice, she has a low voice like mine. But I told her I can’t sing blues. She said, you can sing gospel with us. We’ll back you up. That got me. I was okay with it. But I still flinch a bit when they say, you sing with the Blue Broads.”

Visit the Freight & Salvage online for details and tickets.

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Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....