Gospel singer Tramaine Hawkins has been singing devotionals since she was a young girl growing up in Oakland and recorded her first album when she was 10. Not content to preach to the converted, Hawkins has dedicated herself to mainstreaming gospel music--to bring it to audiences beyond her African American, religious base.
Hawkins has done it twice. She sang on her father-in-law Edwin Hawkins' recording of "Oh Happy Day," the breakthrough, million-selling 1969 record that brought gospel music to many secular listeners for the first time. In 1985, her top 10 single on A&M; titled "Fall Down (Spirit of Love)" became a big dance-club hit (while drawing fire from religious conservatives for being too bold).
But these instances of crossover success have brought more frustration than joy to Hawkins, who headlines Sunday evening's "Women in the Gospel" program at the Freedman Forum Concert Theater in Anaheim. Also scheduled to appear are Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Beverly Crawford, LaShun Pace and Mimi Redd.
"A&M; didn't take advantage of a great opportunity," said Hawkins by phone from her home in San Leandro, Calif.
"With the right moves and care, they could have had the best of both worlds. Instead they targeted it for the dance clubs with no interest in embracing the gospel market. They loved the song's beat, but they didn't even consider things--like the lyrics--from a spiritual side. So it never got the exposure it deserved."
Over the years, Hawkins has recorded for both major pop and religious labels (Sparrow, Light) with mixed results. Her latest release on Columbia Records, 1994's "To a Higher Place," offers a moving collection of spirituals defined by Hawkins' soulful edge and soaring soprano. Only once again, the corporate machinery has riled her with what she sees as a lack of proper promotion.
"These conglomerates [Sony-owned Columbia] have the power and money, but what they don't have is the know-how," complains Hawkins. "We had a fabulous project, but they didn't know how to market it. . . . They didn't do their homework. None of their people have a foothold in the gospel world. They're too busy majoring in the minors."
In an attempt to gain greater control over her future releases, Hawkins said she and her manager, Lee Magid, are looking to start their own record company.
If Hawkins sounds dejected and somewhat bitter discussing the business end of music, her mood quickly becomes joyous when the subject turns to her greatest influence--divine gospel great Mahalia Jackson.
Hawkins recalls quite vividly when Jackson first made her rejoice. One night at the Oakland Auditorium in 1961, Hawkins said she was moved to tears when Jackson sang an unforgettable version of "The Lord's Prayer."
"Mahalia wore this glorious, white choir robe, and she put everything into each word she'd sing," recalled Hawkins. "When she got down on her knees to sing 'The Lord's Prayer,' we were all crying. I just can't tell you how beautiful and inspirational it truly was."
With the assistance of digital recording technology, Hawkins got to sing "I Found the Answer" with her idol on "To a Higher Place."
"It was quite amazing to put that piece together," said Hawkins, who was 9 when the song was recorded in 1959. "My manager and I spent a long time looking for a song of Mahalia's that was conducive to us singing as a duet . . . one with the proper tempo and melody. 'I Found the Answer' was just the right one.
"Then we had to avoid the strong temptation to try and update it, because to mess with her extraordinary, magical voice would be a tragedy. So we stayed as true as we possibly could to the spirit and timbre of the original. During the actual recording, everything just clicked, and I felt something down in the pit of my stomach. Let me tell you, we all got goose bumps. It was such a spiritual experience."
Gospel music is also a source of healing for Hawkins. When her mother recently passed away, Hawkins found comfort in the mending powers of music.
"My music has really helped me deal with the pain in my life," she said. "Not one day goes by when I don't think of my mother. Her acceptance of me--and my music--brought joy to her life, and I'm very proud of that.
"When you're going through trying times, you can gain strength by sharing it with someone else. So I feel an obligation to soothe and uplift others whenever I can through my songs."
Most important to Hawkins is reminding people that faith and forgiveness are important principles to live by.
"People get down on themselves because of mistakes they've made in their lives, but we can rise above them," Hawkins says. "I've had some of my dreams shattered, too, like the breakup of my first marriage [to pastor and gospel singer Walter Hawkins]. But we shouldn't give up because we all can dream new dreams. I feel blessed because my relationship with Jesus Christ just gives me even more strength to carry on."
* "Women in the Gospel," featuring Tramaine Hawkins, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Beverly Crawford, LaShun Pace and Mimi Redd, arrives Sunday at the Freedman Forum Concert Theater, 201 E. Broadway, Anaheim. 6 p.m. $19.50-28.50 (714) 999-5485.