By Michael P Coleman
Every January for the last two decades, Sacramento has hosted a premier event commemorating the visionary leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This year, the event’s planning committee has really kicked things up a notch.
Gospel music legend Lady Tramaine Hawkins, who was born in the Bay Area and calls Sacramento her home, will be headlining this year’s 20th anniversary MLK Celebration, to be held Saturday, January 26 at Sacramento State University.
I caught up with Hawkins last week, as she prepares for this year’s celebration, and found her to be warm and accessible — just like the dozens of masterpieces that she has recorded during her stellar career.
“When they called me and asked me to participate, I was thrilled,” Hawkins shared during our EXCLUSIVE interview. “I don’t get many opportunities to minister and sing in my home town. For most of my performances, I have to get on a plane and travel three or four hours, because the Hawkins Family music was so beloved in the Midwest and on the east coast. So any time I have the opportunity to minister and perform here at home, I jump at it.”
“I’ve known and have had a personal connection with the King family,” Hawkins continued. “Down through the years, they have called on me to participate in major events, like the unveiling of the Dr. Martin Luther King monument in Washington, DC. I was so thrilled to be a part of that. For me, it was such a long time coming.”
Hawkins performing at Sacramento’s annual MLK event is a long time coming, too! The 67-year-old phenomenon, with that peerless, piercing mezzo-soprano, has been a fixture in gospel music for over 50 years. As a teenager, Hawkins graced the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ groundbreaking “Oh Happy Day” recording before lending her voice to the classic Love Alive albums, songs like “Changed” and “Goin’ Up Yonder,” and the launch of her solo career.
Soon thereafter, Hawkins found herself breaking ground again as her smash “Fall Down,” which she says she recorded in a single take, became a #1 dance song all over the world. The song changed the face of gospel music and paved the way for acts like BeBe & CeCe, The Sounds Of Blackness, and Kirk Franklin — and most of today’s contemporary gospel artists. However, by inadvertently entrancing club goers, Hawkins alienated her traditional church base.
Through it all, the legend experienced God’s unchanging hand at work on “Fall Down” — and on all of her projects.
“Every time I had success with gospel, I would always have another musical avenue present itself on the secular side,” Hawkins reflected. “Even though the lyrics of ‘Fall Down’ — ‘Spirit, fall down on me’ — were inspirational, the music was, with that bass, what we called ‘urban’ or ‘R & B’. ‘Fall Down’ opened major doors for us in the secular field, but it really upset a lot of people in the gospel field. I was the darling of gospel music at the time, and they weren’t having any of it!”
Hawkins quickly placated her traditional gospel fans, first with the shimmering “What Shall I Do?” from her The Joy That Floods My Soul album, and then with her Grammy-winning Tramaine Hawkins Live project, featuring the classic “The Potter’s House.” Ironically, Hawkins recorded that duet, which ministers of spiritual reconciliation, with her ex-husband, gospel legend Walter Hawkins, who had written many of her early hits.
As I come from a family where former spouses would rather die than speak to each other, let alone work together, I had to ask Hawkins about the inspiration for recording with her ex husband!
“Sometimes you have a level of comfort with a person whom you trust musically, and we had that with each other,” Hawkins recalls of Walter, whom the world lost in 2010. “I could have gotten another producer to come in and do what we had in mind, but it didn’t feel right with anyone else.”
“Tramaine Hawkins Live is an album that stands the test of the ages,” Hawkins continued. “People are still listening to and buying that album. It’s phenomenal, and I’m very grateful.”
In addition to “The Potter’s House,” Tramaine Hawkins Live features guests Carlos Santana and Jimmy McGriff, the declarative “Who Is He,” the rousing “Praise The Name Of Jesus,” and a 25 minute medley that is undoubtedly responsible for the Best Traditional Gospel Album Grammy that Hawkins took home that year.
“Being the daughter and granddaughter of a bishop, that whole setting is very comfortable,” Hawkins shared of recording live in church. “I believe I do my best work there. I feed off of the audience, they feed off of me, and I feed off of the dwelling of the Holy Spirit. Where two or three are gathered together, He’ll be in the midst. I have recorded albums in the studio, but I think my most memorable pieces have been the live recordings.”
Just as she surprised fans with “Fall Down,” Hawkins followed up the traditional Tramaine Hawkins Live with a high profile secular project with another Bay Area export, rapper MC Hammer, “Do Not Pass Me By.”
“My son, Jamie Hawkins, had been playing with Lauryn Hill and Boys II Men, and he started playing with MC Hammer, so that’s how I met him,” Hawkins remembered. “I had no idea that he would choose me to be on that track, because at that time I had been exclusively doing gospel. It says a lot about gospel music being able to adapt, and it opened another door [for me] to minister to a broader audience.”
Another surprising duet followed that one: “I Found The Answer,” a posthumous partnership with one of Hawkins’ inspirations, Mahalia Jackson. Hawkins said she had been inspired to record it by “Unforgettable,” Natalie Cole’s virtual duet with her father, Nat “King” Cole.
“That was a beautiful piece that Natalie did with her dad,” Hawkins shared, “and Mahalia has always been one of my favorite singers. She is the voice of gospel. Many, many years ago, my grandmother took me to see her at the Oakland Auditorium. I think I was about eight or nine years old, and I remember her singing in a robe, with her up ‘do on and those curls that she used to wear on top of her head. And Mahalia rocked that place — she was so, so inspiring. When I got home, I told my grandmother that that was what I wanted to do.”
“Years later, when Columbia Records presented me with the opportunity to take one of Mahalia’s pieces and intermingle my voice with hers, and do the gospel version of “Unforgettable,” I was totally up for it.”
While Hawkins has begun thinking about the day when she will retire, she thinks she has “one or two” albums left to record before she steps away from the mike for the final time…as well as at least one other exciting new project.
“We just started conceptualizing a musical documentary,” Hawkins confided, “and I hope to be able to present it sometime in the next year.”
As Hawkins’ northern California fans await that project, they will undoubtedly be bolstered by the artist’s stirring voice at this year’s MLK Celebration at Sacramento State University on January 26. Just as she did so many years ago with “The Potter’s House,” Hawkins will minister about the need for us to unify.
“I’m so honored to have been asked to continue being a part of Dr. King’s legacy, and to promote what he stood for: hope, love, togetherness, peace, and coming together regardless of nationality, race, or creed,” Hawkins said. “What a time it is to put that message forth in the year that we’re living in, with the chaos that’s happening in our world and in these United States.”
“I’m just going to lift my voice and share my love, give back to the community, and hopefully be an example of what Dr. King stood for. We really need to stand up and be a light in the time that we’re living in now.”
Tickets to experience Lady Tramaine Hawkins, and information on this year’s MLK Celebration in Sacramento, are available at mlkcelebrationsacramento.org.
22 total views