Walter Hawkins Interview
Originally published 12/29/04
When most of today’s gospel artists talk about artists they were influenced by, you’ll almost certainly see one name near the top of that list. That name is Walter Hawkins. The Hawkins name has been synonymous with perfectly crafted gospel music. Tramaine, Edwin and Walter Hawkins are a significant part of gospel music history and have paved the way for many of today’s most popular artists.
At the pen of Walter, he created hits like I’m Going Away, Goin’ Up Yonder, He’s That Kind Of Friend, Is There Any Way, Holy One, Changed, Dear, Jesus, I Love You, Be Grateful, I Love You, Lord, Highway, Special Gift, Marvelous, Thank You and the list goes On & On (recorded by Jennifer Holliday).
His beginnings in the gospel music industry started in 1968 when he attempted to raise money for a church youth choir by recording an album. The recording was Let Us Go Into The House Of The Lord. Initially, the album was to be sold locally, but it soon became an international hit when the song, Oh, Happy Day hit the radio. The project sold more than a million copies.
Hawkins has come a long way since then. Almost 40 years later from those humble beginnings, his career has touched the lives of millions. His emotive vocals and uplifting songs have carried many a Christian through rough times. During that time he’s received Grammys, Dove Awards and many other accolades. In addition to being a recording artist, producer and songwriter, he’s also Bishop Walter Hawkins and is Pastor of Love Center in Oakland, California.
Read my interview with this trailblazer as he talks about his new project A Song In My Heart, his songwriting, his son’s musical career and how he feels about today’s gospel music.
Andrea R. Williams: I’ve interviewed Byron Cage and Richard Smallwood who both have said that they were singing songs in the cradle. Do you think you were born a musician?
Walter Hawkins: All of my family is musicians. And I’m the 7th child so…yeah. I guess you could say that. It’s an innate gift.
ARW: Was it something that you always had?
WH: For as far back as I can remember….yes.
ARW: Did your family nurture that gift?
WH: Oh, yes. Absolutely. They were already singing when I came into the world.
ARW: Was there a point in your life when you knew this was what God had called you to do?
WH: At a young age, I knew that’s what I was meant to do. From a child I was a church musician – from a very young age. That’s all I’ve known.
ARW: You’ve written so many songs that have become classics. Did you have any idea when you were writing them that they would touch people as they have?
WH: You don’t really know. I don’t know from one project to the next what songs people will be drawn to. I’m amazed at what pieces are timeless. It just amazes me.
ARW: Why do you think people connect so strongly with your songs?
WH: I think it has to do with people being able to relate to the message in the song. I don’t think it’s so much the style of the music. When I hear people’s responses to various songs, I hear things like “This song carried me through a very difficult period in my life”…things like that. I think it’s more the message.
ARW: Do you have a method in songwriting?
WH: I don’t have a hard-core, set method of writing. Usually whatever I’m dealing with in my personal life, I try to find out what the principal is and put it to music. Because I figure that whatever I’m dealing with, someone else can relate to that or will be dealing with or has dealt with it. That’s pretty much what I do. I don’t usually just sit down and write. At this point in my career, I usually write because I know I have a project due. At that point, the creative mindset comes into play. Otherwise, I just don’t sit down randomly and write. I used to do that a lot when I was younger, but not so much anymore….
ARW: How long have you been pastor of the Love Center?
WH: This month will be 32 years.
ARW: How do you balance pastoring and being an artist? Is it hard?
WH: It’s difficult at times. Both of my responsibilities are growing tremendously and they’re both vying for more time. But at this point, the assistants of the church afford me a little bit more flexibility to get away and do things (musical things). I know that things will run smoothly without my presence.
ARW: How are your roles as recording artist and pastor different?
WH: They are completely different. As a pastor…our ministry, in particular, deals with a lot of crisis situations. You’re walking people through situations on a one-on-one basis. The music situation – you don’t get to touch people on a personal level as much. Other than people writing you and telling you how much you’ve blessed their lives, you can’t put a face to it. I think being a pastor keeps me a lot more grounded. It keeps me feeling like a normal person. You see people in various stages of their growth. It’s extremely rewarding.
ARW: I know you just released a new independent project called A Song In My Heart. Is it similar to your Love Alive projects?
WH: Not at all. Normally, I’m working with the church choir or the family unit. This time around it’s a solo venture which was really different for me. Out of all the things I do, I’m accustomed to producing other people. Not myself. For me, this project was a chance to stretch out and do some things that I wouldn’t normally do. When I’m singing with the family or the choir, I do a particular type of song. On this project I got a chance to do an array of styles, if you will. It was a good project to let me see what’s really in me.
ARW: I’ve listened to the project and I thought it was phenomenal…not that I would expect anything less from you.
WH: Thank you.
ARW: I know your son took part on the CD. What was it like working with him?
WH: It’s hard to describe. You have a child that grows up and is influenced by what you do. And to see that gift develop in him and to have really solid input that differs from mine….it was an incredible experience. I don’t know really how to describe that. I had a real sense of pride and awe from what he was actually able to contribute.
ARW: Is he going to start working on his own project?
WH: He actually did his own project, but it never came out. He did a secular project. He then decided that that wasn’t the direction he wanted to go. He married my first godchild. He and his wife have done a project. We haven’t gotten a deal for them, as of yet. But I’m sure you’ll be hearing more from him.
ARW: And you? Will you be touring?
WH: Well, that’s the plan. I’ve been doing some sporadic promotional dates for this project. The concentration at this point is finding a distribution deal for our label. Then, from there, we’ll see what things we’ll do promotionally. I’m not sure at this point.
ARW: How do you feel about the direction that gospel music is going now?
WH: I think it’s real interesting. I’m glad to see that a lot of the young people are able to come out of the box and do some things creatively that we would have gotten shot down for doing years ago….[laughs]…I think that’s good. I don’t feel that I have to like what they’re doing. But I think it’s good that they can do things that young people outside of the church can relate to that will reach them – instead of being stuck in a particular vein. It may not be as effective as it could be. I think it’s good that the church is being a little bit more receptive or accepting of the different styles and creativity. I think it’s going to blow up.
ARW: How important do you think anointing is in gospel music?
WH: Great question! Oh, it’s real important. I don’t think you can relay the message of Jesus Christ with any authority if, first of all, you don’t have an understanding of what you’re singing about. Secondly, I think anointing has everything to do with intimacy with the Lord. It must be on an experiential level; there must be some walking with the Lord. There is a price for ministry. If you’re not willing to pay the price, I don’t think your ministry will ever be really effective. Growth and progression in God are absolute necessities. That means there has got to be some hard knocks and things that God does to adjust you in order for you to be effective.