Bay Area African American Women in Music: Dorothy Morrison Still Performing 40 Years after “Oh Happy Day”

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Dorothy Morrison, whose spirit-filled contralto lead vocals sparked the 1969 hit “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, sat in a semicircle last Thursday rehearsing “America the Beautiful,” “God Bless America” and other patriotic songs for an upcoming 4th of July concert.

 

At 71 years old, she is the youngest of the 16 singers in the a cappella chorus at Carlton Plaza, the assisted living facility in Elk Grove where she lives with her ailing husband Herman Henry. However, living among senior citizens, most of whom are a decade or more older than Morrison, has not slowed the singer down.

 

The onetime heavyweight boxer and former KSOL-FM disc jockey and program director turned 80 on Saturday, June 13. Last Sunday she assisted her brother, Rev. Bill Combs, in the service at their late father’s Green Pastures Church in North Richmond. She calls herself “sister pastor.” The church building was once the site of Club Savoy, a legendary blues venue.

 

Morrison then performed with the Blues Broads in an afternoon concert outside Rancho Nicasio, a bar and restaurant in Nicasio, a remote Marin County hamlet.

 

The “broads” – who include veteran vocalists Tracy Nelson, Annie Sampson and Angela Strehli – released an album three years ago featuring Morrison singing the Tina Turner classic, “River Deep Mountain High” and the Spinners’ “Mighty Love.” On the DVD that accompanies the album, she reprises “Oh Happy Day.”

 

The group has toured throughout the United States, in Canada and in Switzerland.

 

The Longview, Texas-born vocalist, who settled in North Richmond with her family when she was 7 years old, was slated to appear Saturday, June 20 at the Blues from the Top Festival in Winters Park, Colorado with singer, pianist and saxophonist Deanna Borart’s band.

 

Even when she’s at home in Elk Grove, Morrison keeps busy entertaining. Besides singing with the Carlton Chorusters, she and her husband spin records for residents on Monday evenings.

 

“Herman is teaching me to be a disc jockey here at the Carlton – how to pick the right song, how to have a fast song and then a slow song,” Morrison said after rehearsal. “We play music from the ‘40s and the ‘50s and some of the ‘60s. They come out and dance and mingle and chitchat. We pack the place every Monday night.”

 

Her singing career languished in relative obscurity for four decades after she quit the Edwin Hawkins Singers in 1969 just as “Oh Happy Day” was climbing the pop charts. Morrison said that Hawkins had offered her a one-fortieth share of the royalties, the same as the other 40 choir members.

 

“I just kind of stayed around the church with Bill and sang with my family at church gigs,” she explained. “Now I’m with the Blues Broads, and I’m giving it my all. I’m back!”

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