Born Tramaine Aunzola Davis, October 11, 1951, in San Francisco, CA; daughter of Roland Duvall Davis and Lois Ruth Davis; married Walter Hawkins, early 1970s (divorced); children: Jamie, Trystan. Addresses: Record company--Columbia Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022-3211.
Tramaine Hawkins is the reigning diva of gospel music. Serving God through her voice since childhood, Hawkins has made it a mission to reach more than just black Christian audiences with her music. In the mid-1980s she made serious progress reaching that goal when her song "Fall Down" reached Number One on Billboard's dance chart. Emerge characterized her stature thus: "Tramaine Hawkins doesn't just sing a song, she lives it.... Heralded as a living gospel legend, she's been touching the souls of millions for more than 30 years."
Born Tramaine Aunzola Davis on October 11, 1951, in San Francisco, California, Hawkins began singing at age four when her family relocated across the bay to Berkeley. She spent summer vacations with her aunt, evangelist Ernestine Cleveland Reems, performing at churches and revival meetings around the country. Hawkins recorded her first single at age ten, singing "He's All Right" with the Heavenly Tones for the Music City label. Two years later gospel legend James Cleveland produced the Heavenly Tones album I Love the Lord for Savoy's Gospel label. The album sold well enough to support a small tour of California. When Hawkins was 15, the Heavenly Tones--which included funkateer Sly Stone's sister Vaetta Stewart--accepted an offer to tour with Sly and the Family Stone. Hawkins decided to finish high school rather than join the tour.
During high school and afterwards, Hawkins sang with Walter Hawkins's Praises of God and with the Edwin Hawkins Singers (she would later marry Walter Hawkins). In 1970 she moved to Los Angeles to join Andrae Crouch and the Disciples, singing lead on the group's Grammy-nominated Liberty single "Christian People." After her time with Crouch, Hawkins returned to the San Francisco Bay area, briefly rejoining the Edwin Hawkins Singers. She then became the star soloist of her husband's Love Alive Choir, singing on the first three Love Alive albums recorded by the group for Light Records. "Changed" and "Going Up Yonder," from Love Alive 1, the group's best-selling 1975 debut, became radio staples thanks to Hawkins's powerful vocal presence.
But it was for an all-star performance of "The Lord's Prayer" in 1980 that Hawkins won her first Grammy Award. She also made her solo debut with the album Tramaine that year, following it up in 1983 with Determined. Both albums were produced by Walter Hawkins and both received Grammy nominations.
In the fall of 1984 former RCA Records executive Robert Wright approached Hawkins with the techno-funk-flavored "Fall Down (Spirit of Love)." Although she worried that people would call her a "sell-out"--wrongly perceiving that she had abandoned gospel for pop--Hawkins decided to record the song. "I finally decided that people will always criticize you when you do something they're not accustomed to," she told Billboard's Nelson George.
In 1985, on the strength of her demo recordings of "Fall Down" and two other Wright-produced songs, A&M's Rejoice imprint signed Hawkins to an album deal. "Fall Down," which A&M released as a single, became a huge crossover hit, topping Billboard's dance chart. Hawkins was not new to crossover success, though--she appeared on the Edwin Hawkins Singers' fluke 1969 hit, "Oh Happy Day," which hit Number Five on the pop chart and was one of the first songs to present an uncompromising Christian message to a Top 40 audience. Still, Hawkins could not have been prepared for the controversy surrounding "Fall Down."
The cut was considered too secular by many and caused a rift in the gospel community. Hawkins told James Earl Hardy in Emerge that the work she and the rest of the Hawkins family have done, as well as that of other contemporary gospel acts, has been "'raked over the coals for years by die-hard churchgoing folk' who disagree with how the Hawkinses present gospel music to the masses." She went on to point out, "Church people tend to be very picky about things that they consider sacred. But even though some of the work may have offended some people, the music has brought souls to Christ."
After recording two albums for Rejoice, Hawkins began looking for a record label that would actively spearhead her mission to spread gospel beyond its traditional marketplace. In an interview with Bob Darden in Billboard, she said, "[I'd] gone to a number of record companies because I [had] a desire to try and create and market gospel music that could reach the masses. But they were satisfied to sell the same number of records each time.... They were content with their audience in the Christian bookstores. And that audience, more often than not, didn't include any young people ... both the other artists and the record labels just assumed that the secular audience didn't want what we were offering or that it wouldn't appeal to them."
In 1988 Hawkins signed with Sparrow Records. She recorded two albums for the label. The first, The Joy That Floods My Soul, was nominated for a Grammy, and the second, Tramaine Hawkins Live, won the coveted award. Though it featured such greats as rock guitarist Carlos Santana, jazz organist Jimmy McGriff, and jazz saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, it made few waves outside the gospel community. Undaunted, Hawkins continued to pursue a wider audience.
At the 1991 American Music Awards Hawkins opened the show with its host, Hammer, performing a version of "Saviour, Do Not Pass Me By" that was featured on Hammer's best-selling album Too Legit to Quit. Maintaining her increasingly mainstream profile, she was a major participant in Reprise Records' Handel's Messiah: A Soulful Celebration and performed at the 1992 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. In addition to her work as a vocalist, Hawkins has tried her hand at acting. She appeared with Ossie Davis in a Philadelphia presentation of God's Trombones and later worked with Johnny Brown in Chicago and Baltimore productions of The Gospel Truth. In 1991 Hawkins made her television debut as a featured guest alongside James Earl Jones in ABC's Gabriel's Fire.
In 1994 Hawkins signed with Columbia Records in what was perhaps the most significant label pact with a gospel artist since Mahalia Jackson joined Columbia in 1954. Hawkins's To a Higher Place featured both semi-classical and pop overtones. It boasted a version of "Amazing Grace" and a duet with the late Jackson on "I Found the Answer," made possible by modern digital recording technology. "She treats the timeless 'Amazing Grace,'" opined Vibe, "with a mixture of passion and restraint worthy of Whitney Houston's best ballads." (In fact, Billboard's Darden once allowed, "Before there could be a Whitney Houston, there had to be a Tramaine Hawkins.") About the duet with Jackson Vibe reported, "If the concept smacks of exploitation--especially considering that the two share little more than the same label--Tramaine manages to pull it off with aplomb by lowering her register and toughening her tone; it's sometimes difficult to tell the two voices apart."
Hawkins told Lisa Collins in Billboard that To a Higher Place was her best work to date, venturing, "I think that I've finally come into my own, and I'm capable with this kind of production to reach a massive audience without losing the integrity of gospel. The Bible says to praise Him on the high sounding cymbals.... I think it takes gospel to a higher place, and that's good."
"I was placed on this earth to sing music that uplifts, that soothes, that consoles," Hawkins told Emerge's Hardy. "I am just doing what God wants me to do." And if Hawkins can spread the gospel--and the guidance and joy she finds in it--beyond where it has thus far reached, she's happy to oblige. "There's a certain place when I'm performing onstage where it's almost like I know that God is listening to me," she wrote in Essence. "It's like His presence, His Spirit, is sitting right there, and He's saying, 'Go on, girl--go this way, say this, now just stop right there,' you know? And when I think about it, it brings tears to my eyes, It has a spirit. And it's awesome."
by Joanna Rubiner
Tramaine Hawkins's Career
Began singing in church at the age of four; recorded first single, "He's All Right," with the Heavenly Tones, Music City Records, c. 1961; sang with Walter Hawkins's Praises of God; as member of Edwin Hawkins Singers, recorded "O Happy Day," 1969; recorded with Andrae Crouch and the Disciples, beginning in 1970; recorded with Walter Hawkins & the Love Alive Choir, beginning in 1975; signed as solo artist with Light Records and released album Tramaine, 1980; signed with Rejoice/A&M, 1985, and released The Search Is Over, 1986; signed with Sparrow Records and released The Joy That Floods My Soul, 1988; signed with Columbia Records and released To a Higher Place, 1994. Appeared in theater productions God's Trombones and The Gospel Truth and television program Gabriel's Fire, ABC-TV, 1991.
Tramaine Hawkins's Awards
Grammy awards for single "The Lord's Prayer," 1980, and album Tramaine Hawkins Live, 1990.
- Selective Works
- Tramaine, Light, 1980.
- Determined, Light, 1983.
- "Fall Down (Spirit of Love)," A&M, 1985.
- Tramaine: Treasury, Light, 1986.
- The Search Is Over, A&M/Rejoice, 1986.
- Freedom, A&M/Rejoice, 1987.
- The Joy That Floods My Soul, Sparrow, 1988.
- Tramaine Hawkins Live, Sparrow, 1990.
- (Contributor) Hammer, "Saviour, Do Not Pass Me By," Too Legit to Quit, Capitol, 1992.
- (Contributor) Handel's Messiah: A Soulful Celebration, Reprise, 1992.
- To a Higher Place, Columbia, 1994.
- Also recorded I Love the Lord with the Heavenly Tones, Gospel/Savoy, c. 1963; "O Happy Day" with the Edwin Hawkins Singers, 1969; "Christian People" with Andrae Crouch and the Disciples, c. 1970; and three albums with Walter Hawkins & the Love Alive Choir, beginning with Love Alive 1, 1975, among other recordings.
- Billboard, November 2, 1985; September 17, 1988; September 24, 1988; December 10, 1994.
- California Voice, September 19, 1986; April 4, 1986; October 28, 1988.
- Cash Box, July 15, 1989.
- East Bay Express (Oakland, CA), May 18, 1990.
- Emerge, April 1993.
- Essence, May 1995.
- Jet, May 6, 1991; September 9, 1991.
- Vibe, November 1994.
- Village Voice, October 8, 1985.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Columbia Records press materials, 1994.