In late 1969 and early 1970, record reviewers at Billboard and Cash Box magazines suggested  that “Hello Sunshine” by the Reverend Maceo Woods & the Christian Tabernacle Concert Choir, a Chicago single just picked up for distribution by Stax Records’ Volt imprint, could become the next “Oh Happy Day.” The previous June, that Edwin Hawkins Singers hit had reached number four on the Billboard singles chart—an unprecedented feat, given that Black gospel songs rarely crossed over to the R&B charts, much less the pop charts. Its success helped transform the music of the African American Protestant church by supercharging hymns with elements of contemporary jazz, rock, and soul. 

Like “Oh Happy Day,” “Hello Sunshine” began as a vanity release on a custom label—a small operation that charged artists a set fee to make a record. In this case the label was Righteous, a Chicago imprint owned by African American music entrepreneur Harold Freeman. This month “Sunshine” (its original title) reappears on There Will Be Joy, a two-disc compilation on Swedish label NarroWay. The set collects 46 recordings released on Righteous and Freeman’s other imprints between 1968 and 1978, including one by a teenage Deniece Chandler (credited as “Denise”), who’d later become soul star Deniece Williams.

The 46-song compilation There Will Be Joy is on Swedish label NarroWay.

Born in Chicago in 1931, Harold Freeman (also known as “Professor Hal”) grew up in what’s now New Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, where his father, the Reverend Stroy Freeman, was pastor. An accountant by trade, Harold was also New Friendship’s organist and music minister. As such, he crossed paths with nearly every gospel artist in the midwest. 

In 1968 he expanded his reach by opening Free Sound Recording Company (sometimes referred to on album covers as Sound-O-Rama) at 76th and Cottage Grove. Free Sound handled all the details of record production and manufacturing for local gospel singers, choirs, and pastors who were unable to attract major-label attention—or who simply wanted 500 or so discs to sell on the road or as a church fundraiser. With rare exceptions, the records were pressed on one of three imprints: Michael, Peace, and Righteous.

The Reverend Maceo Woods was among the first to beat a path to the door of Freeman’s new south-side enterprise. In 1954 Woods had recorded a Hammond organ interpretation of “Amazing Grace” for Vee-Jay Records that remains one of the biggest-selling gospel instrumentals of all time. He maintained his relationship with Vee-Jay long after entering the ministry and organizing Christian Tabernacle Church, but by the time he came to Free Sound in 1969, Vee-Jay had gone bankrupt and he was without a label.

The Reverend Maceo Woods (left) and Free Sound Recording Company owner Harold Freeman, aka Professor Hal, who ran the Righteous, Michael, and Peace labels Credit: Courtesy Robert Marovich

Richard Jackson, a charter member and lead vocalist of the Christian Tabernacle Concert Choir, says the group were the first to sing “Hello Sunshine” as a gospel song—they debuted it publicly at the Auditorium Theatre on September 29, 1969, during their seventh annual gospel concert. Composed by Curtis Ousley (aka saxophonist King Curtis) and Ronald Miller, the tune had already been released twice, in 1968 Atlantic Records versions by Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin. 

Detroit transplant Elder George Jordan, who played piano, wrote for, and sang lead with the Christian Tabernacle Concert Choir, arranged the song for the group. He quickened its tempo slightly, added a dramatic call-and-response motif around the lyric “hello,” and constructed a bridge featuring the thundering line “Without you my Lord.” Jordan and contralto Lora Burton, who sang lead vocals on “Sunshine,” identified the benevolent energy force that had brightened the darkness for Pickett and Franklin as the Most High.

Soon after the Auditorium concert, Woods approached Freeman about releasing an album of the songs they’d performed. He may have handed Freeman a completed master tape, or Freeman may have produced the sessions himself; that’s lost to time. In either case, the resulting Righteous Records album, titled In Concert, was cut at Chicago’s Universal Recording Studio. Freeman also pressed 45 RPM copies of “Sunshine” on Righteous. Both discs became available in October or early November.

“Hello Sunshine” by the Reverend Maceo Woods and the Christian Tabernacle Concert Choir

The Christian Tabernacle Concert Choir’s version of “Sunshine” might’ve gone nowhere had the group not performed it at New Friendship on November 3 during a celebration of the 23rd anniversary of Professor Hal’s music ministry. Among those on the bill was Dwight “Gatemouth” Moore, a former blues shouter whose religious conversion had come without warning in December 1948, while he was singing at the famous Club DeLisa in Washington Park. Elder Moore fell in love with “Sunshine,” and he played the song so often on his WBEE radio broadcast that other local stations felt obliged to pick it up. Sensing the buzz, Ernie Leaner of Chicago’s United Record Distributors believed national distribution was now in order. He introduced Woods and Freeman to Al Bell at Stax Records in Memphis.

Stax had already struck gospel gold with the Staple Singers, so it agreed to re-release and distribute Woods’s Righteous album and single on its Volt subsidiary. At least at first, Volt maintained the album’s rudimentary two-color cover art and the In Concert conceit, though a later reissue added a color photo of the choir. Fueled by Stax’s national reputation, “Hello Sunshine” entered the Cash Box R&B chart at number 32 in late November 1969, then reached number 29 on the Billboard R&B singles chart a couple weeks later. It climbed as high as 13 on the Cash Box R&B singles chart and “bubbled under” the Billboard Top 100 singles chart at number 121. That month, Stax took out a full-page ad in the trade press. Under the words “Hello Hit!,” the ad thanked disc jockeys for propelling the song “to sales nearing the quarter-million mark.”

In January 1970, In Concert entered the Billboard Top Selling Soul LPs chart. Several Billboard reviewers compared “Sunshine” to “Oh Happy Day,” among them editor and columnist Ed Ochs. “Stax/Volt is chasing the ‘Oh Happy Day’ rainbow,” he wrote in November 1969, “to prove the Edwin Hawkins Singers ‘miracle’ was really the start of a trend.” 

“Hello Sunshine” heated up the final weeks of 1969. Jessy Dixon & the Chicago Community Choir covered it in mid-October, generating controversy between Jordan and Dixon regarding who had borrowed musically from whom. Making matters worse for Jordan, it was Dixon’s recording, not Woods’s, nominated for a Grammy for Best Soul Gospel Performance in 1970. Jackson thinks Dixon’s already established national reputation allowed him to showcase his version to a wider audience. 

Elder George Jordan (left) and Lora Burton sing lead on the Christian Tabernacle Concert Choir’s version of “Hello Sunshine.” Credit: Courtesy Robert Marovich

In the long view, though, the profusion of versions of “Hello Sunshine” had a positive effect for everyone involved. The quality and popularity of the various covers of the song made it difficult for the African American church and pop music pundits to continue discounting contemporary gospel as a passing fad.

Reverend Maceo Woods & the Christian Tabernacle Concert Choir took to the road on the strength of “Hello Sunshine,” touring from Detroit to New Orleans. The church’s Sunday services and monthly gospel programs were filled to bursting. “People were jamming in to hear us sing songs like ‘Hello Sunshine,’” Jackson says. 

At its 1970 awards presentation, the National Association of Television and Radio Announcers (NATRA) handed its Best Gospel Record award to “Hello Sunshine” and its Best Choir honor to the Christian Tabernacle Concert Choir. Woods’s group recorded four more albums for Stax, inspiring other young gospel ensembles, including Pastor T.L. Barrett’s Youth for Christ Choir, to inject their religious songs with jazz, rock, and soul. 

Today “Hello Sunshine” is better known as a gospel anthem, despite debuting as a soul recording. It signaled a shift of African American gospel from its churchy roots to a pop-oriented style—and that style is still prevalent now.