Northwest Music History: Gospel

Pat Wright and The Total Experience Gospel Choir

Since it’s formation in 1973 the Total Experience Gospel Choir has travelled the nation and across the globe, from the Far East to Europe to Russia and a lot of places in between.  Under the tutelage of Pastor Pat Wright, the Total Experience Gospel Choir has  journeyed to Japan where they not only presented their ministry through song, but also delivered supplies to victims of the Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami who had taken refuge  in Ishinomaki, Japan. In 2006 the Total Experience Gospel Choir also travelled to Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi to help victims of Hurricane Katrina and to rebuild and refurbish homes for hurricane victims in Gulfport, Mississippi.

Pat Wright was honored for her and the choir’s efforts by ABC News World News Tonight.  In May of 2007 she was named one of that month’s Person of the Week, and later in a broadcast on December 27 2007, Pat was declared one of 2007’s “Persons of the Year”. It’s clear that the choir is not only one of the Northwest’s greatest musical assets, they spread their ministry through music, and actual, on-the-ground help.

Aside from performing for President Bill Clinton and President Obama,  the Total Experience Gospel Choir have been featured at prestigious venues from the Sydney Opera House to The Mormon Tabernacle.  Even though they’ve been ambassadors around the world, and won many prestigious awards, it’s clear the Pastor Wright’s greatest mission is to the uplifting of her own community, here in Seattle.

Pat Wright was born Patrinell Staten in Odessa Texas as one of eight children.  Her father was a Baptist preacher and her mother taught school.  Both parents urged her to pursue a career in gospel music.  Having started to sing at an early age, Pat performed her first solo at the age of 3 and by the time she was 14 Pat had taught herself to play piano and was directing two choirs in her father’s church.  Her parents saw to it Pat grew up in the church, but education also played an important part in her upbringing.  Pat graduated as valedictorian of her high school class (Turner High School, 1961)  and later attended Prairie View A&M College just north of Houston TX.

Pat first arrived in Seattle in October of 1964 to help her sister, who was then going through a divorce.  Her intention was to be of assistance to her sister, and then move back home.  She later explained her plan to return to Carthage, but then discovered she could make $7 a week in Seattle compared to $3 back home.  She chose to throw her lot in and remain.

At the time Pat moved to Seattle, the nation was embroiled in the Civil Rights struggle.  Pat had felt the sting of segregation and discrimination back in Texas, and on her bus trip from Carthage to Seattle.  In 2014 Pat told local Seattle (and PBS) TV presenter Enrique Cerna:

“The bus ride took about four days. Being the only African American and the only female on the bus for the last 2500 miles was quite an experience. When she finally got to Seattle, after having survived just about every abuse on that long ride, she wanted to get back on the bus and go home. “But I’ve always had a bulldog tendency,” she admitted. “I decided to stay. The lessons I needed to survive…gave me a backbone that won’t quit.”, they’ve always told me that. And I decided that I was going to stay. But it was a very hard time for me because it was at the height of the civil rights movement, and I had participated in the civil rights movement personally, because I was in college at the time. A small college, A&M, now university…”

Having decided to stay in Seattle, Pat naturally gravitated toward the church and to gospel music in general.  Her sister lived in Renton, but regularly visited a church in Seattle. On one of their trips into Seattle to attend church one Sunday Pat says she heard music coming from a church across the street. The church she was sitting in must have bored her and she was drawn to the other church.  She walked across the street and entered the church.   “I remember stumbling over somebody’s feet trying to get a seat because the place was pretty packed. And that somebody happened to end up being my husband” Benny Wright who became a preacher in his own right, has always been critical in Pat’s Total Experience Gospel Choir and her other endeavors. Benny also became teacher and football coach at Seattle’s Franklin High School and also served as head chaplain for the King County Youth Detention Facility in Seattle.  Both his and Pat’s ministry have always revolved around helping at-risk youth.

Pat says she always knew the ministry was her calling, but for a brief period she walked away in order to pursue a more secular side of her life.  She says she briefly gave up gospel back in the late ‘60s. “Actually decided I was tired of gospel, so I was going to try my hand at soul music.”

As music historian and author Peter Blecha wrote in 2013:

“In 1969 Wright was discovered singing in church by a recent Louisiana transplant, LaVera Clark, who took Wright under her wing, telling the songbird, as Wright recalled years later, “A voice like yours — the world needs to hear it and they’re not gonna hear it in church. They are not going to church to hear it! … Especially in Seattle” 

The two began composing songs together and then making test recordings in Clark’s little home studio (2407 E Boston Avenue). Clark then matched the singer with a previously existing group, the Blenders, and they re-emerged as Patrinell and the Casanovas. Clark, who wanted to promote rhythm and blues music locally, then formed her own Sepia Records company to do so. After a trip to Vancouver, B.C., to record a few songs, Sepia released a single — “I Let a Good Man Go”b/w”Little Love Affair” (Sepia Records No. 8201). By September, Seattle’s soul station, KYAC, began pumping it up to hit status locally”.

The pressing on Sepia Records was small, but that didn’t stop it from being a regional R&B hit…but the story of Pat’s foray into R&B and soul goes much deeper.  We’ll leave that story to a seprate, future post.

By 1970 Pat had been hired by the Seattle School district to lead a class in gospel music at Roosevelt High in the north end of the city. Pat initially led what was known as The Franklin High School Gospel Choir.  It was later known as The Black Experience Gospel Choir  The Seattle School District hired Wright to teach and conduct gospel music.  She also began work at radio station KYAC as a DJ playing a gospel music program that lasted 13 years.  She had begun her own gospel group, Patrinell Wright’s Inspirational Seven.  The Inspirational Seven were guests of churches around town as well as taking part in organized events in support of the still simmering racial divide in the US and as a way to support self-determination among the black community at large, drives to fight sickle-cell anemia and to help raise funds for KYAC among other causes.

After two years teaching gospel choir at Roosevelt High, funds for her program dried up and Pat was left without a day job.  But this set-back proved to be the birth of Pat’s Total Experience Gospel Choir.  She began taking the lessons she’d learned in her gospel background, her secular experience and her ministry to young people through music.   In the process she created one of Seattle’s longest-running musical outfits, based on Pastor Wright’s determination to help kids in her community.   She wanted to offer a safe, positive environment at-risk youth could escape to, and allow them to take part in the world outside their own neighborhoods.

Soon after forming the Total Exerience Gospel Choir it swelled to over 100 students that she’d brought along from Roosevelt High and the Mount Zion Baptist Church. Soon Pat opened the choir to non-students and people of all ethnic background and race, even though the thrust of her work remained her ministering to black youth as well as other communities of color.

One of the most remarkable aspects of  The Total Experience Gospel Choir is that there are no auditions in order to be a member.  From the beginning Pat seemed to take the position “if you can’t sing, come on down-we’ll teach you”.  Despite causing the Choir to become chaotic and unfocused, the opposite occurred-Pat’s Choir began to win awards and honors both in the Northwest and around the nation-and beyond.  The Total Experience Gospel Choir would become one of America’s most famous and most beloved Choirs in the country.  With more recognition the Total Experience Gospel Choir were able to raise the money it takes to take a large-scale choir on the road-both within the US and outside.  The Choir has won numerous awards and traveled to 38 states and performed on five continents in 28 countries at last tally.  They have been welcomed with open arms everywhere they’ve gone.

Pat worked ceaselessly and seemed capable of juggling the tasks to run the choir, to continue in her own ministry, plan tours, raise money, become a soloist in her own right, and finally to open and run her own store-front church.  Granted, Pat relied on volunteers, but even the co-ordination of volunteers took a great deal of energy.

Eventually disaster-or divine intervention-came into Pat’s life.  On March 18, 2001 Pastor Pat Wright was struck by a heart attack.  Pat believes she died that day, but God sent her back to continue her work and her ministry.  Pat had been born with a hole in her heart, but her family had no money for doctors growing up, and the condition went unknown until a medical examination when Pat was 23 years old.

Once healed from her brush with death, Pat went back to her hectic schedule-and also became an ambassador for the American Heart Association.  In 2006 she told Seattle Times reporter Nicole Brodeur that sometimes her colleagues feel uncomfortable when she speaks of divine intervention and the gates of heaven.

“They don’t think faith should be a part of it,” she said of her survival story. “But how could it not be?”

As the Choir began to become more well-respected Pat recognized the need to bring of all ethnicities into the choir. This particularly hit home because, as she says, she grew up in the South where mixed marriage-at least during her youth-was very uncommon.  As Seattle became more enlightened she noticed more and more children of mixed-ethnicity were becoming members of the Choir. She realized that they (and others) deserved to learn about their heritage no matter how Caucasian they might look.  Besides, both Caucasian and kids-of-color were facing the same temptations and dangers.

Pat had also opened more opportunities for adults to take part.  A good deal of them were white and they still remain an important part of the Total Experience Gospel Choir-both those who are married to people of color, and those who have married within their own ethnicity. But the goal she’s always worked toward is improving the lot in life of at-risk kids…who are more often found in the African-American community  This is an attitude Caucasian and mixed ethnicity adults in the Choir also share.

The 1990’s and early 2000s saw the Total Experience Gospel Choir attract more and more attention and these years may possibly be the most successful of the choirs mission to date.  Although Pat remained dedicated to her gospel roots she would make a very unusual move in during the early 2000s..  Seattle-based Light In The Attic records released the album Wheedle’s Groove: Seattle’s Finest In Funk & Soul 1965-75 in 2004.  The album included artists who had been involved in the early Seattle Sound that developed in the late 1950s and into the 1960s.  Pat Wright’s only soul single (I let a Good Man Go b/w Little Love Affair) was included in the boxed set of newly pressed 7″ singles.  A  reunion show and the release of the album was so well-received that almost immediately a follow-up album was planned.  This newer release would include artists that had previously worked with one of the Northwest’s most important studio engineers, Kearney Barton.  Barton had been instrumental in developing the Northwest Sound by recording The Wailers, The Ventures, The Sonics, The Fleetwoods, The Frantics, Quincy Jones, Dave Lewis, The Kingsmen and other artists that were responsible for establishing a regional sound that was every bit as important as the “grunge” coming out of Seattle in the 1990s.   Paricipants in the new recordings did both originals and covers of current music.  The tracks were recorded at Barton’s original studio, Audio Sounds, and fittingly as analog recordings.

Pat Wright and the Total Experience Gospel Choir chose the most audacious song of the collection on what would be released under the title Wheedle’s Groove: Kearney Barton.  Their choice was a cover of Soundgarden’s Jesus Christ Pose.  Despite the title, Jesus Christ Pose was a secular piece of rock music that was critical of celebrities, private and public figures that used religion in a false show self-aggrandizement.  In short, it was critical of those who used religion as a hammer.  In an incredible turnabout Pat and the Choir turned the tables on the meaning of the song.  The point Pat was making was equally critical, but it was aimed at Christians believing themselves better than others, rather than the pretention of celebrities trying to criticize religion itself.  Pat and the Total Experience Gospel Choir managed to turn what might be thought of as a cynical and non-religious song into a warning against intolerance and self-importance.  Reports at the time indicated that the members of Soundgarden liked Pat’s rendition.  It’s such a powerful version that it’s hard not to like!  It clearly impressed music fans that had not given gospel music much of a listen.  The performance was roundly praised by critics as the finest song in the fine collection found on the album.

Shortly after it’s release in 2009 Pat Wright told Dave Segal of The Stranger:

“I was asked to put my own personality on it. I thought that the music was great. Soundgarden is a very powerful group. I was already working with the gentleman [Matt Cameron] who played drums for them… on another project. So I felt very comfortable doing it. And besides, the words of the song epitomize what I try to say in my sermons and the way I live my life. [Light In the Attic Records] said, ‘You can put a little gospel twist on it.’ Well, I’m a gospel singer and a minister and a pastor, so therefore I put my little twist on it.”

For the last few years Pat Wright has continued to work with the Total Experience Gospel Choir, taking their ministry of song around the country, and lending a practical hand where they see they’re needed.  Pastor Benny Wright has retired…a few years ago he had knee surgery.  Pat continues to be the whirlwind she’s always been, but has had to slow down a bit.  As of this writing (September 2017) she is working on a new album and continues to solo with the choir.  Aside from their usual appearances the Choir has backed up artists as diverse as Barry Manilow and Dave Matthews.  The majority of the current members of the Total Experience Gospel Choir are adults that have grown up in the Choir, or joined within the past decade or two.  Sadly, gospel music has fallen out of fashion among younger people these days, and the black community’s roots in the church have become less important.  But gospel music lives on despite it’s adversities….another total experience in the history of blacks in America.  It is certain to make a renewal, the more that people understand it’s importance in itself, and to pop music.

Many music fans today ignore gospel music, probably because of it’s roots in Christianity.  But the fact is that most of the great R&B and Soul artists of the past and present have deep roots in gospel and in the church.  It was the secularization of the lyrics, not the music of gospel that gave rise to artists like Aretha Franklin, The Winans, James Brown, Ben E. King, Otis Redding, George Clinton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and a host of other widely vaying artists.  Even the Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson has an important place in the development of popular music.  It was Mahalia, more than anyone that brought gospel music into American homes through TV and radio.  If you’re one of those who feel turned-off by religious music, have a listen to any good gospel choir.  Let the sound and the passion roll over you.  You will soon find yourself tapping to the music and experiencing the communal joy that gospel brings.  At the very least Pat Wright and The Total Experience Gospel Choir deserve a listen.  You might just see them for what they are; an important, but too-often overlooked part of Northwest music history.

For upcoming live performances of the Total Experience Gospel Choir see the schedule at http://www.totalexperiencegospelchoir.org/calendar

 

-Dennis R. White. Sources: Nicole Brodeur “Heartening Glimpse of Heaven” (The Seattle Times, February 23, 2006); Unknown Author “Pat Wright: Seattle’s First Lady of Gospel” (Northwest Prime Time, November 29, 2014); Peter Blecha “Wright, Pat b.1944” (HistoryLink.org Essay 10392, June 16, 2013); Interview with Enrique Cerna (KCTS, January 30. 2012); Misha Berson “Pat Wright’s Total Experience-Seattle’s Mistress of Music Lives The Gospel She Sings” (The Seattle Times, December 10, 1998)  Terry Morgan (interview with the author, September 22, 2017); Dave Segal (Barton Funk in the Soundgarden of Eden: How Wheedle’s Groove Revived Old-School Seattle Soul, September 3, 2009); Jason Ankeny (Patrinell Staten Biography, allmusic.com); Total Experience Gospel Choir home page ( http://www.totalexperiencegospelchoir.org/ ); Photo: Christopher Nelson.