Northwest Music History: Gospel

Northwest Songwriters: A Straw Poll

James Marshall Hendrix, Paratrooper, 101st Airborne Division 1960-1961

Recently I took a straw poll of friends asking:

Who do you think is the most important songwriter to come out of the Northwest? This is not a quiz and there are no wrong answers.

Some of the responses were obvious, many were downright baffling and others were very close to what my personal belief of what a songwriter truly is.  I left my question open-ended as an experiment to find out what others might give their explanation of what and whom constitutes an important songwriter.  I made sure to tell those I polled  there were no wrong answers, allowing them to offer up names without spending too much time or offering up suggestions simply because they thought the person they chose was based on others’ (especially critics’) dubbing that artist as “most important”  Several people went on to ask what I defined as “important”.  My reply was that I did not want to define the term.  Everyone uses different criteria of what is “important”; besides I was more interested in others’ opinions, than my own.  I asked people to decide what was important to them because this was also an exercise was for me to understand what other people considered worthy.  I wanted to learn about how others saw things and challenge myself a bit in what I personally feel is important in a songwriting. I saw this as just as much a lesson for me.  It was by no means a popularity contest.

So here I’ll take my natural tendency to digress.

I am a fan of good songwriting.  I cannot put my finger on what it is exactly but I have certain criteria.  I think when a song’s lyric is written in a way that it may be interpreted universally by listeners is a good start. This is probably why so many songs deal in lyrics about the many states of love; from it’s stirrings, it’s longings, it’s attainment and it’s loss. I believe original, creative lyrics are important, but I know they are not always crucial to good songwriting.  They don’t need to be about love…but they usually speak to the human condition.  Beyond the universality of lyrics, the actual music is just as important.  I think sometimes people put more emphasis on lyrics rather than their combination with melody or arrangement. In my opinion all good songs are founded in the music.  I suppose most people at least subconsciously know that, despite the overemphasis of  lyrics alone.  But there’s no doubt a lyric can as easily set the mood as a melody.

Anyone who’s listened to the work of Frank Zappa might  point to “Peaches En Regalia”  (among others) as an example of brilliant songwriting  without the use of lyrics.  None of us can say what the song is actually about (except peaches dressed in the signs of their royal or noble status?) but there’s no doubt this song-among many other instrumentals-has been crafted, and composed in a way that each and every note seems to belongs exactly where it lies. It seems unlikely that anyone else would compose this particular song other than Frank Zappa. It contains a mix of elaborate musicianship, purposely-cheesy sounding orchestration and themes and a distinct left-of-center pop sensibility, although it’s highly influenced by jazz. For all it’s grandiosity of Peaches en Regalia uses an economy of tones and instrumentation.  It relies more on the unusual juxtaposition of sounds and an exceptional thematic device. More precisely; it’s fun to listen to.

On the other hand sometimes lyrics carry the day…a witty, unusual, or unexpected lyric might save an otherwise mediocre melody, but good songwriting rarely relies on the melody alone  The truth, to me, is that good songwriting is the result of craftspeople who devote their lives to songwriting, with little regard to who records their material….even  themselves.  This is what makes Leiber and Stoller, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Lennon and McCartney (together or separately) soar above the rest.  Songwriting is a craft unto itself to these writers  It goes beyond the performance of others, though there certainly are a large number of songwriters that are best suited to record their own material.  All of this congealed during the mid-19th century “Tin Pan Alley” an actual place in Manhattan on West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues,  “Tin Pan Alley” later became a collective term for the musicians, songwritersand publishers who dominated New Yorks’ popular music up until the mid-20th century.   If you ever visit New York City you will find a  comerrative plaque on the sidewalk on 28th Street between Sixth St. and Broadway.  Later, as songwriters drifted into the early days of rock and pop The Brill Building (1619 Broadway)  was considered their spiritual home.  The building had previously been a hotbed of activity for songwriting and publishing of music for the “big bands” like those of Benny Goodman or  The Dorsey brothers.  In the 1950s and the early 1960s  songwriters like Neil Diamond, Ellie Greenwich, Johnny Mercer, Billy Rose, Bobby Darin and Neil Sedaka Goffin and King, Leiber and Stoller emerged from The Brill building.  It proved to be a very successful time for songwriters pumping out well-crafted songs for teen idols, budding pop-stars and “girl groups”.  During the mid-60s “Tin Pan Alley” and The Brill Building became somewhat outdated.  By this time bands, individuals and those who would become singer/songwriters emerged, as well as the pop music charts becoming extremely influenced by “The British Invasion” The British had styled their s roots in the American blues rather than American popular music in general.  Soon the center of the music world shifted to the west coast even though many New York City-based songwriters were still able to create a hit or two.

 

In many cases the craftsmanship of songwriting is enhanced by the writers’ own renditions of their work..  This is the case with the aforementioned Elvis Costello or the collective work of a band like XTC.  Although I’d say there have been successful interpretations of Elvis Costello songs, it’s Elvis that usually supplies the definitive version.  In the case of XTC, it’s hard to imagine anyone else properly interpreting their work.

Other times we can actually hear and imagine the songwriter’s “voice” when a particular song is covered.  A case in point is The Monkee’s version of Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer”…really, who else could have written this song besides Neil?  Even though Diamond released his own version of it (about a year after The Monkee’s hit version) The song attributed to The Monkees is the one that counts and it should be!  The performance was actually recorded by guitarists Al Gorgoni and Sal Ditroia, Buddy Saltzman on drums, Carol Kaye on bass,  Artie Butler on the Vox Continental organ and the song’s producer, Jeff Barry, adding piano and tambourine.

It is Micky Dolenz’ vocals that add the typical Monkees sound, but the craftsmanship of Neil Diamond is the real star, no matter who played on the recording.  Aside from being a huge hit for The Monkees, Diamond once again shows his prowess as a songwriter because the song has also successfully interpreted by other artists-from The Four Tops to Robert Wyatt (his first recording after the June 1973 accident that left him a paraplegic).  It’s also famously been recorded by Smash Mouth for the film Shrek in 2001 but not quite as inventive or successful as other versions.

Another case may be made for the song “Theme from The Valley of The Dolls” as interpreted by Dionne Warwick.  The song itself was written by André and Dory Previn, instead of Dionne’s usual writers throughout her career, Hal David and Burt Bacharach.  Despite the mighty trio of Warwick, David and Bacharach, The Theme From The Valley of The Dolls remains as powerful an interpretation as anything else she has sung.  Of course it is Dionne’s incredible reading of the song that makes it so heart-tugging and melancholy as well as hopeful.  Another example of an interpretation of brilliant songwriting by another artist is Elvis Costello’s rendition of  “(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace Love and Understanding?”  I know I’m treading on thin ice here, but I’d say Costello’s rendition of an excellent song written by the gifted Nick Lowe is the definitive version of the song.  I believe this not only a sign of a great interpreter of another’s song, but also the sign of Lowe’s ability to write a near-perfect, unforgettable anthem.

My point (and I know I’ve been exhaustive about it) is that there is an animal called “the songwriter” whose first duty is to write solid, universal themes that combine well thought out lyrics and original, innovative  musical themes. This is a craft that takes hard work….much harder than merely performing the song, although a good song always deserves a good interpreter..  A good songwriter sculpts the song like Michelangelo, who claimed the end product was already within the stone.  It was his job to chip away enough to reveal what was already there.

Getting back to my straw poll, none of the writers’ work included writers included in the “Great American Songbook”. Although Spokane’s Al and Charles Rinker are considered among the talents of the era,  The more famous can be said to emerge out of the Northwest from that era is not someone we’d think or as a songwriter; it is the singer; Bing Crosby. In the late 1920s Bing  joined his Spokane friend Al Rinker  and pianist/singer Harry Barris to form The Rhythm Boys, who were featured as part of Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra. They had phenomenal success with both Rinker and Harris’s compositions as well as others’ writing.  The song below was written by Bing Crosby and Harry Barris. The song isn’t the most memorable of their output, but I’ve included it as an example of Bing Crosby’s early crack as a writer.

Al Rinker’s  brother Charles  wrote twenty-seven songs with Gene de Paul (who’d also written with Johnny Mercer) including “Your Name is Love”, which has been recorded by George Shearing and Nancy Wilson as well as other songs written by himself that have been recorded  by Frankie Lane, Red McKenzie, Shearing, Nancy Wilson, and Alan Dawson. Although both Al and Charles Rinker were capable songwriters who  crafted their music it’s hard to think of them as “important” since they are all but forgotten today.

I admit (once again) that I believe one of the hallmarks of an important songwriter is their ability to affect interpretations and long-term influence.  This can be somewhat confounding, because a composer’s work may be forgotten today, but at some time in the future re-discovered and influence unborn generations.  For my purposes I will only reflect on writers that we consider estimable from any time in the past up to the current era.  We cannot look into the future, nor can we anticipate a great songwriter’s work ever coming to light.

So let’s return to the original question:

Who do you think is the most important songwriter to come out of the Northwest?  

This was the question I asked in my straw poll, but I also invite YOU to ponder this messy question.  After all, the Northwest has a history of producing “important” songwriters, keeping in mind that the question in itself is based not only opinion, but personal taste and perhaps even a history of songwriting on your own part; and as I pointed out, there are no wrong answers

It shouldn’t come as a prize that the most often songwriter mentioned (according to my unscientific poll). was Kurt Cobain.  There’s absolutely no doubt he could write an excellent pop song, and partially wrap it up as something that could be defined loosely as “punk”.  I will refrain from the title “grunge” because I find it a useless and intellectually lazy…Any group of artists who’s output includes songs as diverse as Pearl Jam’s “Even Flow”, Seven Year Bitch’s M.I.A. or Nirvana’s cover of  David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” does not define a genre.  It might mark a period of successful Northwest bands, but the term itself denies the individuality of the bands who fall under this nonsensical term.  We can’t even compare it to the thread that ran through the 1960’s “San Francisco Sound” which largely relied on one similar electric guitar sound.

So, we know the place Kurt Cobain many people attribute to him. I believe most of Kurt’s talent was in listening intently to what had come before him, whether it was The Beatles or one of his particular favorites, Sonic Youth. He was able to distill everything from metal to punk to Americana and pop in crafting his songs.  The only question we can ask is, had he lived longer would his output have been as high-quality as what he left us?  We’ll never know.

The second most mentioned songwriter was Jimi Hendrix.  This seemed perplexing to me since I have always considered him an innovator and a performer rather than a songwriter; but looking a bit closer I can see brilliance in his writing, even though his output is far less than I’d have liked to see. I’d always seen his real strength as innovating the sound of the electric guitar and his incredible showmanship.   It was possible for him to “ramble” along a riff, playing guitar, with no discernable song structure, and still overwhelm and amaze his listeners.  I will admit I thought  that the core of his guitar pyrotechnics was strong, but were birthed by somewhat derivative standard blues riffs. Looking back this was a common practice among his contemporaries, especially among the British where he spent a lot of his later years.

His strong suit was exploding and expanding from his riff.  Even though I am a huge fan of his playing and performance I consider a handful of his songs contain signs of great songwriting in them.  For instance“The Wind Cries Mary”, “If Six Were Nine” and my personal favorite “Angel”. It’s fairly well-known that “Amgel” was written about a dream Jimi had of his mother coming to him after her death.  The song is considered by many (myself included) as the best song Jimi Hendrix ever wrote.  Again, I understand I may be walking on thin ice here; but the theme, it’s lyrics and it’s lovely melody is so universal that it can mean something special, for many reasons to its listeners.  It’s also telling that Hendrix spent about two years perfecting the song and how he wanted to record it. One other aspect we might consider is near the time of his death, Jimi was contemplating an entirely different approach to his music.

Some folk writers were mentioned, but to be fair I think some of the best folk writers near the Pacific Northwest happen to be Canadian. If Ian Tyson (of “Ian and Sylvia” and “The Great Speckled Bird”) had been born 20 miles south of his hometown of Victoria B.C. he’d  be one of my top candidates for important Norhtwest songwriters.  However, due to the constraints placed on my own choice of covering only the history of NW music of the U.S. I thought it unfair to include anything outside Washington, Oregon and Idaho.  Ian Tyson has written an incredible song book including “Someday Soon” and “Four Strong Winds” His songs have been covered by Neil Young,  Moe Bandy, Johnny Cash, Hank Snow, Bob Dylan,The Kingston Trio  Marianne Faithfull, John Denver, Trini Lopez, Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez, Glen Yarborough, Bobby Bare, Harry Belafonte, Tanya Tucker, Suzy Bogguss, Lynn Anderson and countless others.  Although Canadians could reasonably disagree, perhaps the most popular (and most definitive version outside of Tyson’s) is “Someday Soon”sung by the Seattle-born Judy Collins. But Tyson is a near-mythic figure in Canada, and will always be considered as one of the most important songwriters in Canadian history no matter if we include British Columbia as part of the Pacific Northwest or not.  He is identified and rightly claimed as a purely Canadian artist.

Loretta Lynn was mentioned; an excellent choice.  But Loretta will always be “A Coal Miner’s Daughter” and though she lived in Washington, and her career was kickstarted here with the help of Buck Owens, Kentucky has always been her real home in her heart, and it’s there and Nashville that she’s written the bulk of her output.

Local heroes like Scott MacCaughey, Rusty Willoughby. Alice Stewart, Gary Minkler, Pete Pendras, Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow, Eric Apoe and Ben Gibbard were were all mentioned as “important” songwriters..  There’s no doubt these artists deserve respect for their work…I’d only add that Gary Minkler, over the past five decades,  is also one of the most dynamic performers the Northwest has ever produced.

Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart got lots of recognition.  Although Heart put out some spectacular music, not all of it was written by the Wilson sisters collectively or apart.  Very early on the two of them brought in the very talented songwriter abnd collaborator, Sue Ennis, to work with them.  Sue would eventually go on to be one of the members of the Wilson’s post-Heart projects; The Love Mongers. We can’t dismiss the Wilson sisters’ work, but Sue Ennis may be the least-known of great Northwest songwriters.  Her work  with the Wilsons helped mere rock songs and ballads become great songs and ballads.

Quincy Jones is another good example of a writer whose output will always be considered genius even though his writing seems secondary to other facets of his career. He isn’t particularly known for his songwriting simply because it is overshadowed by his career as an excellent jazz performer, and later as one of the world’s most renowned producers and arrangers.

Ray Charles was mentioned several times for his R&B contributions.  Although there’s no doubt he was a dedicated and talented performer, he’s often assumed to have written many songs he did not actually write.  The best examples of this are the songs “Georgia On My Mind”, his definitive version of a song written by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell in 1930. Another of Ray Charles’ signature tunes is “Hit The Road Jack”. The song was written by a friend of Ray Charles, Percy Mayfield. Mayfield initially recorded a demo of the song for Art Rupe, a producer and one of the most influential figures in the US music industry at the time.  Rupe was running  Specialty Records, and “Hit The Road Jack” found it’s way to Ray Charles rather than be fully recorded by Percy Mayfield.  This may be evidence that Charles himself was not as important a songwriter as others, but there’s little doubt he is one of the most influential artists in American music. No legitmate list of the most imortant American artists would be complete without him.

Mia Zapata was also mentioned by many people; a songwriter that left us too early to provide the much larger body of work she otherwise might have given us; still  she certainly inspired one of the most powerful, angry and cathartic songs of 90s Seattle music- M.I.A – a song by Seven Year Bitch that I’ve already mentioned.

It had to be pointed out more than once that there were actual women songwriters who need to be mentioned.  Perhaps it is the male domination of rock fans that prevents more talented women their due.  Aside from the aforementioned Wilson sisters, Mia Zapata and Alice Stewart there is a plethora of women writers that deserve to be mentioned: Carrie Acre, Amy Denio Kathleen Hanna, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, Jean Grey, Kimya Dawson, Neko Case all deserve recognition, and I’m certain there are far more that I’m failing to mention.  What’s more, these women should not be consigned to a ghetto of being “women” or “girls”  Their output is just as important-sometimes more important-than their male counterparts and a good songwriter does not rely on sex

Surprisingly it also had to be pointed out that Portland and the rest of Oregon are part of the Northwest too.  The prolific Chris Newman, Fred Cole, Greg Sage among others got mention.  Eastern Washington seemed to be under-represented too.  Folk singer and songwriter Danny O’Keefe (Wenatchee) got a single mention.  The late jazz great Larry Coryell, who learned his guitar chops in Richland, Washington before moving to Seattle and then on to jazz fusion history around the world only got a single mention.  Jazz players and writers did not make much impact on the list…surprisingly Chehalis, Washington born Ralph Towner (of both the bands Oregon and The Paul Winter Consort) wasn’t  mentioned at all.  Nor was

I had promised not to mention names but I’m going to make an exception.  Penelope Houston (who is a Northwesterner despite being mostly associated with San Francisco). Replied to my question with  a simple “phew”; I assume because it’s so hard to begin listing the “important” songwriters that have come out of the Northwest.  Of course she was too modest to name herself among those important songwriters. Houston’s writing in general deserves mention since her importance can never be overestimated.  But it would be important based simply as a co-author of what may be the single greatest American punk anthem of all time: “The American In Me”  The rest of her output stands above most others during the first wave of west coast punk as well.

As I’ve said there were a few artists named that baffled me. Perhaps it’s because I’m not familiar with their work or that they are in fact not from the Northwest.  One of the artists named in this category was Bruce Hornsby.  I agree that Hornsby is a terriffic songwriter but his bio states he was born in Williamsburg Virginia, and I could find no Northwest ties.  If he does have ties in the Northwest, please contact me with the information.  Another mention was of the Canadian musician and social justice activist Bill Bourne. Bill was closely associated with Scottish traditionalists The Tannahill Weavers during the 1980s.  They were originally based in Paisley Scotland, but considered a world-renowned ensemble. Bill has also worked with various other world-roots and traditionalist artists including ex-Tannahill Weaver Alan MacLeodm, Shannon Johnson, Lester Quitzau,, Aysha Wills, Eivør Pálsdóttir, Wyckham Porteous, Madagascar Slim and Jasmine Ohlhauser. Bill was born in Red Deer Alberta, and grew up in   Besides Alberta, Bill also spent time on the road worldwide, and for a short time in TorontoBill Bourne is certainly worthy of mention, as he’s won the Canadian Juno award several times.  But I know of no Northwest connection outside of  recording with vocalist Hans Stamer and Vancouver, B.C. guitarist Andreas Schuld on the album No Special Rider, released in 1997.  Once again, if you know of ties to the Northwest, please leave them in the comments section.

A less baffling recommendation was  saxophone great Skerik.  I personally am not familiar with Skerik’s output as a songwriter, but definitely familiar with his (often improvised) brilliant performances. Perhaps I am underestimating his output, but I am certainly not underestimating his importance as a player or as an innovator.  Please set the record straight as far as Skerik as a songwriter.  He’s consistently been one of my favorite Northwest artists.

I suspect others were mentioned because they are important figures that deserves all of our respect.  The most notable of these songwriters is Richard Peterson, who is practically a living treasure of Seattle. I was happy to see Anthony Ray (Sir-Mix-a-Lot) mentioned.  The submitter rightly pointed out that Mix-a-Lot has undoubtedly influenced and outsold many of the indie and/or famous Seattle bands of the 1990s.  So often people of color are left out of anything to do with “rock” no matter how much pull they have. Besides Mix-a-Lot, Ishmael Butler and Thee Satisfaction were mentioned because they are probably better known nationally and world-wide than many of the others on this list.

Finally we reach what I consider the pinnacle of “songwriters’ songwriters”  These are the best of the best in my opinion.  I know I have overlooked many great NW songwriters; but I consider these craftsmen to represent the high-water mark (so far) of not only Northwest writers, but among the entirety of ALL American songwriters.  This  list includes Ellensburg, Washington-born Mark Lanegan, Ellliott Smith (who was born in Texas but grew up and first found fame in Portland Oregon), Eugene Oregon native Tim Hardin, and a guy from Shreveport Louisiana who moved to Bremerton, Washington at an early age, the late Ron Davies.  It was satisfying to see each ot these get multiple mentions.

I recognize that everyone has their favorite songwriter, and usually that person writes within at least one of the individual’s musical tastes.  Keep in mind  I said there are no wrong answers in this unscientific quiz or its overview. In fact I hate the Rolling Stone type lists of “bests”.  Many of us know they are B.S. and some publications concoct these kinds of lists to drive circulation and advertising sales.  If that’s not the case they’re often put together by elitist critics and celebrities.  I believe everyone has a right to their personal favorites.  I admit at one time I too was a snotty elitist who looked down on other people’s choices…but for many years now I have looked at music in a far more ecumenical way, and my musical horizons have expanded because of it.

If you have a favorite Northwest artist that you believe deserves recognition as an important songwriter post it in the comments section below. Your opinion is always valid no matter what others think and any additions to this list may well open whole new musical worlds to other people.  I’ve also made a list of every songwriter submitted, since I have left so many talented people out of this story..  You may or may not agree if they’re worthy-but someone else does.

In the sidebar is a list of everyone voted for that I left out in the above article. It’s in no particular order of importance:  Feel free to add your choice in the comments section below.

 

-Dennis R. White

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.