Conversations: Pat Wright
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Pat Wright

The founder of The Total Experience Gospel Choir talks about how she became Seattle's first lady of gospel music.

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About the Episode

The founder of The Total Experience Gospel Choir talks about how she became Seattle's first lady of gospel music.

About Pat Wright

Pastor Patrinell "Pat" Wright was born in Carthage, Texas to a Baptist preacher dad and a school teacher mom. She is one of seven siblings. Being introduced to music early, she sang her first solo at the age of 3. By the time of her 14th birthday, she had taught herself to play the piano and was directing two choirs in her father's church.

In 1973, Wright founded Total Experience Gospel Choir. The choir is very well known and has traveled and performed in 38 states, on 5 continents, and 22 countries. The choir consists of persons ages 7–72. The choir has to its credits numerous awards and 7 recordings.

Enrique Cerna:
Pat Wright, welcome to Conversations.

Pat Wright:
Thank you for having me.

Enrique:
My pleasure. You know, we've known each other actually for a lot of years. And we've talked off and on in different interviews, but we've never really sat down for an in depth interview, so I thought this is the time to do it, to really talk about your life, your work and music, your work with the total experience gospel choir, and really what motivates you. But I was reading an article about you, and the writer said this. It's no stretch to dub Pat Wright as Seattle's first lady of gospel. Work for you?

Pat:
[LAUGHTER]
That's very kind. Thank you.

Enrique:
Gospel music, what has it meant to you?

Pat:
It's been my whole life. I'm a preacher's kid. So growing up in a little town called Carthage, Texas. Carthage is just across the line from Louisiana, to give you an idea where this tiny place is. A little over 5,000 people. And I've been in church basically all my life. Sang my first solo at age 3 in my father's church and it just has gone on from there.

Enrique:
Your father sing?

Pat:
My father, well, he could carry a tune.
[LAUGHTER]
You wouldn't call it singing all the way.

Enrique:
How about your mom?

Pat:
No, my mother was a school teacher. And so they kept us pretty close together and pretty much in church.

Enrique:
You were one of eight kids?

Pat:
One of eight.

Enrique:
All right. And then in the course of that, where were you in the...

Pat:
I'm number 5.

Enrique:
Number 5. And how about singing for the other siblings?

Pat:
Um, my youngest sister sang very well. And I have a brother who also, my baby brother, is musical, more instrumental music. And that's about it.

Enrique:
So singing for you, did it come naturally?

Pat:
Yeah. I guess it must have. Because my daddy made me get up on that stage and sing that song at age 3.

Enrique:
What was that first song?

Pat:
It was called Jesus keep me near the cross.

Enrique:
Do you remember it?

Pat:
I do. It's an old hymn, it's about 200 years old.

Enrique:
Is that right? Can you do just a little bit? I got a mic right there for you. Just a little bit.

Pat:
You want me to do it in my 3 year old voice?

Enrique:
No, you can do it in your voice.

Pat:
Very simply went:
♪ Jesus, keep me near the cross ♬
♪ there's a precious fountain and it's free to all ♬
♪ a yearling stream flows from carried mountain ♬

Enrique:
You were three years old.

Pat:
I was three years old.

Enrique:
And you remembered that?

Pat:
I will never forget that.

Enrique:
Wow. Gospel music, you know, it has so much meaning to it, so much depth, can bring you joy, can also make you cry.

Pat:
Yes.

Enrique:
For you, I guess, what was it about it that you just enjoyed?

Pat:
I enjoyed the emotion of gospel music. It does evoke all of those emotions in you, joy and sometimes sorrow, but not sorrow to the point that you become depressed with it. Behind that sorrow, there's an upward sweep that brings you out of that depression and that sorrow that just catapults you to the mountain top. And that's what I like about gospel music totally is the good news, actual definition of gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ. So being a christian and being a preacher's daughter, and being a pastor myself, is just all entwined, I'm just gospel.

Enrique:
Being a preacher's daughter, what was that like?

Pat:
I couldn't do very much.
[LAUGHTER]
He did allow me to go to our junior senior prom. Of course, he took me and the young man. And he stayed there for four hours, because in the south, they usually had the black schools because we were totally segregated, the black schools had the proms in the school gym. So he sat outside and he waited until 12:00. And he told me, don't make me come in there to get you. You don't have to worry about that, because I'm not going to let you embarrass me, so I'll be at the door at 12:00, and he was there to pick me up and took me home.

Enrique:
Was your father the enforcer and the rule setter? Where did your mother come in on all of this?

Pat:
My mother being a school teacher, she was quite an enforcer also. And that was actually back in the day when the teachers were allowed to discipline the children, not to excess or anything like that, but they could spank you if you got really out of control. And nobody talked back to the teachers, and you certainly didn't talk back to your parents. So, therefore, whatever they said was law, we knew it was law, and we just obeyed.

Enrique:
Your father, what did he give you, and your mother too, I guess, in your love of music?

Pat:
The fact that he allowed, or pushed me to sing at age 3.

Enrique:
Pushed you?

Pat:
Pushed me.

Enrique:
He did push you.

Pat:
He did push. And then I was not going to say no because my mother is sitting there looking at me on the pew, right? And it was either get it from him or get it from her. Let's not get it from anybody, let's just go up and do it. And the applause, the accolades that came from that, I said, oh, this is a good thing, I can do this.

Enrique:
Little Pat, she can sing, we like her.

Pat:
Yeah.

Enrique:
Tell me about going from, or coming from Carthage, Texas, and the journey that ultimately led you to Seattle.

Pat:
Well, I came to Seattle, I landed here on October 4th, 1974, after having ridden for 3 1/2, 4 1/2 days on a Trailways bus to get here. And being the only African American and the only female on the bus for the last 2500 miles was quite an experience. One that when I finally was able to get to Seattle, I wanted to get back on the bus and go back to Carthage. But I've always had bulldog tenacity, 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, we have great athletics.

Enrique:
That's right.

Pat:
We won't go into that.

Enrique:
A fairly good run.

Pat:
Right. We have more doctors and lawyers came out of there than sports figures. But anyway, everybody, just about every kind of abuse you could receive on the bus with all males and being the only black person on the bus for 2500 miles, taught me the lessons of a lifetime, taught me the lessons I needed to survive. Because I was colored and a child of God on that bus, and I wasn't allowed to go into the bathrooms, so the bus would stop at the various depots. I had to go to the outhouse, I had to go to the back window to get the food from the back windows of the bus depot. I had to do a lot of things that I had already protested against while I was in college. And so having to experience it first hand gave me a back bone that won't quit.

Enrique:
Why did you come to Seattle?

Pat:
My sister, as she worked, she and her husband were going through, well, a difficult divorce. And my mother said, you know, we raised you all to help each other. So she insisted that I come up here and help her with her children while she worked. And I came, I knew never say no, you know, talk back.

Enrique:
So what made you not get on the bus and go back?

Pat:
I got off the bus at 6th and Westlake. That was where the bus depot was at that time. And I looked around, I didn't see anybody that looked like me. So I said, oh my goodness, I just got off the bus with all these white people, and I got to get back on the bus! Oh, no, I'm not doing that. I'm going to stick this out.

Enrique:
And did you plan to stay here?

Pat:
No. No. No. After six months, I had had it. I was determined to go back to Carthage, Texas, and then I began to weigh the difference between making $7 a week compared to $3 an hour up here. I stayed in Seattle.

Enrique:
When did you get involved with music and gospel here in Seattle?

Pat:
I went to a small church with my family, we lived in Renton. But they belong to do a church in Seattle. So I came over to church services. Pretty boring. I said, wow, this is worse than Carthage, Texas, music is really sad here. And then one Sunday after we got out of church first, there was a church directly across the street. And I heard this great music coming out. And I said, I'm not going back to Renton right now. I'm going to go across the street. So I did. And they were having a big program on the fourth Sunday in August that year, and 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.

Enrique:
Really, that's how you met?

Pat:
Yeah, yeah.

Enrique:
Oh my gosh. And then you eventually, after you settled here, you started teaching gospel music in the Seattle school district?

Pat:
Yes. I was very, very lucky enough to end up as a gospel deejay on KYAC radio.

Enrique:
Yeah.

Pat:
Right. And I was there for 13 years. And they were trying to find something to entice the African/American students to go to the music class, the traditional music classes, which they were not particularly interested in, because it didn't say anything about their particular culture, and our particular culture, let me just clarify that right now, our culture. So they hired me to come in and give them some choices. And so I said, okay, sure, I'll do it, you know. And I worked at Franklin high school was my first school, but they assigned me to other schools as well as a floater. I was a pseudo musicologist in African/American style music. So when I started at Franklin and they announced the class was going to be given, I had 28 students in the class, 25 white kids, two Asian kids, and one kid that I wasn't quite sure what she was. And the black kids didn't bother to come.

Enrique:
Why?

Pat:
Because they could get this music every Sunday, they didn't need to go to school and get it. But I wasn't gonna tell anybody that, I needed the job. So, therefore, I just said to them, okay, we'll see what happens. And my boss was Mr. Chuck chin, said, pat, we're gonna go to the jazz festival in Reno, how quickly can you get this group ready to go? I'd like to showcase this gospel choir. I said, okay. So we went to the jazz festival in Reno. We only had three weeks of rehearsal. And I came out in third place. So two songs, full of love in your heart and America. And came back to Franklin. And all the black kids were just standing at the door, are you guys gonna go traveling and stuff? Man, I'm getting in this choir! Shoot! And it just blew up, 108 students.

Enrique:
And how did it change with the music? Did it change what you were going to do, once you had more of the African/American?

Pat:
No, with more of the African/American kids, I could do what I'd been doing all my life, so I could sing the stuff, I could play the stuff that I need to have played myself, and not have to write it down for anybody, because I didn't know how to write anybody, but they could score it. And that all went out the window, because these kids could sing it. They knew all about it already. Then we ended up teaching all the students who came, I didn't have to do very much except just put the triads together. I want three part harmony, you do this, do that, and those kids' ears would go right to it. And we teach the class, so I didn't have to work too hard.

Enrique:
What did that give to you?

Pat:
Oh, energy galore. Happy I stayed in Seattle. Just really...

Enrique:
And proved that you made a right choice?

Pat:
Yes, yes. $7 a week or $3 an hour, yes.

Enrique:
How long did you do that?

Pat:
The choir?

Enrique:
Yes, teaching in the school.

Pat:
They let me go in 1974.

Enrique:
And was that because of the fact that you wanted to do more of the gospel music and because of your faith?

Pat:
Because there were some teachers there who brought it to the principal's attention that there was a separation of church and state, and that they should not allow me to teach gospel in a public school.

Enrique:
Really.

Pat:
And it influenced the powers that be all the way down to the school board. And they gave me my walking papers.

Enrique:
How did that hit you, going through all of that?

Pat:
I just said to myself, you really done it now. I'm really gonna show you. And I just took those kids who wanted to be in the gospel choir with me to the church that I belonged to at that time, which was mount Zion, and we organized a community choir, anybody could join it, and the youngest kid that came to me was 7 years old. And I would just have kids galore from all the schools where I had taught, and they, along with the community children, we had more kids than we could handle. So we actually had to organize into an organization.

Enrique:
I know that you're strong with your faith. And for you, was it really about the music and helping these young people grasp that and enjoy it and feel it?

Pat:
I wanted the kids, especially the black children, to appreciate from whence we came. Being a teacher's daughter, and being taught my history every day in that little black school in Texas, I wanted these kids to know who they were. And why we should appreciate who we are, never allow anybody to make you feel bad just because your skin happens to be a different color. And so I've always been a very strong advocate for history. And even in the shows that I've done and produced in Seattle, I teach a lot of history while I'm doing that. At choir rehearsals now, I still teach history, so that they will understand and appreciate who they are, and who we are, and how we bring all the races together for one whole choir, rather than black section and white section and Asian section, or whatever the case may be, let's all come together and enjoy all the cultures. So I've also incorporated some music from some of the other cultures into our choir. And I travel a lot. I learn a lot when I travel. And yes, it has to do with my own faith. But more than anything else, along with the faith which is always on top, is the fact that if you don't know who you are, then you won't do very well.

Enrique:
The Total Experience Gospel Choir, how did that all get going?

Pat:
When they kicked me out of the school system, um, I was also working at Roosevelt high school gospel choir. And then we had people, kids from T. T. minor, and we had kids from Mercer. We had kids from all over the area coming into mount Zion for that first rehearsal period. And since we had the black experience at Roosevelt, and we had all these other kids, I thought, oh, this is a big old total experience, and we just ended up calling it The Total Experience.

Enrique:
I know that through the years that you had a lot of young kids, but gradually, the makeup of the choir did change some. Other people from the community also became a part of it.

Pat:
Right.

Enrique:
People that were a little older and that weren't African/American. They were of different races. How did that evolve?

Pat:
Well, I, you really want me to get into this, Enrique?
[LAUGHTER]
Let's put it this way. Because I am from the south, I had not seen many mixed marriages. In fact, I had never seen any until I came to Seattle. So here we are with these children from mixed marriages, interested in the music, but not quite sure how to get attached to it. And I just politely said to one particular couple, I said, you have this beautiful young African/American girl. She doesn't look African/American totally, but she is African/American, and that's the way she's gonna be looked upon for the rest of her life. Might as well let her know who she is. And those parents were wise enough to do that. And she was our first so called mixed child that came in. And she's still with me, 34 years later.

Enrique:
Wow. Wow.

Pat:
So that's how it has evolved, anybody from the community can join. And we have red, brown, black and white. We represent the racial rainbow.

Enrique:
What if you're not such a great singer? Do you have auditions for that?

Pat:
No, no, no. We'll teach you how to sing.

Enrique:
Is that right?

Pat:
You do teach. I do teach, yes.

Enrique:
You want to make sure they can carry a tune?

Pat:
That's right. You have to be able to carry a tune.

Enrique:
At least do that.

Pat:
Yes.

Enrique:
You mentioned that you travel a lot. You have performed it seems like around the world in many ways.

Pat:
Basically, yes.

Enrique:
How many countries?

Pat:
38. Ah, 33 countries.

Enrique:
Okay. And across the U.S.?

Pat:
Yes.

Enrique:
For presidents?

Pat:
Yes.

Enrique:
And other numerous government officials in various places? Some of it to pay the bills. Here and there, the choir has been in commercials, you've been in all sorts of different things. And it's kind of gone from being real big to a little smaller group in all of this. But the connections that you've made through the years with all of this, because it's a family thing?

Pat:
It absolutely is a family. What affects one affects all of us. Recently, we've had a rash of, I won't say a rash because that's a bad word when it comes to death, but we've had quite a few deaths in the choir, premature deaths, that affected all of us. And of course, we put our arms around the family and do everything we can do for them. That's what we're organized to do, to foster that family spirit. And it's been a trying time for us in terms of that, severe illnesses that have plagued our choir, but we're staying in there. And we just celebrated our 38th year last month.

Enrique:
Wow, wow. Black Nativity. This is something that you've been doing for a number of years now. How many years?

Pat:
This is our 13th season.

Enrique:
13th, okay. And you've been working with very well known director in this town Jackie Moscow, and the two of you have seemed together, making this a great holiday celebration. And I've gone to it a number of times. But what I've always found interesting is that it changes every year.

Pat:
Yea!

Enrique:
You like that?

Pat:
I love that.

Enrique:
And what's the idea behind that?

Pat:
Well, we're celebrating Langston Hughes' legacy. As a matter of fact, the 13th season will be dedicated to the Langston Hughes tribute all over the United States. And especially his character, simple. Because simple was the person sort of like the alter ego of Langston Hughes who could say anything and not get put in jail because it's a fictional character. And he's also my favorite character, simple. So the 13th season basically will be observed and as the 50th anniversary salute to Langston Hughes.

Enrique:
Do you have a favorite song?

Pat:
I do.

Enrique:
What is it?

Pat:
Amazing grace.

Enrique:
Would you sing a little bit of that please?

Pat:
Okay. The first verse, before I cry.

Enrique:
Okay.

Pat:
♪ Amazing grace, how sweet the sound ♬
♪ that saved a wretch like me ♬
♪ for I once was lost ♬
♪ but I thank God now I'm found ♬
♪ I was blind but now I see ♬
♪ thank God I can see ♬

Enrique:
Is there ever a day that you go without singing?

Pat:
No.

Enrique:
Really?

Pat:
No. Shower, walking down the street, in the grocery store, I find myself humming, no.

Enrique:
Did you ever wish that you would have sought a career of a commercial career, you know, gone out, hit the road, that sort of thing?

Pat:
Well, I did. I did that back in 1968, '69, and '70. Actually decided I was tired of gospel, so I was gonna try my hand at soul music. R&B, bro!
[LAUGHTER]
So I made this little 45 called, I let a good man go, and on the flip side of it was the love affair. And it resurfaced itself in Europe. I didn't get much air play here in Seattle, none on the white stations and very little on the one black station we had, because my voice, as they told me later, was not the kind of voice that would sell, because it was too white.

Enrique:
Really?

Pat:
Yes. And I thought really?

Enrique:
Too white?

Pat:
I'm from Seattle, I'm from Texas, I got a white voice? Oh, please. So anyway, that's what I was told. So it went on the ground. And I was in my church one Sunday morning and this lady comes into the church, and I asked for visitors to please stand and let us know who they were. She stood up and she said I'm from London, England. And she's, are you Patrinell Staten? I said I am. And she said, I personally flew all the way over here to see if you are still living. I said, well, I think so, yes, I'm still living. And she just made a joke out of it in the service. And she said, well, I danced to your music every Friday and Saturday night in the discos in London. She said, I love that, I let a good man go song. And I said really? And the church was just cracking up. They were having a good time with that. So she, after church, she gave me a lot more details. And I thought, well, I better do something about that, because it was being sort of pirated over there. And I just happened to be going to a music seminar the following weekend, and they asked us to tell something about ourselves. And I told that little story. And three wonderful music lawyers came up to me and said, we'll take your case pro bono. And they did.

Enrique:
And that's good.

Pat:
30 years worth.

Enrique:
Nice, nice. Well, I have a favor to ask you.

Pat:
Okay.

Enrique:
As we just about close things out here. And of course, I always want you to sing for me.

Pat:
Okay.

Enrique:
I was wondering if you could give me another little tune, close out everything else. Always appreciate everything that you do throughout this community, and particularly with what you do with Black Nativity, but also just listening to you sing. So can you share a little bit for me? Thank you, Pat.

Pat:
Coming from Carthage, Texas, to Seattle, Washington, this is...
♪ someday, I wish up on a star ♬
♪ way up where the clouds are far ♬
♪ behind me and troubles melt like lemon drops ♬
♪ way above the chimney tops ♬
♪ that's where you'll find me ♬
♪ somewhere ♬
♪ over the rainbow ♬
♪ blue birds fly ♬
♪ if those tiny blue birds can fly ♬
♪ over the rainbow ♬
♪ then why oh why can't you ♬
And I ♬

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