Pastor Patrinell "Pat" Staten Wright is a Seattle treasure -- as a sublime vocal soloist, as the founding director of the Total Experience Gospel Choir, and as a long-time youth mentor and active community leader. The possessor of a four-octave range and supremely soulful voice, Wright led her first church choir at age 14, and her very first recording (marketed under her birth name of Patrinell Staten in 1969) has become a soul music collectible of the first magnitude. She married the Reverend Benny Wright (b. 1943) and worked as a teller at Peoples National Bank, a school secretary, a gospel radio DJ, a newspaper religion editor, and a pastor of the Oneness Christian Center. As the mother of two (and grandmother of five), Wright still made time to found and lead Seattle's popular Total Experience Gospel Choir for decades, supporting countless good causes, both local and far-flung, with performances in at least 38 states and 28 different countries. Among those many causes, Wright and the choir dedicated countless hours to assisting victims of 2005's Hurricane Katrina. Wright, who has been called "Seattle's First Lady of Gospel," received many prestigious honors, including the Washington State Governors Ethnic Heritage Award and the Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award.
The Preacher and the Teacher
Patrinell Staten was born in the hot dusty cotton country of Carthage, Texas, on January 16, 1944. She was one of eight siblings that blessed the lives of their Baptist preacher father, Alton B. Staten Sr. (1906?-1960), and schoolteacher mother, Haru Butler Staten (1908-1976). The tight and loving family was very proud of their African American roots and culture, and Wright later recalled their activities surrounding the "Juneteenth" holiday celebrating the date that news of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation reached Texas in 1865:
"[The] family owned a farm and every year her father would host the area's Juneteenth celebration. They'd eat goat meat and drink red soda water. Both were symbolic. Goats are sure-footed and never let anything stop them from reaching their goal. The red pop was a symbol of the blood shed while surviving slavery and obtaining freedom" (Large).
Of her father, Wright said:
"When I was born it was really rough for black people ... I saw him go through so much and I'm so glad I was young enough to be born then but old enough in my spirit to remember a lot of that stuff. He taught me to be strong and to endure" (Nicol).
At age three Patrinell sang her first solo at church, then taught herself to play the piano, and by age 14 she was leading her father's choirs. Then, upon his death, she knew what her life would be dedicated to: "I've had the calling since I was 14. My father was a Baptist preacher, and I knew I was meant to carry on his work" (Berson, "Pat Wright's Total Experience ..."). After attending Turner High School (where she was voted valedictorian of her graduating class of 1961) and Prairie View A&M University in Hempstead, Texas, Staten moved to Seattle in late 1964 in order to help her newly divorced sister, Ora Kimbrough. "My parents taught us to take care of each other," she once explained (Nicol). Kimbrough was perhaps the first African American employee at Peoples National Bank (Dexter Avenue N and Broad Street), and she managed to get her little sister a job there as well.
On June 19, 1965, Staten married Benny Wright, who worked as a teacher and coach at Franklin High School and later became a preacher. Over the subsequent years, Pat Wright would take on numerous different work roles, including school secretary, music teacher, and pastor -- but one of the most notable of them was, briefly, that of a soul-singing nightclub performer, under her birth name, Patrinell Staten.
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" (Blecha interview). 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 reemerged 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"/"Little Love Affair" (Sepia Records No. 8201). By September, Seattle's soul station, KYAC, began pumping it up to hit status locally.
The vocal quintet had, according to The Seattle Daily Times, "a sound that is as soft and smooth as velvet ... with the Casanovas' fine harmony and Patrinell's glorious voice, Sepia's boost should be all that is necessary to get them started on a good career. And watch out for Patrinell -- if she gets the right breaks, she could become another Nancy Wilson or Dionne Warwick" (Gressel, "New Local Label ... "). After playing gigs at rooms such as Seattle's Club Elegant (12th Avenue and Pine Street) and around Portland, Oregon, Wright withdrew from the band in 1973:
"I left the R&B scene after three years. That was work that I didn't want to do anymore. It was just too hard. And, I wasn't really good at it anyway [laughter]. [Plus], my husband wasn't goin' for that, the church wasn't goin' for that -- and I had a really hard time in the black community, who knew me and weren't goin' for it. And I was even put out of church for singin' this kind of music ... My father was a pastor and he woulda turned over in his grave if he'd known I'd done that [laughter]" (Blecha interview).
Conversely, her father would likely have been very proud that his daughter would soon be making a name for herself as one of Seattle's finest gospel singers.
Are You Experienced?
Indeed, on the morning of October 1, 1970, barely a year after her R&B hit, it was Wright's prominence as a gospel singer that saw her suddenly crossing paths with the realm of Seattle's most internationally famous musician, psychedelic-rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970). That was the date that the funeral for the recently deceased rock 'n' roll icon was slated to be held at the Dunlap Baptist Church (8445 Rainier Avenue S). However, the not-particularly-religious Hendrix family had made few arrangements for the impending 1 p.m. service. Years later, in a documentary film, Wright recalled:
"I was lying in my bed, minding my own business and my friend Freddie Mae Gautier [1930--2001] calls me up -- because she was one of the people who really knew the Hendrix family very, very well, and she in a way was a surrogate parent to Jimi. And she called me up and said: 'Pat Wright: you need to get up ... you need to come now.' And I said 'Where am I coming to?' She says 'You need to come to this church' ... she said 'They need some God up in here, so get up and come bring some God with you.' ... So, I got up and I went out there. And, it scared me to death. Scared me to death. All these people from England (and from other countries) ... they all had on black leather, and they all had long hair, and they all were high! I didn't realize at that time that people from other countries are a lot more warm. You know, I'm still fresh out of the south. So here's these tall white guys, and white girls, you know all around me and I'm goin' 'I. Don't. Feel. Comfortable. I just want to go home'" ("Pastor Patrinell Staten Wright at ...").
The Reverend Harold Blackburn conducted the service, which in truth was attended by plenty of black folks too, including jazz icon Miles Davis (1926-1991), drummer Buddy Miles (1947-2008), and Hendrix's boyhood friends from Seattle. At the proper moment, Wright walked past the lavender and white floral display arranged in the shape of a giant guitar and stepped up to the pulpit.
"I sang 'What a Friend We Have in Jesus' -- and it was very, very quiet as I began to sing this song. And then as I ended the song it's just big sobs everywhere. I spoke to a few of them and a lotta them hugged me and told me how much they enjoyed the song. Asked me 'What was it that I was singing?' [laughter!] And I told 'em what it was. And, as soon as I could ease out of the crowd, I left" ("Pastor Patrinell Staten Wright at ...").
The Hendrix family and select guests then traveled to the Greenwood Cemetery in Renton, where Hendrix was laid to rest.
The Gospel Truth
It was also in 1970 that the Wrights' son Patrick was born, and that the Seattle School District hired Wright to lead the Franklin High School Gospel Choir and then the Black Experience Gospel Choir based at Roosevelt High School. In response to a newspaper reporter's inquiry, Wright once offered a simple yet profound explanation regarding the significance of gospel music in her life and her community: "God and gospel has brought the black man from where he was to where he is now" (Brown).
On Sunday, May 7, 1972, Wright -- who had signed on as the gospel music DJ at KYAC radio -- was among the gospel entertainers performing for the Seattle Opportunities Industrialization Center's (SOIC) second annual Family Church Service at the People's Institutional Baptist Church. Her group, Patrinell Wright's Inspirational Seven, joined others -- including the Gloryland Singers, the Lewis Singers, and choirs from the New Hope Baptist Church, the Ebenezer Christian Center, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and the Smith Temple Church of God -- in celebrating the SOIC's self-help training programs for members of the minority community.
On Sunday, August 27, 1972, Wright served as Program Coordinator for a benefit gospel event held at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church (1522 14th Avenue) to raise funds in support of KYAC's campaign to help fight sickle-cell anemia, the inheritable blood disease that predominantly afflicts African Americans. Among the entertainers that she lined up were the Goodwill Baptist Church choirs, the New Hope Baptist Church choir, the Local 8 Choir, the Gospel Elect, the Danielettes, Troy Livingston, and the Gospel O.D. Singers.
On Saturday, June 16, 1973, the Seattle Pacific College Pavilion was the site of the first of a summer series of gospel-rock concerts. Featured performers included Patrinell Wright and the Danielettes, the Gospel Union (from Vancouver, B.C.), and the Wood Brothers and Company. The free, youth-oriented shows were produced by Son-Rise Productions, an enterprise whose spokesman, Joel Bardwell, described them as "a spiritual answer to the rising crime, drug use, witchcraft and occult trends among youth" ("Gospel-rock Concert ... ").
In 1973 a school levy failed to pass and Wright's school choir positions were cut. However, for Wright, being a choir leader was more than a job -- it was her life's calling -- and she would not abandon the cause, because "It has been a dream of mine to be able to do something for the youth of my race" (Brown). "At first it wasn't my intention to mother all of these children," Wright once said, "[b]ut they needed the choir. For some it was all they had" (Tizon). So, Wright proceeded to combine the two choirs and began rehearsing them at Mount Zion Baptist Church (1634 19th Avenue). In April 1973 those 57 African American students began coalescing and by September the group was recast as the Total Experience Gospel Choir.
Within two months, after its membership was broadened by welcoming additional youths who were not enrolled in school, its numbers grew to about 108 and kids as young as eight joined. Over the subsequent decades the choir became the most prominent gospel group in the Northwest. Playing as many as 300 gigs a year, the choir performed at schools, churches, parks, hospitals, labor union halls, peace rallies, arts festivals, and gospel competitions. Choir members recorded numerous albums, won more than 150 awards, and traveled the globe. Even Wright herself seemed a bit surprised by all their accomplishments and "how vast the world is ... I never thought I'd be traveling worldwide, and now I've been all around the world. That's the greatest gift -- the gift of openness and enlightenment" (Nicol). By 1998, an estimated 500 singers had passed through the choir, including one the Wrights ended up welcoming into their Madrona-neighborhood household as an adopted daughter, Dr. Julie Washington, now a professor at Georgia State University.
On a Mission
All of Wright's many activities in the community -- including serving as religion editor at The Seattle Medium newspaper in the late 1970s -- were aimed at aiding and assisting that community. And even while directing the choir (which she began reducing in size in 1993), she took on additional modes of outreach, including co-founding and pastoring the Oneness Christian Center (2022 E Union Street), a nondenominational Baptist ministry in a storefront church that opened on April 20, 1997.
In the spring of 2001 Wright suffered cardiac arrest while in church -- and doctors later said that her heart had actually stopped for a full nine minutes. "Since I don't know when the second end will strike," Wright said, "I try to live each day to the fullest. I take a little time for myself -- just a little, not a lot -- and I try to do as much as I can, for all I can, while I can" (Nicol).
Well, that's an understatement! For example, when Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast states in August 2005, Wright and her choir were duly worried after one of their members (and her brother) went missing while visiting their grandparents in Mississippi. But then word came that they were in fact safe. Wright later recalled, "That was the best call we had ever received -- that she and her brother were OK, and grandma and grandpa were OK. When she came back to the choir I told the choir, we have no choice; that's our next mission" (Nicol). In January 2006 the choir began raising funds, and that August Wright and the choir went to the disaster area to pitch in with whatever tasks needed doing. Then they returned in April 2007, again in August 2008, and then again in March 2009. In May 2012 Wright and the choir took their musical ministry to Japan.
It was in May 2007 that ABC's World News Tonight acknowledged Wright's leadership by naming her "Person of the Week" -- upping the stakes that December by selecting her as one of the show's "Persons of the Year." She was quoted as saying, "I never wanted to be one of those choirs where you just go from church to church to church to sing ... I wanted to conquer the world with what we did" (Nicol). Ironically, it was that same year that, due to financial pressures, Wright's Oneness Christian Center had to close its doors. Wright recalled:
"It really broke my heart to shut the doors of my church, but then I thought, well these are just four walls, and I've never been one of those people who could be contained nor confined to four walls. We've been using those Sunday mornings to connect with other churches. This is just another step in my ministry" (Nicol).
For the Record
Over the decades, Wright saw to it that her choir also received plenty of experience recording. In addition to several album releases the group also raised funds by hiring out to record many jingles for radio and television stations. In 2002 the Starbucks CD Lifted: Songs of the Spirit included Wright singing "Joy to the World," one of a batch of uplifting songs performed by luminaries including Solomon Burke (1940-2010), Alison Krauss (b. 1971), Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972), Gillian Welch (b. 1967), and Ralph Stanley (b. 1927). The choir was also featured on the song "Save Me" from 2003's Some Devil album by Dave Matthews (b. 1967). Wright also sang (along with Gloria Smith) the song "Glory, Glory" for the soundtrack to the 2005 film Because of Winn-Dixie.
Meanwhile, around 2000 a couple of astute nightclub DJs in London somehow happened upon a copy of the Casanovas' old single from 1969, and they began playing "Little Love Affair." The tune became an underground sensation, driving the rare record's value into the stratospheric range of more than $3000. That in turn caused the song to be pirated onto a compilation CD of rare sixties Soul tunes, then licensed properly in 2004 by Seattle's Light in the Attic Records (LITA) for its own compilation album, Wheedle's Groove: Seattle's Finest in Funk & Soul 1965-75, and then released again as a reissued 45 in 2011.
The commercial success of the compilation led to another album that was based on the concept of having those same veteran bands reunite and perform newer songs. Thus Wright, now the grandmother of five, was persuaded to record a seemingly unlikely selection: a song originally written and recorded by Seattle grunge rock stars Soundgarden, and one with a very provocative title. Light in the Attic founder Matt Sullivan admitted in the subsequent Wheedle's Groove documentary film, "I remember calling up Pat Wright and saying 'Hey, we're doing this new record and you should record a version of "Jesus Christ Pose" by Soundgarden -- but turn it into a classic gospel song.' And I think that she thought I was probably totally nuts at first [laughter]" ("Light in the Attic Docs Presents ..."). Sullivan was not far off. Wright said:
"I was shocked when they presented me with Soundgarden's 'Jesus Christ Pose' ... I thought, I don't know about that. I had to think about how it fit in with my chosen path of religion. I had to think about it long and hard, asking, '[A]re they making fun of religion, or are they really telling us we need to stop being hypocrites?' I chose the latter, because it really hits it right at the top. In this day and age, so many of our so-called religious leaders are such hypocrites and that song speaks to that. I listened to it again -- I hadn't listened to it for years -- and I said, 'I can do this'" ("Recapturing a Moment ... ").
The result was simply stunning: a 1991 grunge hit reimagined with a hip-hop beat and overlaid with soaring vocals by Wright and some members of the choir. It made for compelling listening and viewing.
Honors and a Loving Legacy
Crowned by The Seattle Times as "Seattle's First Lady of Gospel" (Berson, "Pat Wright's Total Experience ..."), Patrinell Wright's life was dedicated to helping others, and along the way she was repeatedly recognized and acknowledged for many of her altruistic achievements and contributions to her community. Some of the prestigious accolades she received -- in addition to being selected as 2002's Seafair Queen -- include the Washington State Governors Ethnic Heritage Award (for helping to preserve black gospel music in the state), the Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award, the Urban League's Edwin T. Pratt Award, the Women in Communications Award, the Jefferson Award for Outstanding Community Service, the Seattle Center's 2005 Living Legend Award, the Women of Color Empowered's Community Mentoring and Legacy Award, the Women's University Club Brava Award (for outstanding community service), and the African American-Jewish Coalition for Justice's 2009 Appreciation Award.
In addition, Wright was named as an ambassador for the American Heart Association's "Go Red for Women" initiative in 2008. That same year, Seattle Metropolitan magazine included her in a review of the "50 Most Influential Musicians" in the Northwest's past 100 years, and the following year saw the Puget Sound Business Journal honoring her as one of the region's "Women of Influence." In the spring of 2013, Wright agreed to head out on a 10-week tour supporting the famed Seattle rock band Heart, traveling with an accompanist across America training gospel choirs to join Heart at local shows and sing backup on the group's new arrangement of the Led Zeppelin classic "Stairway to Heaven."
But touring, selling records, and garnering kudos does not necessarily make a person rich -- except perhaps as measured by a growing total of exciting experiences, good memories, and countless friendships. Indeed, as Pat Wright noted back in 1990:
"I'm not by any means financially secure. I probably have less than a thousand dollars to my name at age 46. But I dare say that I'm happier than most ... When I pass on, I won't have money for anybody, but every now and then my children may hear a song that might remind them of me. That's my legacy" (Tizon).
Pat Wright died in Seattle on August 30, 2022, leaving a lasting musical legacy for which she will be long remembered.