Sacred music has a fairly deep history in the Pacific Northwest, and the most prominent and longest-lasting gospel group in the region is undoubtedly Seattle's Total Experience Gospel Choir. Originally formed as a 57-member youth group in 1973, the choir, under the decades-long leadership of Patrinell "Pat" Wright (1944-2022) and with an ever-fluctuating size and evolving membership roster, has filled several significant community roles. It has generated spirited music at countless events ranging from church services to peace rallies, arts festivals to world's fairs. The choir has also provided its members -- often deprived inner-city youths -- a safe and nurturing place to learn music as well as the ideals of commitment, responsibility, and good citizenship. Beyond that, the choir has offered its members the "total experience" of contributing to, and being part of, a widely esteemed organization. In addition, the choir gave many kids a first opportunity to travel outside of their hometown (to approximately 38 states and 28 different countries); to perform in big-time venues (including the Seattle Opera House and Salt Lake City's Mormon Tabernacle); and to participate in recording sessions (which resulted in the issuance of numerous albums and radio jingles).
Gospel in the Northwest
The religious populace of the Pacific Northwest has long had a fondness for singing sacred hymns and/or gospel music. Founded in 1852, the little sawmill town of Seattle initially had church meetings in the log cookhouse (located a bit south of the southwest corner of present-day 1st Avenue and Yesler Way) built near the sawmill that Henry Yesler (1810-1892) established in 1853. Then the town got its first Methodist Episcopal church (southeast corner of present-day 2nd Avenue and Columbia Street) in 1855 and another, the Methodist Protestant church (2nd Avenue and Madison Street), in 1864.
Meanwhile, in 1861 the sawmill owner had built his namesake Yesler Hall (just north of the cookhouse lot) as a community gathering space, and crowds would gather whenever traveling musicians -- including gospel groups from the Deep South -- passed through giving performances. A broad gospel craze was sparked in the wake of the success of the Fisk Jubilee Singers (from the African American Fisk University in Nashville) beginning in 1871. Thus it was that in 1877 the Tennessee Jubilee Singers performed at Yesler Hall, as did the Kentucky Jubilee Singers (who, it is known, typically sang such formerly secret slave-era spirituals as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "We'll Cross de Ribber ob Jordan") in 1881, and then Zan Edwards's Colored Jubilee Singers in 1896. Over time several African American-oriented churches -- including Baptist and Methodist denominations -- arose in Seattle and the neighborhoods rang out with song on Sundays.
By 1941 gospel music was popular enough to merit a dedicated weekly show on Seattle's premier radio station, KJR, as broadcast from the Hollywood Temple church (E 69th Street & 8th Avenue NE) and a second program, the Pilgrim's Hour, on KTW beginning in 1944. That same decade saw Seattle Pacific College's A Cappella Choir cutting spirituals, including "De Old Arks A Moverin' Along," "Set Down Servant," "All Breathing Life," and "The Lord Bless You and Keep You" downtown at Western Recording Studios in the Northern Life Tower (later renamed the Seattle Tower). The booming years of World War II brought many newcomers to the Northwest, including the former director of Detroit's famous Wings Over Jordan choir, Joseph S. Powe. Initially settled in the navy port town of Bremerton, Powe proceeded to recruit and then lead Bremerton's USO Negro Choral group, as well the Challengers, a youth gospel group that at one point included another newcomer: future music star, Quincy Jones (b. 1933). Then, around 1951, Powe formed a new group, the Songcrafters, which recorded tunes such as "Awake and Sing" and "Medley of Faith" (along with the Lift Every Voice LP) for various local labels.
The 1950s brought together a Seattle group that performed initially as the Southwinds and recorded tunes such as "Gospel Train," "Down by the Riverside," "Swing Low," and "Free Grace" for the Celestial Music label. The 1960s saw the town's Gospel O.D. Singers cut the LP Give Him Your Love, and additional gospel and spirituals records were released over the years by groups including the Wings of Happiness and Les Chanticleers. Indeed, by about 1990 an estimated 110 different black gospel groups were active in the Northwest, including the New Hope Choir, Urban Rhythms, Imani, and STAND (Shout Triumphantly and Announce A New Day), but none would match the achievements of the Total Experience Gospel Choir.
I Have a Dream
It was in 1970 that the Seattle School District hired Patrinell "Pat" Wright to lead the Franklin High School Gospel Choir and then to do the same for the Black Experience Gospel Choir based at Seattle's Roosevelt High School. Wright was a Texas transplant, the daughter of a Baptist preacher, and the piano-playing owner of a soulful four-octave voice who began leading her father's church choirs by age 14 (and then also fronted a Seattle soul band in the late 1960s). Her husband Ben Wright (b. 1943) was a teacher at Franklin High and later a preacher. After three years, when a school levy failed in 1973, Wright's school-district positions were cut. Luckily, for Wright being a choir-leader was more than a job -- it was her life's calling -- and she would not simply abandon the cause. She later told a reporter:
"At first it wasn't my intention to mother all of these children. I had no intention of loving them all like I do. But they needed the choir. For some it was all they had. I can't stand to see children hurting" (Tizon).
Wright combined 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 up. "Some of these kids," Wright explained, "especially those who have dropped out of school or been kicked out for some reason, had nothing to hold on to. They would be out on the street. Here, they've found something" (Ruppert, "Young Choir Seeking ...").
Yes, they found purpose. And they would learn to produce a joyful noise that almost anyone who ever heard it could admire. As The Seattle Daily Times once described their sound: "The music was distinct: a blues rhythm, a confluence of baritones and altos and sopranos in surging harmonies, then a lead singer whose song rode the waves like a surfer. It's one-third discipline and two-thirds wild abandon. A labor of faith and a product of passion is black gospel" (Tizon).
Around April 1974 choir members began organizing fund-raising events, including a soul-food dinner and bottle, can, and newspaper recycling drives, to help raise the $2,500 required to support a planned trip to Spokane where they would perform several shows, including at the Expo '74 World's Fair. As Wright enthused to The Seattle Daily Times: "The planning and working for this trip has instilled in them a sense of pride, dignity and responsibility" (Brown, "Youth Groups to Visit ..."). On Friday, June 15, the kids met at the Mount Zion Baptist Church and boarded buses for the three-day trip, and Wright was thrilled: "For the majority of these kids, this is their first trip outside Seattle. It has been a dream of mine to be able to do something for the youth of my race" (Brown, "Youth Groups to Visit ...").
For the next several decades Wright taught and mentored hundreds of inner-city young people. Through the choir project, she also provided them with opportunities to contribute to their community via countless gigs where they gained experience in public performing and learned the values of cooperation, collaboration, and general responsibility. Eventually, Wright became the founding pastor of her own storefront church, the Oneness Christian Center (2022 E Union Street).
A Full Repertoire
Any attempt to note all of the interesting gigs that the Total Experience Gospel Choir has done over the decades would be terribly cumbersome. But it is worthwhile reviewing some of the choir's earliest shows along with later highlights, in part to help demonstrate how rapidly and steadily it grew into a notable and beloved musical entity -- one that would thrill audiences in venues ranging from churches to schools, union halls to arts festivals, hospitals to hotels, parks to penal institutions, tiny taverns to major theaters.
Wright had a plan for ensuring that the choir could entertain many different types of people in so many different settings: The ensemble's repertoire would ultimately comprise a canon of 300 songs. Looking back, she explained:
"Sometimes gospel is not appropriate for an event. We have a full repertoire -- we can sing from opera to gospel. But it doesn't matter what kind of music I sing, you can still tell I'm a gospel singer by the way I sing it. And that's with heart" (Nicol).
In early August 1974, Seattle's Black Cultural Association held its fourth annual Black Community Festival in the Central Area and various prizes were awarded to participants. Among them were the Total Experience Gospel Choir (which won the gospel music category) and local soul-funk group Acapulco Gold, which won the Battle of the Bands contest, earning a slot at the upcoming Bumbershoot Arts Festival at Seattle Center.
Bumbershoot that year also featured KYAC's Gospel Music event, held at the Seattle Opera House on August 18, which spotlighted the Total Experience Gospel Choir, Big Frank and the Cleartones, and the First African Methodist Episcopal Church Choir. That same summer also saw the World Baptist Youth Alliance convention in Portland, Oregon -- and when Wright (who was working with the alliance's music department) realized that the program lacked any representation of African American talent, she volunteered her group, which rushed down and performed on short notice. "I had my foot in the door, and I used it," she said (Ruppert, "Young Choir Seeking ...").
Then on Sunday, September 22, the choir performed at Tacoma's Bethlehem Baptist Church, along with the Joys of Jerusalem Choir, the Mount Baker Young Adult Choir, and the Martin Luther King Singers from Fort Lewis. On December 6 the choir performed at Seattle's Medgar Evers Memorial Pool (500 23rd Avenue), which was dedicated in honor of the civil-rights leader, who had been assassinated in 1963; the event was a fundraiser sponsored by the Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center.
By 1975 the Total Experience Gospel Choir comprised 89 kids spanning the ages from 7 to 21 and a leadership team that now included Wright, Debra Green, Barry Johnson, Stephanie Preston, and choir president and Highline Community College student Danny White. Fundraising continued apace, because the leaders had a goal of taking the choir to the American Baptist Church annual convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in June. Their travel budget required $40,000 in order to take 60 singers and 15 adult chaperones east. The plan was to have each singer chip in $100 to help defray those travel costs, but, as Wright dolefully noted: "Of the 60 we are taking, at least 45 are from poor families. We have one family with seven in the choir. Asking them to each pay $100 isn't going to be easy" (Ruppert, "Young Choir Seeking ..."). It wasn't, and that particular tour never occurred, but there would be plenty of others in the future.
Bicentennial and Beyond
In June 1975 the choir performed at the Seattle Center's Food Circus Court, and on August 24 it sang at the Seattle Opera House during Bumbershoot, along with the Mighty Warriors Spiritual Singers, the Cleartones, and the Golden Eagles. One year later, on July 4, when the whole nation was celebrating America's Bicentennial, the choir's performance was broadcast live on national television. Then on October 31, right before that year's presidential election, the choir performed at Langston Hughes for a campaign rally that also featured Rosalynn Carter (b. 1927), wife of future Democratic president Jimmy Carter (b. 1924), and Myrlie Evers (b. 1933), widow of Medgar Evers. That same year the choir made its first recording, Shine.
By 1977 the choir -- whose membership would always be in flux -- consisted of 117 members, who enjoyed performing live on KRAB, a popular non-commercial radio station in Seattle. The following year saw Wright taking on the role of religion editor at the local African American-oriented newspaper, The Seattle Medium, but the choir carried on. On Sunday, January 15, 1978, St. Mary's Catholic Church was the site of a community tribute to the memory of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) a decade after his assassination in Memphis. Sponsored by the Black United Clergy for Action and the Benefit Guild (an African American women's service organization), the event drew more than 500 attendees, including Mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939). Wright was among the prominent locals who were honored with Martin Luther King Awards given to mark their personal achievements and contributions to civil rights.
Early in 1978, the Total Experience Gospel Choir was included in a production, by Seattle's Black Arts/West, of playwright and novelist James Baldwin's (1924-1987) "The Amen Corner." The show was mounted at the United Methodist Church (128 16th Avenue E) that February 23 and March 2, 3, 4, 9, and 11. Then on April 29 the choir joined with the Mercer Island Children's Choir and the combined 160-plus singers drew 3,000 attendees to a joint concert at the Seattle Center House. That same year the Total Experience Gospel Choir performed at Seattle's Randolph Carter Industrial Workshop (24th Avenue and Yesler Way) in support of a community health forum, "High Blood Pressure in Blacks." In both 1978 and 1979 the choir was raising funds to support what would prove to be a three-week summer tour that included New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Chicago. The year 1979 also saw the choir making its second recording, Lift Him Up, with the Reverend Isaac Douglas.
In 1979 the choir's home base was moved from Mount Zion to the Prince of Peace Baptist Church (740 25th Avenue S) in South Seattle. On this and other occasions, a move was prompted by a falling out between Wright and church leadership -- usually over differences of opinion about rectitude, or lack of it, in the musical performances. Wright believed that some foot-stomping, hand-clapping, and whooping and wailing were fine, drums and electric guitars were okay, too, and was even known to say things like "If the music is too loud, that's too bad" (Brodeur).
Bahamas to Black Nativity
On March 2, 1980, the choir performed (along with the Seattle Jazz Quintet) at a fundraiser, held at Seattle's Bahamas Restaurant, for the International Rescue Committee's efforts to aid Cambodian refugees. Then on May 23 it performed at the Seattle Center's Flag Pavilion during the annual Northwest Folklife Festival. The Christmas season that year was celebrated by performing, along with Seattle's beloved kiddie-TV host/clown, J. P. Patches (Chris Wedes, 1928-2012), for the young patients at Children's Orthopedic Hospital.
On March 22, 1981, the choir -- which by now had members from Seattle, Everett, Auburn, and Tacoma -- joined once again with the Mercer Island Children's Choir performing for the "We Can Make It Together, If We Try" concert at the First Baptist Church (Harvard Avenue and Seneca Street). That same year choir members were named "Goodwill Ambassadors" to The Bahamas, where they were enthusiastically welcomed.
On February 14, 1982, a Northwest Gospel Extravaganza event was held at Seattle's Moore Theatre. It featured the 60-member Total Experience Gospel Choir along with Les Chanticleers, the Mount Zion Mass Choir, and Tacoma's Voices of Victory group. In July 1982 it was announced that the E. K. and Lillian F. Bishop Foundation (administered by Rainier Bank) had named Wright "Youth Leader of the Year," an honor that came with a $10,000 donation to the choir's travel fund. Later that summer the choir made concert tours of the East Coast as well as Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas. Then on December 11 the choir performed at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Hall (2700 1st Avenue) in a "showcase of pro-worker entertainment" sponsored by the Seattle Labor Theater ("Show is Offered ... "). The following year took the choir to Hawaii.
"The Best of the Northwest" variety show was held on January 30, 1984, at the 5th Avenue Theatre in support of the Seattle School "Yes" Committee. And "variety" was certainly an accurate description. Along with the choir, the show featured restaurateur/folk-singer Ivar Haglund (1905-1985), Fred Radke's Big Band, jazz diva Diane Schuur (b. 1953), Seattle's singing school superintendent Don Steele, an early local hip-hop dance crew called the West Side Breakers, and other talents. In February the choir performed for neighborhood fans at the Yesler Terrace Community Center (Broadway Avenue and Yesler Way) and followed up with extensive touring of the United States. Similar touring took place again in 1985, and in 1986 the choir went to Mexico, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. That same year began a decade-and-a-half-long tradition of having the choir perform in a gospel-enriched Christmas stage production of "Black Nativity," the 1961 drama by African American playwright Langston Hughes. The show was initially mounted at Seattle's Intiman Theater and later moved to the Moore Theatre.
The early 1990s saw the Total Experience Gospel Choir based out of the Bright and Morning Star Baptist Church (1900 Boren Avenue). The choir had begun welcoming adults, and now boasted members ranging in age from 6 to 65, and Wright's son Patrick as assistant director. In 1991 the choir purchased a 1960s Gillig touring bus. However, in November 1992 The Seattle Times reported that, after two decades of performing, big changes were ahead for the choir. "It's been about as familiar and enduring as any Seattle institution, this hand-clapping, body-swaying collection of humanity whose voices have resounded in song for almost twenty years," but, after a final series of concerts culminating on October 31, 1993, the choir would " cease to exist as thousands have known it" (Moriwaki). Wright had brought the group far, but told a reporter, "I don't have the energy and the resources to keep a full-scale choir going. We have 32 members now. I'd like to get it down to about 15 very good voices" (Moriwaki). Indeed, by 1997, the choir was down to 19 members.
Still, the choir's positive reputation continued to grow and it was heard singing at countless shows around the Northwest, across America, and in many distant lands. Its touring agenda included Russia in 1992; Australia's Sydney Opera House (where the group scored First Place [Gold] in an International Choral Competition) in 1993; the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C., and Japan in 1994; Russia and Siberia in 1995; Germany in 1997; the St. Helena and Gullah Islands of South Carolina in 1998; and Germany again in 1999.
At some point, Wright and the choir sang a Seattle event for President Bill Clinton (b. 1946). It was in 1998 that the choir cut its fourth recording, We Come This Far by Faith, to celebrate its 25th anniversary, and in 1999 its recordings made in collaboration with Lunebery, Germany's Gospel Happening Choir, were released as the We Shall Overcome disc. By that time it was estimated that about 500 singers had passed through the Total Experience Gospel Choir, which had won numerous awards, including Best Gospel Group from the Northwest Area Music Association (NAMA) and First Place in 1995's Washington State Christian Talent Contest.
As a new decade dawned, the choir was poised for further experiences and achievements. In 2000 it recorded its Live at McGowans CD at a restaurant (317 Main Avenue S) in Renton; took first place in an a cappella competition; and represented the Puget Sound area in a national competition held in California. "I love competitions," Wright recently enthused, "because it keeps you on top of your game [laughter]" (Blecha interview).
It was around this time that a very telling incident occurred, one that revealed publicly the inner fortitude that being part of the choir had been instilling in its members over the decades. What happened was this: Wright and the choir were booked to perform in the evening at Seattle's Benaroya Hall -- after they returned by bus from British Columbia, Canada, that same day. However, considerable delays at the border crossing in Blaine caused them to inform Benaroya management that they would likely miss the show time. Meanwhile the hall had filled with attendees, including a goodly number of choir alumni. So, when the emcee announced to the assembled audience that the show wouldn't go on as planned, an amazing thing happened. Voices arose to ask the emcee to wait a minute. And at that point a group of those alumni got up and headed to the stage where they gathered and improvised a concert in a "grand tribute to [the Choir's] beloved teacher, Pat Wright" (Elfendahl).
The choir recorded two discs in 2001, Black Nativity and a healing tribute after the 9/11 attacks titled Shout Out Loud. The following year saw Pat Wright and the choir's version of "Joy to the World" included on the Starbucks CD Lifted: Songs of the Spirit, which also included tunes by musical greats such as Solomon Burke (1940-2010), Alison Krauss (b. 1971), Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972), Gillian Welch (b. 1967), and Ralph Stanley (b. 1927). Then in 2005 the choir released its Total Experience Choir Sings Old School Gospel album.
All the while, international touring was also on the choir's calendar. Some of those many tours included gigs in Bermuda in 2001; Alaska in 2002; Japan in 2004; France in 2005; the American South in 2006; Japan again in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2012; and a trip to the International Choral Festival and Competition in South Korea (where the choir won Silver Medals) in 2007.
As an historical aside, it should be noted that from among the ranks of the choir at least three young singers achieved a certain level of national notoriety for their individual talents when they each managed to become contestants on the wildly popular television series American Idol. The first was Karma Johnson in 2002, the second was Leah Labelle Vladowski in 2004, and the most impactful of all was Sanjaya Malakar, whose wacky hairdos attracted considerable media attention in 2007.
Meanwhile, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast states in August 2005, the choir was impacted when it learned that one of its members had been caught up in the trauma while visiting her family in Mississippi. Upon her safe return to Seattle, Wright and the choir began devoting time to hurricane relief efforts. She and choir members made trips to the Gulf region in August 2006, April 2007, and March and August 2008 to offer physical assistance and spirit-reviving performances alike. It was also in 2008 that the choir recorded a special Seven Songs for America and One for the World CD. Its purpose was twofold: to celebrate the presidential election victory of one-time Seattle resident Barack Obama (b. 1961) and to raise funds for Hurricane Katrina victims.
The Work of the Lord
In hindsight, the humble origins of the Total Experience Gospel Choir -- as a volunteer ensemble of untrained high school kids who would be required to learn a canon of 300 songs -- would seem to offer little hint of the remarkable achievements that Pat Wright led the many members to over the years. Those choir members supported numerous peace rallies and countless other worthy causes, both local and distant, with their inspiring sounds. They livened up numerous professional sports events, just as they once did Seattle's venerable bohemian outpost, the Blue Moon Tavern (712 NE 45th Street). They performed in at least 38 states and 28 different countries. They recorded on numerous discs for posterity -- including Some Devil, a CD by pop musician Dave Matthews (b. 1967) -- and even more TV and radio jingles (mainly in order to pay the bills). They appeared on the same stages as gospel luminaries such as Dr. James Cleveland (1931-1991), the Hawkins Family, the Wynans, and Sweet Honey in the Rock; Seattle jazz icons Ray Charles (1930-2004) and Quincy Jones; and Garrison Keillor, on his hit public radio program A Prairie Home Companion.
As of mid-2013, the choir has also earned more than 150 local, national, and international awards and/or other formal salutes. Yet their work is not complete, and the choir's website offers this invitation: "So, if you want to be engulfed by a good foot-tapping, multicultural, heart-thumping, soul-saving, gospel music extravaganza -- you need to take a listen to Pastor Pat Wright and the Total Experience Gospel Choir. After all, they are always singing somewhere near you" ("History").