After 45 years, Patrinell Wright is retiring the Total Experience Gospel Choir, which started in a high school and has performed all over the world.
She brought the president to tears.
Pastor Patrinell Wright can barely hold back her own tears as she reminisces about singing for President Barack Obama not one, not two but three times.
As the founder and director of Seattle’s Total Experience Gospel Choir, and a powerful singer in her own right, the 74-year-old has performed at a staggering number of momentous occasions, including singing at the funeral for Jimi Hendrix in 1970, and she’s taken the choir to dozens of states and countries.
The choir celebrates its 45th anniversary this week with a free concert Sunday at the Moore Theatre and the release of a documentary about Wright’s life called “Patrinell: The Total Experience.” Andrew Elizaga and Tia Young a co-directed the film.
After that, the choir will be disbanded, though Wright will perform occasionally on her own.
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It’s a celebration befitting Wright, who started the choir in 1973 at Franklin High School as an alternative activity for the school’s black student population. Its membership quickly ballooned to over 100 members, with white and Asian-American students joining in.
But nothing can compare to singing for Obama that first time in Seattle, not long after his history-making 2008 victory.
“I never thought that I would live to see an African-American become president of the United States of America with all of the prejudices that this country has against people of color,” says Wright, who is African American.
We’re sitting in the dining room of the Central District house that she and her husband, Benny Wright, bought in 1963, after she migrated here from the South on a segregated bus. Back then, the CD was the only neighborhood in Seattle where African Americans could buy a home.
Wright pauses to collect herself.
“I had to go and shed my tears behind closed doors and wash my face and get myself acclimated to what I had to do: I was actually singing it for a black president,” she says.
“I actually saw President Obama tear up, and he kept looking over at me and finally he just went …”
Wright nods approvingly, imitating Obama.
“I felt that here I am, this little country girl from Carthage, Texas — I was so proud.”
Wright is a storyteller who sings with the gusto of a freedom fighter. When I interview her she looks the part, dressed all in black from her shoes to her knitted skullcap.
She has spent the past 45 years helping people in Seattle and around the world, of all backgrounds, grasp the meaning of African-American gospel music.
Through Wright, black students who grew up with church music, but who had no connection to the Deep South region that inspired many gospel songs, have learned how it lifted the spirits of the downtrodden.
“A lot of (black) kids that were born and raised here had a hard time catching on to the style that I was insisting that they learn, but once they learned it, they were unbeatable,” Wright says.
For the nonblack students, she’s impressed on them that gospel can’t simply be sung and you don’t clap and sway for the heck of it. The idea is to work the lyrics out of you like an emotion welling up in the heart, like a situation that needs fixing, like a journey with oppression on the back end and hope on the front end.
The singer has to know what it feels like not just to be on good terms with the Lord, but to be on bad terms with America.
“I grew up in the South and I know what it is to be hurt by somebody that doesn’t know who you are or care who you are,” Wright says of the racism Southern blacks faced.
“This came from sorrow, pain, tears, you name it … It’s our soul,” Wright says. “Even when we sing ‘Amazing Grace,’ we gospelize that.”
There’s plenty of examples of what she means:
“We Shall Overcome,” originally sung gospel-style by black tobacco workers but popularized by folk artist Pete Seeger, is a civil-rights-era standard.
Gospel legend Mahalia Jackson famously sang at the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s political speeches on equality and justice, which were themselves written as sermons.
And as a child, Wright sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the “Negro national anthem,” at her segregated public school. Now she performs it with her choir. Beyoncé sang a gospel-tinged version of it as a prelude to her female-empowerment hit “Formation” at predominantly white Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival this year, driving home the kinship between black politics and church music that Wright has always understood.
Today the Total Experience choir is also predominantly white. Wright says it takes longer to perfect songs now that it lacks a large black contingent.
The gentrified Central District is majority white now, too.
She says the new generation of neighbors don’t say hello when she pokes her head out of her front door, the way folks used to.
The spirit of the old CD is gone. And now Wright’s getting ready to say goodbye to her choir.
“Would you like to see my trophy room?” Wright asks.
We go to the garage, which is filled with trophies, plaques and news clippings documenting her storied life.
A shiny black piano sits against one wall.
Wright lifts the lid and sits down.
“This is my favorite song,” she says.
Her hands touch the keys and she starts to play and then …
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind but now I see.”
Wright can’t read music but she has “perfect pitch and an ear that tells my fingers where to go.”
Her “gospelized” singing on this day strikes a chord because it tells me — and all of us — so much about where she came from.
Correction: An earlier version of this column omitted documentary co-director Tia Young’s name.