Eleanor A. Crews Wright
1926 - 1992
Eleanor Wright, prolific gospel music writer, singer, pianist, and arranger, is arguably one of the most influential persons to help gain acceptance for gospel music of the black experience in the Seventh-day Adventist church. She is credited with composing over 200 songs, publishing three songbooks, and recording several albums.
Eleanor was born in Dayton, Ohio, on November 20, 1926, the thirteenth of fourteen children and the last daughter of Nora and William Crews. She displayed musical talent at an early age and was taught piano by her older brothers. When she married Harold Wright at age eighteen, she became a member of the Wright Family Ensemble, a well-known musical group in the region.
Eleanor later wrote about an early encounter with her husband's family during their courtship and about life in the Wright family:
On a beautiful spring day in 1944, I heard for the first time the song that was to change my life. I’d been invited by a young man whom I was dating to attend a concert of gospel music to be given by his family. The cramped conditions, as we traveled by auto to the church where the concert was to be held seemed to bother no one but me. For a while, as they laughed and talked, I could think of nothing other than that my dress was a wrinkled mess.
But when four of the young ladies broke into a song with sweet harmony and mellow tones and expressions that called to me from every phrase, I forgot my discomfort and said silently "God, what is happening to me?" I was seventeen years old and for the first time in my life, I experienced the deep feelings that have since overcome me time and time again when the message and melody of a song become mine.
My husband was one of seven children, and on Friday evenings all of the family members would come together and sing. Sometimes we would sing hymns, sometimes spirituals, but the songs were always relevant to a particular need a family member had.
Harold's brother Dale taught her to play guitar chords on the piano, and she then taught herself, going beyond that basic instruction. Although she had had no formal training in music as a child, her musical gifts, coupled with the hands-on experience of performing and learning by rote on her own, compensated for that lack.
In her mid-twenties, Eleanor cofounded the Sweet Chariot Choir, which sang with well-known national recording stars Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin. She later formed the Blend Wright Trio, a women's trio that included herself and two sisters-in-law, Audrey and Jackie, which toured widely, performing concerts of her music in the U.S., Bermuda, and Switzerland.
Inspired by an online video of Wright performing near the end of her life, in February 1990, Yvette Harris Hodges would recall her experience as a child hearing the trio perform:
I remember when I was a kid the Blend Wright trio came to visit St. Louis at Berean for a concert. The place was packed. The lights were off, and they just had spotlights on them. We had never heard anything like them before! The music was electrifying! The words made you think. She was such a gifted song writer and musician.
In addition to gospel songs, Wright also wrote anthems and children's and wedding songs. She taught piano to children and wrote and illustrated the Keyboard Cousins Method for teaching that age group. She recorded on Chapel Records, Savoy Recordings, and her own Eleanor Wright label.
Del Delker, noted Voice of Prophecy singer, included one of her songs, "Hallelujah, Home at Last," on a 1974 album named for that song (Chapel S 5243); "Surely, Surely," a meditative song by Wright, is hymn 688 in the 1985 Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal. "Naaman the Leper," "Cover Me," and "A Better Day," as well as others, are still sung by performers. Manna Music, Screen Gems, and Arioso Music published her music.
Many of her songs begin with the struggle that some Christians have in dealing with the realities of this life, such as sin or racial inequalities. She preferred to call her songs not gospel music but "message music," songs that always end with a message of hope and deliverance through Christ, music that ministers to everyday needs with assurances such as: "I'm going to ride on a rainbow road, travel the Milky Way; I'm going to live in a home, where I'll have no more rent to pay. There's going to be a better day, a better day - after a while."
Eleanor wrote three youth congress theme songs, served as a member of an ad hoc advisory committee which reviewed music trends in black churches, and as a member of an advisory committee when the 1985 SDA Church Hymnal was prepared. She served with evangelistic teams in the U.S., Bermuda, and the African continent.
Eleanor's other interests included painting, gourmet cooking, interior decorating, and shortwave radio. Despite her many interests and activities, as well as financial hardships at times, she raised a family of six children.
On March 21, 1992, she was honored by an overflow crowd of 3,500 at the Sligo SDA church in Takoma Park, Maryland. The benefit concert, "A Song for Eleanor," was sponsored by the Breath of Life Church, Fort Washington, Maryland; and supported by Alleghany East Conference churches in Washington, D.C, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. It was a gala occasion featuring more than twenty of her songs and included noted SDA soloists, choirs, ensembles, videos, and a stage band. Guests included members of the Wright family and other musicians who had worked with her during her career. An offering was taken to help fund a compilation of her music in a songbook that would preserve her legacy for future musicians.
Although Eleanor was still living in her hometown of Germantown, Ohio, at the time of the concert, she was unable to attend, having been recently diagnosed with cancer. Two months later, she died on May 24, at age 65.
Following her death, she was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award, given at the United Christian Artists Association Music Legends Ball in 2008 in Hendersonville, Tennessee. The award was accepted by two of her daughters, Marci and Carla, and the finale of the program was a salute to Eleanor for her numerous contributions to gospel music. She was also honored at that time with an announcement of a scholarship in her name for music education students at Oakwood University.
Earlier, Walter L. Wright, who was serving as Lake Union Conference Executive Secretary in 2000, wrote an editorial in the Lake Union Herald in December of that year in which he talked about his sister-in-law, ending with a memory about her and a Christmas song she had written years earlier:
One Day "Shellie" sat down at the piano to write out a Christmas carol straight from heaven, and I want to share the words and message with you for this special Christmas season of the new millennium. She wrote:
If you would give a gift so rare,
To one who means the world to you,
But wealth and fame are not your fare,
Don't hang your head and don't be blue.
While the world is wrapped in festive bliss,
Go join them and remember this:
The greatest gift all else above is love.
Behold a mother and her child,
An aged couple side by side,
A creature racing through the wild,
A young man with his blushing bride.
Then look to Him who gave his Son,
The greatest gift to everyone.
Then give the greatest you can give:
Love, love, while you live.
Eleanor Crews Wright
Sources: "SDA Songwriter Dies from Cancer," Adventist Review, June 18, 1992, 7; 1930 U.S. Federal Census and U.S. Social Security Death Index, both at Ancestry.com; Wayne H. Hooper and Edward E. White, Companion to the Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal, (Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1988), 689 (619) an important source for this article; Eleanor Wright, "What is our Song," https://www.facebook.com/eleanorwrightmusic/posts/2249709941748652; http://riversidechurch01.bizland.com/gospelstore/blendwrights.html; Barbara Jackson Hall, "God's Rainbow Family," Adventist Review, February 2, 1989, 9-11; Norwida A. Marshall, Editor, and R. Steven Norman, III, Assoc. Editor, A Star Gives Light, Seventh-day Adventist African American Heritage Teacher's Resource Guide (Decatur, Georgia: National Graphics, 1989), 305, 306; Reger Smith, Jr, "Thousands honor composer Eleanor Wright." Visitor, May 1, 1992, 8; "Adventist Musicians Honored at UCAA Music Legends Ball," Southern Tidings, January 2009, 26, 27; Walter L. Wright, "The Greatest Gift," editorial, Lake Union Herald, December 2000, 2.