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Still shining

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[Times photos: James Borchuck]
All dressed up and somewhere to go: Elmer Wright, 86, wears his “Jesus Saves” belt buckle, wooden cross, cowboy hat and American flag shirt, prepared to sing at The Pier for the tourists.

By LANE DeGREGORY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001


Years ago a postcard drew Elmer Wright to The Pier in St. Petersburg, and for decades it has been his stage for singing gospel to the tourists.

ST. PETERSBURG -- On the south side of the city pier, across from the hot dog stand, the old man parks his pushcart. He pulls out a metal folding chair, ties two corduroy cushions on the seat, unloads an amplifier, a microphone, a fistful of cords. Then he takes out his battered guitar.

It's a sunny Friday, about 2 p.m. A light breeze is rippling the bay. Sea-green trolleys are clanging by. Hundreds of people are parading past the old man.

Fake feathers sprout from his red straw cowboy hat; striped paper clips and painted hearts circle its blue ribbon brim. Thick, square glasses magnify his milky gray eyes. His nose is long, his ears oversized. His head looks too heavy for his body. It seems to sink into his stooped shoulders, maybe from the weight of his hat.

He says he's just under 5 foot 6. (Just six inches under.) All angles and joints, 108 pounds. He's having to wear his yellow ruler suspenders plus the JESUS SAVES belt just to hold up his dirty dungarees. But he's drinking more buttermilk, hoping to bulk up.

Says he's still got a lot of songs to sing.

He's 86 -- and a half.

"Howdy!" he shouts, leaning into the microphone. "I'm Elmer Wright. And if it's all right with you fine folks, I'd like to sing a few songs. . . ."

No one seems to notice. Wright starts strumming.

Oh, when the saints, come marching in. Oh, when the saints come marching in. . . .

His voice crackles through the speaker. Wind carries it across the water.

Oh, Lord, I want to be in that number. When the saints come marching in. . . .

A constant among change

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Wright sometimes gets musical inspiration from reading the Bible. He owns two: one a family Bible, the other with large print.
Maybe you've seen him. More than 3-million people have.

He has been performing on The Pier in St. Petersburg since 1939.

He has sung for free through four wars and 10 presidential administrations. Through 30 years of caring for a sick wife, through raising two daughters. Through countless jobs as a cook and house painter, through five renovations of The Pier, six grandkids.

"He's a fixture of St. Petersburg, just like the green benches," says Julie Seward, who promotes the five-story Pier, its restaurants and gift shops. "Only he has outlasted them, too."

When the new pier opened in 1973, Wright was grandfathered in (so to speak) with a special permit from the city. Other people ask to play on The Pier almost daily, Seward says. "We tell them, "No. Only Elmer.' "

His guitar is covered with Jesus stickers and a paper dove, and it's out of tune. Wright is losing his hearing, can't keep time, can't read music. He can play only three chords: C, F and G major. "All you need to know," he says.

He has written 200 songs and covers 83 others.

His voice has a raw, twangy edge -- like an old John Prine or Doc Watson. And he's always interrupting himself.

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Every month for 19 years, Elmer Wright has recorded a new 30-minute gospel tape for distribution. February’s tapes await mailing, some to spots around the world.
"The old rugged cross. The old rugged cross . . . Take a tape! They're free!" he cries, sliding a padded cassette holder across the concrete toward a middle-aged man. "The old rugged cross . . . Go ahead, you might like one!"

The cassettes are red. "The color of Christ's blood," Wright says. He gives away a case each month.

He won't ask for donations, but he opens his guitar case. Sometimes, people pitch in quarters. After a good gig he deposits $10, maybe $12, into an Ovaltine can.

He plays at The Pier at least three days a week, no matter how hot it is, no matter how much he's hurting.

"Oh, I got arthritis in my neck, in my back, in my right leg terrible. I broke my hip last year. Sometimes, I just don't feel like going," he says. "But I get up, wash myself and shave, strum up my guitar a bit and go.

"I'll sing as long as I got breath. And when my voice dies, I'll still be here humming."

Most people try to avoid Wright, walk by quickly and avert their eyes. Others think he's nuts, dismiss him as a Jesus freak, a has-been, a hobo. Some laugh in his face, make fun of his music.

So why is he still singing?

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Wright, whose heroes are Jesus Christ and Johnny Cash, loads his equipment into his station wagon after singing at The Pier one recent Sunday afternoon.

Riches beyond compare

He lives alone in a downtown rooming house, in the same apartment he has rented since 1970. He moved there from a few blocks away, after his wife's legs got bad. He pays $260 a month, water and electricity included.

"I ain't never spent a night on the streets," he brags constantly. "Been close. Been real close. Been out of money. But somehow I'd always get me a place.

"Oh, I'm rich now. Rich as I been. Plus, I'm famous."

Hear Elmer Wright sing:
I'll Be Somewhere Listening For My Name

You will need the free QuickTime Player from Apple to play the audio.
He still talks about the time he got paid $2 to play for 10 minutes on the radio, in 1939. Still has a video of himself from the time he got to sing on a Christian cable access program 15 years ago. But he doesn't listen to the radio anymore, or any music other than his own. Doesn't have cable TV or a VCR or CD player.

His cluttered rooms are dark and hot, with low ceilings and small windows and walls so thin you can hear the neighbors sneeze. A single bed and saggy sofa sit by the door.

Nine portraits of Jesus, some framed, some pierced by poster nails, peer down from dingy walls. A 1981 calendar hangs above the stove -- Wright hasn't changed it since his wife died.

"Didn't really get into making my tapes till after that," he says. "Then I got too busy."

Each month for the past 19 years, Wright has recorded a new 30-minute gospel cassette. (April 2001, which is in the works, will be his 226th release.)

He scribbles his set list on Wal-Mart tablets -- originals and cover tunes, seven or eight for each side. Then he turns off the space heater so it won't buzz. Carries his guitar into his "studio."

He shuts the toilet seat and sits down.

Ribbed undershirts drip-dry into the clawfoot tub by his right elbow. A portable Optimus tape player sits on a wooden chair by the bathroom door.

Before each recording session, Wright strums a few bars, clears his throat. The tape player has a built-in microphone.

"I can sing into there and not bother the guy next door. And it sounds great," he says.

"It's makin' me world-wide."

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Elmer Wright, in his recording studio (also known as the bathroom of his Third Avenue S apartment), tapes his monthly gospel cassette. Of his portable AM/FM radio/tape player he says, “It’s got a built-in microphone for recording. I can sing into there and not bother the guy next door. And it sounds great.”

A place in the sun

Wright was born in the bluegrass hills of Kentucky, in a sharecropper's shack. It was 1914 -- the same year St. Petersburg's first Municipal Pier opened. Wright made it through seventh grade, then quit school to help his dad. He and his six siblings picked tobacco and corn, forked hay on other people's farms. At night, they'd sit on the porch listening to their mama sing hymns.

The summer Wright turned 16, he earned $2.50 selling possum pelts and bought a beat-up six-string from a girl down the road. Carved a new back out of barn wood, nailed it on with horseshoe nails. His big brother Onie showed him how to pick out a scale.

One winter night almost a decade later, a man his dad knew showed up at their shack, tanned and smiling. He showed off a postcard with pelicans and palm trees and the Million Dollar Pier printed on the front. "St. Petersburg, Fla.," was scripted on the back.

"The place is paradise," the man told Wright.

"I'm going there," Wright said. "I'm going where it's warm."

He packed his only suit in a cardboard box, slung his guitar over his shoulder, kissed his mama goodbye. Two dusty days and nights later, a Greyhound bus dropped him on Fourth Street.

He asked the driver for directions and walked straight to the pier. Propped his guitar on a bench, stripped off his flannel shirt and shoes, dove into Tampa Bay with his overalls on. He'd never owned a bathing suit. Never tasted saltwater.

He was 25.

He dried off, lunched on mackerel and corn bread, then started strumming. "Oh, I was so happy," he says. "I just sang my heart out."

He has lived downtown ever since.

In 1940, Wright married a 16-year-old St. Petersburg girl named Carolyn. He joined the Army that year, slung hash for the medical corps in France through the war. When he came home, he took a job cooking at the VA hospital.

He hasn't left Pinellas County since 1945.

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Wright holds an undated photo of his late wife, Carolyn, and himself.
"I don't need a vacation," he says. "Nowhere else I want to go."

He and Carolyn had two daughters, Kitty and Mary. After Mary was born, in 1950, Carolyn had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. She started drinking, got diabetes, went into the hospital again and again.

Wright quit cooking and started painting houses so he could spend more time with his little girls. He took them to church and Sunday school. Some Saturdays, they'd sing with him at The Pier.

"Oh, he was the perfect dad," says Kitty, 58, who lives in St. Petersburg and works for the Salvation Army. "He used to read us all kinds of stories. And he'd sing to the trees. He loves the outside and the sunshine and the water. He's just so full of joy, so positive all the time."

All through the '40s, Wright sang other folks' songs: country and cowboy standards, mostly. One night near the end of 1950 he went to a tent revival in Pinellas Park. Above the minister's chanting, above the congregation's wailing, he says, he heard a voice:

"You're a gospel singer," God told him. "Sing some gospel!"

A mission of music

He writes songs in the kitchen, mostly. Just the words. No music.

"I don't even have to try. I'll be eating watermelon here at the table and it'll just come to me, "That's got to be a song!' I'll start singing even without the guitar: Who put the water in the melon? Who put the sugar in the honey? Who put the sun in the sky? Who put gold in the streets of Heaven . . . " Wright stops and slaps his thigh. "Now, you know, that makes sense," he says.

"God give us all that. I'm just passing it on, putting a tune to it."

The words in Wright's songs seldom have more than two syllables. The imagery is obvious, the chord progressions elementary. But the hooks are catchy, the beats bouncy -- sort of like a Veggie Tales soundtrack. Some of his songs, you can't seem to get out of your head (no matter how hard you try).

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Wright belts out country gospel songs, as a pedestrian talks on a cell phone. That’s a sight that was far in the future when Wright first started singing at The Pier in 1939.
Wright's December tape has a tune titled They've Really Made a Mess out of Christmas. He wrote one called The King Is Coming -- and I Don't Mean Elvis. He even paid tribute to his hero, Johnny Cash: "I know Jesus loves me all the time. Because he's mine, I'll walk the line."

A company in Orlando copies Wright's tapes -- 200 for $200. When he's not picking guitar or painting houses, Wright distributes his cassettes around St. Petersburg. He leaves them in public bathrooms, newspaper boxes, phone booths. He gives them to the waitresses who ladle extra gravy on his roast beef at Picadilly Cafeteria. Hands them to boys who bag his groceries at Publix.

He finds them in Dumpsters, under benches, floating in the bay. "I found a few of my tapes stepped on, actually smashed on the street," he says. "Must be Communists or something."

At least someone took the tape in the first place, he points out. Maybe one person heard one of his songs.

He tucks a business card inside every cassette case. In his bathroom studio, he has a box with 178 letters, postcards and handwritten notes. Fan mail.

"Dear Brother Elmer," Bobby Paradise wrote in May 1994 from Chattanooga, Tenn. "I really enjoyed the tape I got last month from you. It's a wonder I did not wear it out playing it so much."

"Dear Elmer," Rosalyn Serino of Winthrop, Mass., wrote on Oct. 26, 2000. "I listened to your tapes at night as I rested and the Lord really strengthened and encouraged my spirit through your songs."

Wright leafs through these letters every month and mails a new cassette to everyone who writes him. He addresses manila envelopes to Boston, Atlanta, Honolulu. He has been sending his songs to some folks for almost two decades.

"Oh, I know hundreds of people. Thousands of people know me. I'm a celebrity. But I'm almost always alone. I had a homeless guy come home with me from The Pier one night. But he ate my last can of beans, drank my Scope. . . .

"No, I don't get much company.

"So when it's nice out, I play on The Pier. Can't never be lonely on The Pier."

Comfort, found on the edge

All his life, he has lived on the edge -- of poverty, of isolation, of obscurity. He has little beside his guitar, a cupboard full of Campbell's soup and what he believes is a God-given talent.

That's enough, he says. More than a lot of folks have.

St. Petersburg is a city full of solitary old people living out their days in stuffy rooms and marking time on 20-year-old calendars. More than 78,000 people over age 65 live alone in Pinellas County. After their husbands or wives die, many close their doors and never open them again.

Instead, Wright reached out. He started going to The Pier every Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoon instead of just once a week. Started making tapes in his bathroom studio so people could listen at home.

So what if no one ever offered him a recording contract or took him on tour or even paid him to play? A few folks recognize him at the post office or driving around town in his baby-blue Oldsmobile station wagon. "Aren't you the guy who sings on The Pier?" they ask.

That makes his day. Makes him feel famous.

"Should I pass away before morning, I'd leave thousands of songs here," Wright says. "My music would reach people I've never met. I want to leave something worthwhile. Not no blues songs. I want something that'll make folks happy, bring them closer to Jesus."

He wants to be immortal. He also wants to help.

He gives away the quarters he collects in that Ovaltine can. Every month, he sends checks to 25 different charities. Some he has supported for 20 years. Bread and Water for Africa, the International Children's Fund, Food for the Poor, Native American Emergency Relief, Bibles for China, the Christian Appalachian Project -- he mails each $5 a month, plus a new red cassette.

Any extra change he hands to homeless people he knows around the city.

"I have no worries for myself," Wright says. "No wants, no regrets. I told you before: I'm rich."

The end of the day

About 6 p.m., the sun slips behind the skyline, turning the bay into a molten mirror. A sliver of moon smiles above The Pier. A pelican swoops off a piling, stalking its supper.

The air tastes like fish and salt and fading daylight.

Wright is starting to get cold. His left hand is going numb. Between songs, he's coughing.

"If you're going to write about this old guy, you better do it soon," a man whispers.

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During the evening, Wright enjoys watching Christian TV programs in his three-room apartment. He sends checks each month to 25 charities, some of which he has been supporting for 20 years.
Elmer sings on, oblivious to the remark, or ignoring it. He handed out eight tapes today and collected $7.46. He checks the song list he taped to strong cardboard, drops it into his guitar case, clears his throat.

He has time for one more: "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine . . . Take a tape!" he calls after two teenage boys slurping sodas. "They're free!"

"They should be," a man in a Bucs sweat shirt says to his buddy. "You hear that guy? He sings like me."

Wright barely misses a beat. "Hide it under a bushel? No! I'm gonna let it shine. Hide it under a bushel . . . Take a tape!" he tells a 20-something couple dressed in black. "I'm gonna let it shine . . ."

The guy in black edges up to the microphone, reaches into Wright's cassette case, takes a tape. "We take picture?" he asks tentatively, in broken English. "You will sign autograph?"

"Why, sure!" Wright says, sliding his guitar around his back. The girlfriend walks up, slips her arm around Wright's thin shoulders. Everyone smiles for the camera.

"Now, you be sure to take yourselves a tape," Wright says, resuming his song. "Won't let anyone blow it out, I'm gonna let it shine . . ."

"Yes," the guy says over the music. "I will bring tape home, to Germany. Play it there, make new audience for you."

Wright's enormous grin grows. He is worldwide. Darkness descends on The Pier as his song crescendos.

"Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine . . ."

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