by Michael Corcoran
When Arizona Dranes, blind and broke and a little wary, took a train from Fort Worth to Chicago in June 1926 to record for OKeh Records, there was no assurance that anything would come out of the trip. “Please understand that we are bringing you to Chicago to make test records first,” a rep for OKeh wrote when he sent travel arrangements. “We do not guarantee to release them for sale.”
No one had ever made a gospel record before that featured piano. And no label had yet tried to target the raucous, sanctified sounds of the Pentecostal church to the new “race records” market. Arizona Dranes would be the first of her kind.
Whatever trepidation OKeh might’ve had evaporated on June 17, 1926 when Dranes sat at the piano and, with six songs recorded that day, created a spirit/ flesh communion that would later be known as “the gospel beat.” Her locomotive hands drove each other, with the percussive left- the rhythm section- dancing on and around the beat like a jazz bassist, while her right improvised octaves and ran syncopated motives alongside the melody. This drawling church lady from Texas was playing ragtime, barrelhouse and boogie-woogie! But her piercing, otherwordly voice and lyrics of deep praise were so filled with the Holy Spirit that the music was undeniably Christian.
A singer sits at the piano and loses all inhibitions while being in complete control of the instrument: Little Richard, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis. Though she never achieved such stardom, Arizona Dranes started all that in 1926 with six “test records” that have stood the test of time.
The first musical star of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), the Pentecostal denomination that brought instruments, dancing and polyrhythmic handclaps to the black church in an era of assimilation, the Austin-educated Dranes is strangely unknown today except to small baskets of admiring musicians and pre-war record collectors. Perhaps that’s because she always listed her occupation as missionary or evangelist – not musician – and looked the part.
Dranes didn’t make a record again after 1928 and rarely played public concerts, drifting into an obscurity which suggests that what happens in church stays in church. Until recently, the only known photo of her was a smiling blur from 1943.
There was no obituary marking her death from a stroke in 1963 at age 74. Nothing in the papers about the first known gospel piano player, who could claim as a legacy the rich tradition of female pianists in the field. While most great keyboardists of R&B and jazz were and are male, the gospel field counts Roberta Martin, Clara Ward, Evelyn Starks and Mahalia Jackson’s pianist Mildred Falls as all-time greats. And they were all influenced in some way by Dranes.
Among those whose ears perked up in August 1926 when OKeh released the first two 78s by “the Blind Race Evangelist,” was Thomas A. Dorsey, who would go on to be called “the Father of Gospel” after penning such standards as “Peace In the Valley,” “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and “If You See My Savior.” In a 1961 interview, Dorsey said of his thoughts on first hearing Dranes: “If I can put some of what she does and mix it with the blues, I’ll be able to come up with a gospel style.”
A link between the “Negro spirituals” of the antebellum south and the Christian blues of Chicago in the 1930s and ‘40s, Dranes and her piano told a story. HIS story. But her own biography has been a gap-filled guessing game, for the most part. She’s been sketched as a creation of sanctified storefronts, learning to pound away the demons on a tattered upright, while the sounds of sin seeped through the wall from the juke joint next door.
In most previously published accounts, Dranes was a raw 20 or 21-year-old when she first stepped inside a Chicago recording studio. That her middle name was “Juanita” was all the evidence some needed to report she was half-Mexican.
This misinformation traveled from the first Dranes reissue, “Barrel House Piano With Sanctified Singing” on Herwin in 1976, to the Document “Complete Recorded Works” set in 1993.
The truth is that Dranes was classically trained, in both voice and piano, from ages 7- 23, which explains why her singing was so impeccably punctuated, her playing so fluid.
After graduating from the Institute for Deaf, Dumb and Blind Colored Youths in Austin in 1912, Dranes returned to her hometown of Sherman, Tex. and no doubt plied her most marketable trade. She certainly didn’t learn to play ragtime, barrelhouse and stride piano at the blind school.
No young primitive spitfire, Dranes was 37 years old when she made those first landmark recordings. She had been playing piano for 30 years, but evidence, as best we can expect this many years later, shows she was a relatively recent convert to Pentecostalism in 1926. Man had created the skilled musician before the Holy Ghost made her play with such fire.
Arizona Dranes was the youngest of three children born to Milton and Cora Drane, who divorced when Arizona was young. Milton Jr. was the oldest, followed a year later by Millie. Father Milton Drain, as his surname was spelled (even on his death certificate after he was hit by a train in 1935), remarried and lived in Sherman, a block away from his first family. Arizona added the “s” to her surname after she left school.
Considering her tough landing in life, being born blind could’ve been a blessing for “Arazoni,” as she was called (even on enrollment records in 1910). She certainly received the best free education a black person in Texas could at the time. Founded and funded by the Texas Legislature in 1887, the blind institute was “neither an orphan asylum, a children’s home, nor an asylum for embeciles, but a school for the educable blind and deaf.”
The age limits to attend the school were 7-21, but Dranes, whose birth year changed from 1889 (1900 Census) to 1891 (1910 Census), stayed until she was 23, perhaps fudging her birth year to delay the dire conditions that awaited in Sherman or Greenville, Tex. where her family lived for a few years. Because she needed to at least look seven years old in 1896, we know Dranes’ death certificate, putting her birth year at 1894, was wrong.
Her schooling at the institute focused heavily on music, which was seen as a way, along with broom making and other handicrafts, that a blind person could make a living. Dranes was studying octaves and vocal tone production as an eight year old. By age 10 she was tinkering with sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin, as well as modern compositions by Liszt and Rubinstein. To build her voice and breath control, she was taught the Italian vocal method and was singing arias by her third year at the school.
Two years after Dranes graduated, the Church of God In Christ focused on expanding its territory in Texas when founder Charles H. Mason sent one of his most trusted elders Emmet Morey Page to Dallas. The efforts to spread the Pentecostal message of spirit possession by Page’s predecessor had been met with derision and even a tent-torching. Pentecostal “holy rollers” were becoming a “savage” embarrassment to mainline black churchgoers.
Page would become a key figure in Dranes’ rise as a COGIC song leader, but that wouldn’t be for several years after he arrived. He first started hearing about this dynamic performer in 1923.
Though she was a member of Fort Worth’s White Street Holiness Church, whose new pastor J. Austin Love brought her with him from Wichita Falls, Dranes also “raised the house” at Rev. Samuel Crouch’s Trezevant Hill COGIC, about two miles away. Then she’d take the electric Interurban Railway from Fort Worth to Dallas to play Rev. Page’s church. What a godsend Dranes must’ve been for preachers who could reinforce their sermons by introducing the mu
sical embodiment of what they’d been talking about. Her mix of technique and hysteria no doubt got the spirit to manifest itself in a hurry.
The word came down to Texas in May 1926 that OKeh Records in Chicago was looking for talent in the church music field and Rev. Crouch recommended Dranes to the label’s race records supervisor Richard M. Jones.
Although it’s been reported that Jones heard Dranes in Fort Worth on a talent scout tour, it’s much more likely that the first time he’d ever heard her perform was when he produced her in the studio on June 17, 1926. Jones had his hands full up in Chicago that year preparing a group he’d organized called Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five.
The first band under Armstrong’s name (and featuring the great Kid Ory on trombone), the Hot Five recorded three tracks in the same studio, with the same producer, the day before Dranes made her recording debut.
Two days in one room in Chicago and neither jazz nor gospel would ever be the same again.
During the late ‘20s, Dranes split time between Memphis, Chicago and Oklahoma City. In OKC she lived on East Second Street, the R&B/ jazz haven known as “Deep Deuce,” where she may have heard a young guitar player on the street named Charlie Christian.
More likely he heard her. In a 2003 interview, 90-year-old Helen Davis recalled seeing A.J. Dranes at Page’s church in Oklahoma City in the 1920s. “She’d get the whole place shouting,” Davis said. “She was a blind lady, see, and she’d let the spirit overtake her. She’d jump up from that piano bench when it hit her.” Such displays masked the formal musical training that gave Dranes such command.
Dranes recorded 16 tracks in just three sessions- June 17 and November 15, 1926 and July 3, 1928- for OKeh in Chicago. Each time in the studio, she used a different backing configuration, but the piano and her voice were always dominant.
When OKeh sent her back to Chicago for round two, Dranes brought along F.W. McGee, a COGIC minister and faith healer she met in Oklahoma. Dranes, McGee and the Jubilee Singers recorded four tunes in the call and response vein used in Pentecostal congregational singing. “Lamb’s Blood Has Washed Me Clean,” in which Dranes declares “Jesus Christ knew what I needed most/ Filled my soul with the Holy Ghost,” is awash in an otherworldly spiritual fervor that set the tone for the sessions.
Dranes helped McGee, who grew up in Hillsboro, Texas, get a deal with OKeh and played on the singing preacher’s first single “Lion of the Tribe of Judah” in 1927. But McGee soon moved to the Victor label, becoming one of the most famous preachers of race records. But by 1930, after the Great Depression hit hard, McGee’s recording career was over. Dranes played piano and sang on his last session in New York City, which produced “50 Miles of Elbow Room.”
Dranes’ third and last session in Chicago- credited to “Arizona Dranes and Choir,” though it was really just Dranes, an unidentified mandolinist and a few vibrant female voices- showed that she was developing as an artist beyond a Pentecostal pounder. Such cuts as “Just Look” and “I Shall Wear a Crown” are fuller, more melodic than her earlier stomps.
The standout track is “He Is My Story,” a rewriting of “Blessed Assurance” by blind hymn writer Fanny Crosby. Where the Crosby version has a chorus of “This is my story/ This is my song,” Dranes makes it all about God. “He is my story/ He is my song,” she sang with a voice quivering like an arrow at impact. If not for Dranes’ exuberant presentation, the song could almost be considered country music.
Par for Dranes’ career, OKeh didn’t release “Story,” her most commercially viable track. Another dispute over money ended her association with OKeh on a blue note.
There were Dranes sightings here and there as the years wore on, but, really, if you weren’t a member of a black Pentecostal church from the ‘20s through the ‘40s, you had almost no chance of ever seeing Arizona Dranes perform.
Her last known public appearance was in Cleveland in 1947, when she was billed the “Famous Blind Piano Player From Chicago.”
She spent the last years of her life in Los Angeles, where her old friend Bishop Crouch bought the Lincoln Theater on Central Avenue in 1961 and turned it into the Crouch Temple.
She was at an assisted living facility in Signal Hill, Cal. when she had the “acute cerebro-vascular accident” (stroke) that ended her life on July 27, 1963. Never married, her occupation at the time of death was missionary.
Arizona Dranes was buried at the Paradise Memorial Park in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., but no one knows exactly where her body is today.
Investigators discovered in 1995 that the cemetery had reached capacity 10 years earlier, so the owners were digging up bodies in the older sections and reselling plots.
According to the 1963 burial record, Dranes was laid to rest in one of the recycled plots. Her remains were most likely moved to a mass grave, which was seven feet high and 50 feet wide.
Ghastly to think a pious force of nature would meet such a cruel state of disregard, but Pentecostals, like all Christians, see the body as just a sack for the soul.
Bye and bye, she’s gone to see the King. That how it ends for Arizona Dranes, gospel music pioneer.
And here’s how it started. A poor, blind girl from North Texas pressed her fingers down on the keys of a piano in 1896 and knew she’d never be lonely again.