Archive for the ‘Texas Music History’ Category

Tweets from SXSW 1989

Posted by mcorcoran on January 7, 2014


  1. “The registration line was insane. That’s 20 minutes of my life I won’t get back.”
  2. “Do you know where Saturday’s day party is?”
  3. “Austin learned it’s lesson from the Armadillo. No way are they gonna tear down Liberty Lunch for an office building.”
  4. “I’m in such a hurry I’m gonna have to grab lunch from a food trailer. Where’s the nearest construction site?”
  5. “We can either see Mojo Nixon tonight for free or pay $50 to see him next year at the Erwin Center.
  1. “Let’s just take a cab to Salt Lick. How much could it be?”
  2. “So, besides the Austin Music Awards, what else are you excited about this week?”
  3. “They used to be a punk band, but now they play roots music. With punk energy.”
  4. “Listen, I paid $20 for this wristband and I WILL get in to see Scruffy the Cat.”
  5. “I’m not sure, but I think the Spin party is either in room 1703 or 1307.
  6. “Holy crap, that’s Peter Zaremba!”
  7. “SXSW is a good idea, but they’re going to need to rely on the revenue from the Austin Chronicle to survive.”
  8. “One day this thing might be bigger than Aquafest. OK, I’m wasted.”
  9. “If you’re cool you call it ‘Southby’.”
  10. “I heard they were going to have a hip-hop act this year, but couldn’t find a corporate sponsor.
  11. “They need to get someone hip, with an opinion, to keynote.  Someone like Michelle Shocked.”
  12.  ”Wow, I just gave my business card to music industry bigwig Jim Fouratt!”
  13. “OK, we’ve got this cool party space on SoCo. What should we do in the storefront? A gallery for outsider art? Really?”
  14. “Let’s share a room at the San Jose. Not to save money, but to take turns standing guard.”
  15. “Some guy just handed me a cassette. Hasn’t he heard of CDs?”


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The Ghost of Harry Choates

Posted by mcorcoran on August 21, 2013

harry-choates(Published July 2001)

by Michael Corcoran

They remember it like it was yesterday. They remember it like it was 50 years ago today. “He was shaking uncontrollably, stumbling around his jail cell in a stupor, with a big cut on his forehead,” says 72-year-old Jimmy Grabowske.

“He didn’t know us. He didn’t know anything,” says Junior Burrow, 76. “I’d never seen anything like it.” Harry Choates, the music pioneer who updated and popularized the Cajun standard “Jole Blon,” was in bad shape in the Travis County Jail that afternoon of July 17, 1951. Steel guitarist Grabowske and fiddler Burrow, plus drummer Eddie May, went looking for assistance, but only found shrugs. “We went to one of the guards and told him that Choates (pronounced “Shotes”) needed a doctor, badly, but he said there was nothing he could do about it,” Burrow says.

The three musicians headed back to the Brown Building, where they performed at 1 p.m. every day on Lady Bird Johnson’s KTBC radio station, looking for anyone who might help. Then they heard the ambulance’s siren, an ominous shriek that signaled the flaming out of another troubled musical genius. Twenty-eight-year-old Choates was declared dead in his cell at 2:45 p.m., soon after his bandmates in Jesse James and His Boys came by with cigarettes and magazines. He had been in jail three days for failure to pay child support.

Grabowske dismisses the half-century-old myth that Choates was beaten to death by Austin police, believing the injuries to be self-inflicted in a crazed state. But he wonders if the musician could’ve been saved by proper attention. “He was an absolute alcoholic suffering from DTs (delirium tremens). Why was he left alone in a cell, staggering around and hitting his head on everything?”

The autopsy by Dr. Harold M. Williams ruled the cause of death as “fatty metamorphosis of the liver,” a condition associated with being obese, which Choates was certainly not. Chronic interstitial nephritis (kidney deterioration) was listed as a contributing factor. The cut on the forehead was measured at 2.5 centimeters (about an inch), plus Williams noted large irregular contusions over the left hip and upper thigh and several reddish spots on the body. According to Houston researcher Andrew Brown, who’s working on liner notes for a comprehensive Choates collection for the Bear Family label, the short life of Harry Choates has, in the years since his death, accumulated a long list of misinformation, beginning with his birth in Vermilion Parish, La., (not Rayne or New Iberia, which are most often reported) on Dec. 26, 1922. Harry moved with his parents Clarence and Edolia to Port Arthur in 1929 and remained primarily a Texan, although he was often billed, as at his first Austin appearance at Dessau Hall on April 4, 1947, as hailing from Lake Charles, La.

“He was a maze of contradictions,” Brown says of the Cajun who gained fame singing in a language (French) he wasn’t fluent in and rarely used in conversation. “He was an exceptional jazz guitarist and multi-instrumentalist whose best-known records portray only a simple folk fiddler. He was a wild, disreputable character who sang mournful lyrics set off against traditional Cajun melodies.”

One aspect of his life untouched by speculation is that Choates had a hankering for the hard stuff. According to Kevin Coffey’s liner notes to the “Five Time Loser 1940-1951” reissue, Choates‘ drinking was already out of control as a young man. By the age of 12, whiskey was a steady part of his diet. “I didn’t even know that he was an alcoholic because there was never any change in his behavior,” says Burrow. “I guess it’s because he was always drinking.” Grabowske agrees. “He wasn’t obnoxious like some drunks. He just seemed to always be in a good mood.” He played with his eyes on fire, often jumping on tables and unleashing his trademark “Ah-Yeeeeeee!” and “Eh-Ha-Ha!” yelps.

Years after his death he would give Doug Kershaw an act. Choates became a regional favorite in late 1946, when Houston’s Gold Star label released “Jole Blon,” which had been recorded with a much more subdued arrangement in 1935 by Choates’ fiddle mentor, Leo Soileau. A few months later, the Cajun waltz landed at No. 4 on the Billboard country charts. Other notable tracks during this period include the fiddle-driven “Rubber Dolly,” “Poor Hobo” and the classic “Devil in the Bayou.” His band not only played Cajun styles, but western swing and even pop standards such as “All of Me,” which Choates would pick on an electric guitar. “Choates was to Cajun music what Bob Wills was to western swing,” says Grabowske, who’s lived in Austin since he replaced Lefty Nason in the popular Jesse James and His Boys in 1948.

“(Choates) was a master showman. Audiences loved him. He was a featured guest with us, and whenever he’d come on, the energy level would shoot through the roof.” One of the last records he cut, at a session in San Antonio six weeks before his death, was “Austin Special,” an ode to his stomping grounds during the final year of his life. The extroverted Choates left his first wife to marry a shy Gulf Coast gal named Helen Daenen in ’45. “I couldn’t figure that one out,” says Grabowske. “I don’t know anything about their personal life, except that they had a little girl and a little boy. But they seemed such an unlikely pair– this very proper, very reserved, attractive woman and this completely outgoing guy.” Indeed, the couple had their differences, separating and reconciling with regularity. Helen first filed for divorce in 1948, but withdrew the suit. In 1950, she joined Harry in Austin, and they had an apartment off North Lamar near Threadgill’s.

But she filed for divorce on Feb. 21, 1951, and left her husband for good that time. Choates often slept in the back of Dessau Hall after his wife left. During a career that started in 1947, as Charlie Walker’s steel guitarist on KWBU in Corpus Christi, Grabowske has seen his share of tragedies. He was on the bandstand for Johnny Horton’s final show at the Skyline on North Lamar. The “Honky-Tonk Man” died the next day, Nov. 5, 1960, in a car accident near Milano. Grabowske also backed a deteriorating Hank Williams, a few days before his heart broke for the last time on Jan. 1, 1953. But he’s particularly haunted by Choates’ death. The stumbling and incoherent mess he saw in the jail cell was not the fun-loving Choates he knew. But too often it’s the Choates he remembers. “I was just 22 years old, so you can imagine how hard the whole thing hit me,” he says, sitting at his kitchen table in the Allandale neighborhood, thumbing through old pictures of musicians in cowboy hats and hand-painted ties. “He was something,” he says when he comes across a picture of Choates in Bandera, smiling broadly under a white cowboy hat. Choates died penniless and underappreciated, like so many who trade their gift for the daily suicide booze brings.

Beaumont deejay Gordon Baxter had to organize a benefit dance to pay for Choates’ burial in Port Arthur’s Calvary Catholic Cemetery. In recent years, however, with Choates’ legacy finally acknowledged by more than a handful of researchers, collectors and musicians, there is a monument next to the grave of a man who didn’t even rate a doctor 50 years ago today. “The Godfather of Cajun Music,” the marker reads. But an even greater testament to Choates’ influence is whenever a Cajun fiddler cocks his head back and lets out an exuberant “Eh-Ha-Ha!”

Posted in Music, Texas Music History | Leave a Comment »

1907 article gives proof that Washington Phillips didn’t play the dolceola

Posted by mcorcoran on June 20, 2013

Scan 102

This is from the Teague (Texas) Chronicle from Nov. 8, 1907. Washington Phillips, whose songs have been covered but never bettered by Ry Cooder, Mavis Staples, Phish, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and more, was 27 at the time. He didn’t make his first recordings until he was 47. If Columbia Records didn’t send a remote recording unit to Dallas in 1927, there’s a good chance none of the music made by both Phillips and Blind Willie Johnson, who recorded five future classics a day earlier, would’ve ever been heard.

Here’s the story I wrote about Washington Phillips for the Austin American-Statesman in 2002.

So, anyway, I had a day off and wanted to get out of town for a few, so I took a ride to Freestone County in East Texas, where Phillips grew up in the farming community of Simsboro. I hadn’t been back in 11 years, but hearing Jeff Tweedy doing Phillips’ “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today” on the Internet recently made me realize that I had some loose ends on my research into the life of this gospel pioneer. I wanted to see if there were any living blood relatives who might be entitled to whatever royalties there may be and I did find one, a second cousin, who owns the land where Phillips had a shack. There’s not a lot of money in royalties at this point since Phillips only wrote two of the songs he was “known” for – “Denomination Blues” (which Tharpe renamed “That’s All”) and “You Can’t Stop a Tattler.” But his music has such a unique character that I can see it being used in movies and on TV for years to come. Fifty years from now people are going to listen to those hard Christian lullabyes like “Lift Him Up, That’s All” and “I Had a Good Father and a Mother” and still be moved. There’s really nobody like Wash Phillips.

Driving back yesterday, I got a speeding ticket on I-35 outside of Georgetown. You add that cost to other expenses and the trip to Freestone didn’t seem worth it. I decided to hit the state library on the way home. All that driving had given me ideas on what to look up, and I didn’t want to feel like the trip was wasted. Maybe something new would turn up. I found a series of big books that compiled highlights from the Teague Chronicle, Wash’s hometown newspaper. They had indexes, so I just found the pages “Phillips” was mentioned on and jumped through a few books like that. Then I came across the Nov. 8, 1907 article on a 27-year-old Washington Phillips and his homemade string box. That’s the research slot machine paying out.


In early December 1927, a field recording unit from Columbia’s “race records” division came to Dallas to record local artists in a makeshift studio. The label ran audition ads in all the black newspapers in Texas and the best of those who showed up were recorded right there. “They had made a phonograph record,” supervisor Frank B. Walker told an interviewer years later. “And that was the next best thing to being president of the United States.”

Phillips recorded his first four titles on Friday Dec. 2, 1927. Also recording that day was singer Lillian Glinn, backed by a combo. Phillips was asked back on Monday the 5th and recorded two more tracks.

When Columbia returned to Dallas the following year, Phillips recorded two songs on Dec. 4 and two more the next day. According to Columbia’s notes, Blind Willie Johnson also recorded in the same studio on Dec. 5, 1928, as did Laura Henton, accompanied by an unknown piano player who some have said was Arizona Dranes, though it doesn’t sound like her. Imagine if Wash Phillips, Blind Willie Johnson and Arizona Dranes- the three pioneers of 1920s Texas gospel- had all played in the same Dallas studio on the same day!

On Dec. 2, 1929, Phillips recorded eight more tracks for Columbia, including the two-part “You Can’t Stop a Tattler,” which was not issued until 1979 on a Dutch label, and “The World Is In a Bad Fix,” which was never released.

Washington Phillips sold honey from his mule cart in 1950, around when this photo was taken. He died in 1954 at age 74.

Washington Phillips sold honey from his mule cart in 1950, around when this photo was taken. He died in 1954 at age 74.


Posted in Texas Music History | 3 Comments »

The Real Sonny Curtis Story

Posted by mcorcoran on February 26, 2013

West Texan Sonny Curtis could very well be the Bo Jackson of songwriting. Instead of excelling in two sports, the 75-year-old Curtis penned two classics that are as different as football and baseball.

As a Lubbock sandstorm howled outside his window in the summer of 1958, he wrote “I Fought the Law,” one of the first rock rebellion songs, which was first recorded by the Crickets three months after Buddy Holly died, made famous by the Bobby Fuller Four in 1965, then flagged as a nascent punk song by the Clash.sonny_guitar_in_studio

The other landmark composition by Curtis was the theme song on a TV show that debuted in 1970 and ran seven groundbreaking seasons.  Curtis received a four-page synopsis of a show about a 30-year-old woman out on her own after an engagement breakup, and came up with “Love Is All Around,” better known today as the theme to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

The garage rock holy grail and a Minneapolis anthem that came to represent feminism with a thrown hat in the air. Two songs that had nothing in common except they came from the creative mind of Sonny Curtis, born in a dugout his daddy built on a farm outside Lubbock during the Great Depression.

Curtis also had hits with “Walk Right Back” for the Everly Brothers (which he wrote in Army basic training in 1960), “The Straight Life” for Bobby Goldsboro, “Destiny’s Child” by Waylon Jennings and “I’m No Stranger To the Rain” for Keith Whitley.

But even if he didn’t write a single song, Curtis would be a notable figure in rock ‘n’ roll history for his close association with Buddy Holly, less than a year older, who Curtis played guitar and fiddle with before Buddy formed the Crickets. Curtis was in the band- along with Jerry Allison on drums and Don Guess on bass- when Buddy Holly opened for Elvis Presley at Lubbock’s Fair Park Coliseum in 1956. The Lubbock newspaper was so aghast that a group of locals would jump on Presley’s “devil’s music” wagon, they blacked out the quartet’s eyes in a photo they published.

Curtis and Guess were the musicians Holly took with him to Nashville on his first recording session for Decca Records earlier that year. Not much came of the sojourn to Bradley’s curtishollymusic_feature-26273Barn- two singles (“Blue Days, Black Nights,” “Modern Don Juan”) went nowhere- but Curtis made history by being the first to play the brand new Fender Stratocaster on a recording. He also got his first cut as a writer with Holly, who recorded “Rock Around With Ollie Vee.”

Needing a paying gig, Curtis left Lubbock in ‘57 to tour with country superstar Slim Whitman, but that didn’t last long. When “That’ll Be the Day,” “Peggy Sue” and “Oh Boy” hit in quick succession for Buddy and the Crickets, Curtis was playing five sets a night at a Colorado ski lodge. “The pay wasn’t very good,” Curtis has said of that gig, “but the hours were long.”

Curtis was never an official member of the Crickets while Holly was alive, perhaps because the guitarist and Holly producer Norman Petty had a falling out around 1955 when Curtis backed out of joining Petty’s trio. After guitarist Nikki Sullivan left the Crickets, the group decided to continue as a trio. There was room for only one songwriter in the band.

After Holly died in a plane crash at age 22 in February 1959, Curtis joined the Crickets and played them a song he had, “I Fought the Law.” The tune was recorded in New York City and included on “In Style With the Crickets,” a favorite album of a young guitarist/singer in El Paso named Bobby Fuller.

A draft notice interrupted Curtis’ time in the Crickets, though he’s remained a member throughout the years and still gigs with Allison and bassist Joe B. Mauldin, his neighbors in Nashville, as the Crickets.

After the Army, Curtis settled in Los Angeles, where there was songwriting and guitar playing work for hire. Curtis played guitar for Roger Miller occasionally, which ended up providing his connection to Mary Tyler Moore, who shared management with Miller. Curtis said he’d give it a try when he was asked to write the song for the intro of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” He read the synopsis at around noon one day and later that afternoon found himself in the office of show creator James L. Brooks.

“I played him ‘Love Is All Around’ and he said ‘Let me take that song with me to Minneapolis,’” Curtis said. “They were shooting the opening footage on location.”

Not many folks know that the lyrics were altered after the first season. The unforgettable first line, “Who can turn the world on with her smile?” was not in the original version. When the show debuted, the Mary Richards character had embarked on a fresh start after a breakup, but didn’t have a job or, really, any skills or experience to be more than a secretary. The theme song’s original first line was “How will you make it on your own?”

Applying for an entry level job, Richards was instead hired on Lou Grant’s whim as assistant producer of the “Six O’Clock News,” so by the end of the season a more optimistic tone was needed for the theme. Besides the new opener, the last line was changed from “You just might make it after all,” to “You’re gonna make it after all.”

Curtis had hoped that he’d also sing the theme song, but the show’s producers wanted to find a “name” vocalist. “They were going for Andy Williams, who was hotter’n a pistol and had his own show,” recalled Curtis. “So I said, ‘Well, if you can get Andy Williams, then go ahead.” When Williams passed, Curtis got the gig.

Curtis still writes, still tries to pick that guitar like Chet Atkins. He said that since his pre-teen days playing fiddle for the Curtis Brothers at the KSEL Jamboree at Sled Allen’s SonnyCurtisArena in Lubbock, all he’s ever wanted to do was play music. The mailbox money is a nice bonus.

One of his later compositions to get attention was “The Real Buddy Holly Story,” which inspired Holly fanatic Paul McCartney to make a documentary of the same name to dispel some of the mistruths of the 1978 film starring Gary Busy.

“It was a good Hollywood rock and roll movie,” said Curtis, “but it didn’t capture Buddy to my way of thinking.” The scene that especially makes Curtis shake his head is when Holly, frustrated by the meddling of Nashville producer Owen Bradley, punches him out in the studio. “I was there,” said Curtis, “and nothing like that ever happened. It was always, ‘yes, sir, Mr. Bradley’ or ‘no, sir.’ Buddy always treated everyone with respect.”

Listen to “The Real Buddy Holly Story” by Sonny Curtis.






Posted in Music, Texas Music History | 1 Comment »

What They Deserve

Posted by mcorcoran on February 16, 2013

BK couple

They came for the music, Kelly Willis from Washington, D.C., in 1987 and Bruce Robison from Bandera a couple years later. The “rockabilly filly” and the Hill Country songsmith started dating in 1991, married in 1996 and had four kids in a span of five years. With Willis signed to MCA in the ’90s and Robison having his songs taken to the top of the country charts by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill (“Angry All the Time”), George Strait (“Wrapped,” “Desperately”) and the Dixie Chicks (“Travelin’ Soldier”), Nashville paid the bills. But Austin has been home, without any thought of relocation all these years.

The musical culmination of all that history is “Cheater’s Game,” the first album credited to the duo of Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison, which comes out Tuesday. The couple has always kept their careers separate, even using different booking agents and publicists, but the songwriter who sang and the singer who wrote were in it together all the way on this one. Weaving six originals and seven covers, “Cheater’s Game” is a near-perfect modern country album with an old feel. The songs overlap rather than run into each other, and you almost hold your breath until the next song proves itself, too.

“I’ve always been looking for a sound,” says Robison, who’s released eight solo albums to Willis’ seven. “All my favorite bands have a sound, and I think we’ve found ours with this one.” There’s not a false note on the record.

Made in Nashville with producer Brad Jones (Hayes Carll, Chuck Prophet), “Cheater’s Game” is less a duet record than one by a band with two singers. Robison says the record was inspired by the local club gigs he and Willis and their small combo starting playing around town in 2011 to get a little cash flow going. Maybe they just needed to get out of the house and have some fun with music instead of bemoaning the erosion of the recording industry, with file sharing and Pro Tools and social media replacing albums and studios and the folks who had your back.

At loose shows at the tiny Continental Club Gallery and Antone’s, the couple found what they started looking for together in 1991. It wasn’t unusual for the band to play a request right there on the spot, but it was always Robison, who knows hundreds, maybe thousands, of songs, taking the lead. (“Kelly’s not a big fan of unplanned moments,” he says.) But Willis had an idea that would spin Robison’s mind. She decided to secretly learn an especially wordy song — one Robison had never heard heard her sing before — then spring it on him like a prank you can dance to. This was all plotted out on Twitter, which Robison avoids like autotune, so at the Gallery one night, someone yelled a request for “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” and before Robison could say they didn’t know that one, Willis tore through the verses with the necessary brassiness. It’s on YouTube. Willis made his jaw drop.

Though the flame-haired mother isn’t socking it to the “Harper Valley P.T.A.” on “Cheater’s Game,” the 13-cut LP feels like it’s from that era of ’60s and ’70s country albums, when Buck Owens, Lynn Anderson and the like would surround the radio hits with a waltz here, a pop cover there, and maybe something with a south-of-the-border flavor.

Robison found “9,999,999 Tears,” a luscious country pop number sure to be a radio favorite, on one such album by Dickie Lee that he heard growing up in the Cowboy Capital of the World. At the other end of the pop spectrum is “Dreamin’,” a co-write with Miles Zuniga of Fastball that bounces between Cheap Trick unplugged and the Everly Brothers. The album is a child of the songs that made them want to play music.

“I was always running things,” says Robison, “but the smartest thing I did here was to let go of the reins. I put it in Brad’s hands, and that opened me up to what my role really was: to find songs and really dig into the music.” Jones pushed Robison to play almost all the acoustic guitar on the album, which gave the songs a more organic base.

Robison and Willis trekked to Nashville three times in the past year to make the record, which reunited them with former Greencards fiddle/ mandolin player  Eamonn McLoughlin, now a top Nashville session guy.

“Cheater’s Game” was financed by a crowd-funding campaign that turned fictitious trailer park talk show host Gill Webb into Facebook’s Sir Share-a-lot. “Our manager, Mike (Crowley), wanted us to do a Kickstarter and I was against it,” Robison says. “It just didn’t feel right for us, but one day I was playing basketball with a couple of young filmmakers (brothers Josh and Nick Holden). They said they’d just made something with (actor) Bill Wise, who we’ve known for 20 years, and I just had a flash to make that Kickstarter thing with Bill. That’s how it’s gone with this project; things just fall out of the sky.”

The clueless Webb character mistakes Bruce and Kelly as father and daughter and keeps calling the album “Kickstarter,” but the humorous spot succeeded in getting the word out to the couple’s loyal, laid-back following. Asking for $35,000 to record the album, the Kickstarter campaign raised $44,000, with 563 donors receiving payback ranging from a private concert in their house ($10,000) to a song download ($1).

The creative process started a year earlier when the couple played just about every song they could think of when the kids, now ages 7 to 12, were at school. “We told each other from the beginning that we didn’t care where the songs came from, whether they were originals or covers,” Willis says. “We just wanted the best songs. And in choosing them we brought our two sides together.” After a couple weeks, they sent a demo of 20 songs to Jones, the former Matthew Sweet bassist, and he chose three: Robison originals “Leavin’” and “But I Do” and a cover of Robert Earl Keen’s “No Kinda Dancer.” A few weeks later, they’d send Jones another chunk of songs and there’d be more aggressive whittling.

The Keen cover is an interesting choice, as its dour tone seems out of place at this melodyfest. But then you listen to the words about a clumsy cowboy who finds himself through his partner and you can see the thematic outline. Although these songs were thrown together without a binding concept, the overall message is that the richness of life comes from flesh-and-blood relationships. The pinball machine album art throws it back to a time before computers and video games, when you had to leave the house for entertainment.

“Cheater’s Game” is an album of song couplets — with “We’re All the Way” by Don Williams (Robison first heard it on Eric Clapton’s “Slowhand”) and Hayes Carll’s “Long Way Home” establishing a touching tone, a bit of tension. Then the back-to-back rounders — “Leavin’” and “But I Do” — give sweet release. The closing pair of “Waterfalls” and “Dreamin’” bring the couple full circle for a melodic embrace, as the album’s mood lingers.

Willis and Robison wait until those last two songs to trade verses a la Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn. She sings the title track, a co-write with the Trishas, with the barest trace of Bruce’s harmony, establishing that this will not be the usual country duet album.

Although the idea for this project bloomed about a year and a half ago, the roots were put down in late 2002, when the couple received two great bits of news on one day and decided to give their solo careers a rest. First, Robison’s song “Travelin’ Soldier” was picked to be the next Dixie Chicks single. Second, ultrasound showed Willis was pregnant with twins. As “Soldier” began its ascent to No. 1 on the country charts and “Home,” the album it’s on, sold six million copies out of the chute, the Robison-Willis family was assured financial security. And Willis made her mark as a singular artist with “What I Deserve” (1999) and “Easy” (2002), a pair of acclaimed albums that sold about 100,000 copies each on an independent label. They could now concentrate on raising their kids.

But the week after “Travelin’ Soldier” hit No. 1, Natalie Maines made that controversial statement against President George W. Bush on the eve of the Iraq invasion, and the single fell 44 spots the next week and was off the charts the week after. “Home” had expected to hit 10 million sales, as did its two predecessors, but stalled at six.

“Soldier” was Robison’s last No. 1 hit. “It’s been a struggle,” he says of the past few years, “but, really, it’s always been a struggle.” He built an analog studio with writing royalties but had to sell it when the recording industry took a dive. Willis sang jingles for Henna Chevrolet.

“Cheater’s Game” is a record you root for while you’re listening because Bruce and Kelly, both in their mid-40s, are our neighbors, our friends. Working hard, they represent what is best about an Austin where you can make your music and raise your family and pay your bills without having to sell your soul to stardom promises. The Internet has diluted everything from bookstores to sex, but there are still musicians keeping love strong in the house of songs. This can still be a magical place.

We came for music, but stayed for how it connects us.

Posted in Music, Texas Music History | Leave a Comment »

Stevie Ray Vaughan Oct. 3, 1954- Aug. 27, 1990

Posted by mcorcoran on August 26, 2012

Photo by Jay Janner/ AAS

SRV “Little Wing”

The Austin music community woke up on Aug. 27, 1990 with a chunk of its soul gone. At close to 1 a.m., blues guitar great Stevie Ray Vaughan perished in a helicopter crash in East Troy, Wis., after a concert.

It was a foggy night and the pilot took off from behind the stage at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre and flew into the side of a ski slope half a mile away. All five aboard the Chicago-bound helicopter — Vaughan, the pilot and three members of Eric Clapton’s entourage — were killed instantly.

Vaughan died about an hour after joining a superstar jam finale with brother Jimmie, Clapton, Robert Cray and Buddy Guy at the outdoor venue 40 miles southwest of Milwaukee .

Stevie Ray Vaughan was just 35 and on a spiritual high after giving up drugs and alcohol four years earlier.

Besides being an exciting guitar player, whose debut LP revitalized the blues in 1983, Vaughan was beloved in Austin because he’d come up the hard way, toiling in dive bars such as the One Knite and the Rome Inn for more than a dozen years before he broke out nationally.

Vaughan never forgot where he came from and never missed a chance to tout those who inspired him. If you knew the skinny guitar player back then, you called him Stevie Vaughan, even after the Ray was added when he signed to Columbia.

It was Vaughan’s humble personality that inspired the welcoming pose on the 8-foot-tall bronze statue erected in his memory on the hike-and-bike trail about 100 yards from the Auditorium Shores stage location where Vaughan performed so many times.

“Recordings do a really good job at preserving the musical legacy,” said Boston-based sculptor Ralph Helmick , whose design was chosen by Jimmie and mother Martha Vaughan over about 30 other applicants. “I wanted to show more of the kind of person Stevie Ray Vaughan was. And everyone I talked to who knew him said he was always friendly, always approachable.”

Unveiled on Nov. 21, 1993 , the SRV statue is the first stop in Austin for many visiting musicians, especially during the South by Southwest festivals, and it reinforces Austin’s reputation as a city that takes music seriously.

Almost immediately after Vaughan’s death a petition drive, supported by then-City Council Member Max Nofziger, was started to rename Auditorium Shores “Stevie Ray Vaughan Park.” But the Vaughan family thought that was too much too soon.

Promoter French Smith, then head of the Austin Music Commission, had an idea Jimmie and Martha preferred: a statue at Auditorium Shores. Smith had not only put on all those great T-Bird Riverfests, but promoted SRV’s final performance in Austin at the Rites of Spring concert at Auditorium Shores on May 4, 1990.

“Jimmie was very hands-on at every step of the way,” said Smith, who is now in a care facility with advanced-stage multiple sclerosis. “I stroked the politicians and Jimmie put up the bulk of the money to get it done. The city was clear that no public money be used.”

Helmick said his commission, which covered all costs including materials and foundry fees, was about $100,000. Smith said an account also was opened to pay for cleanup in the event of vandalism, which the statue experienced in December 2005 , when words disparaging Vaughan’s originality were written in red paint.

The vandalism saddened Helmick, who flew down to Austin to make sure the statue he spent an entire year on was restored.

As part of his research, Helmick visited Lubbock to check out the Buddy Holly statue.

“That gave me an idea of what I didn’t want to do,” said Helmick, whose earlier work includes a statue of Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler in downtown Boston. The Holly statue shows Buddy in performance, wielding an electric guitar; Helmick said he decided to go for a more meditative pose with the Vaughan statue.

“I showed Jimmie pictures of two statues of David,” said Helmick. “In Bernini’s David, it shows the moment that he slings the stone that defeats Goliath. But in Michelangelo’s David, he’s shown in deep contemplation before the fight. One you look at and one you look with. Jimmie got it right away.”

Helmick said Jimmie Vaughan also understood when the sculptor asked that the statue be moved from its originally intended location — on a hill just north of Palmer Auditorium overlooking Auditorium Shores — to where it stands today. Because of the rotation of the sun, Helmick realized that SRV’s face in the original spot would have been in shadow almost all the time.

“There was some opposition from some of the joggers,” Smith said of the change, which had Vaughan facing south. “But they weren’t organized.” The City Council approved the site change in May 1993.

Although Helmick missed the target unveiling date — SRV’s 39th birthday on Oct. 3. 1993 — by about six weeks, he said it was worth the extra time to get it right. “Every detail had to be just right because you only get one chance.”

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Arizona Dranes Project

Posted by mcorcoran on August 26, 2012

Book signing and discussion Wednesday Sept. 26 at Waterloo Records. 5 p.m.
“Essential… A magnificent and important set”
– Roots and Rhythm
“He Is My Story is essential reading for gospel fans, pre-war jazz and blues enthusiasts, church historians, and may well be the best historic gospel music compilation this year.”
 Five of Five Stars
– Bob Marovich, The Black Gospel Blog
“Excellent…the strongest biography yet written of this extraordinary woman.”
“When Tompkins Square sent us He Is My Story: The Sanctified Soul of Arizone Dranes I had no clue what to expect. After reading the booklet it became the utmost important task to move all other assignments to the side and immerse myself into the gospel piano style of Arizona Dranes.”
– Sound Colour Vibration
“He Is My Story: The Sanctified Soul of Arizona Dranes” contains 50-pages of liner notes and an expertly remastered CD containing all 16 tracks Dranes recorded in Chicago from 1926- 1928.
Born blind in Sherman, Texas, Arizona Dranes learned to play piano at the Institute For Deaf, Dumb & Blind Colored Youths in Austin, which she attended from 1896- 1912. She was 37 year old, not 20 or 21 as previously reported, when she made six recording on one day in Chicago that mixed the secular and the spiritual in ways that had never been done before. A member of the Pentecostal Church of God In Christ, Dranes was the first to bring “hot” piano- ragtime, barrelhouse, boogie boogie- to songs of praise. Among those who’ve acknowledged Dranes as an influence was Thomas A. Dorsey, the Father of Gospel Music.
Listen to long interview with Michael Corcoran on WLUW- Chicago’s “Gospel Memories”

Posted in Gospel, Texas Music History | Leave a Comment »

The holy trinity of 1920s Texas gospel pioneers

Posted by mcorcoran on July 28, 2012

In July 2001, I received this CD in the mail at my job at the Austin American Statesman. It’s an unauthorized British compilation of 1920s American gospel music that would would end up playing a big part in my slow transformation from cynical/ abrasive music critic to deep-digging historian. A knockoff that would knock me out. “Amazing Gospel” was the first time I would hear the music of Arizona Dranes, Washington Phillips and Blind Willie Johnson- three gospel music pioneers whose biographical blanks I would spend a few hundred hours over the next ten years trying to fill. I was driven by the supreme talents of this threesome, driven to reverse the injustice of their obscurity. In all three cases, just finding the death certificate would triple the previously known biographical information. I found out so much stuff about my three obsessions because no one had seriously researched their lives- and not just their music- before.

Washington Phillips was the first of these subjects I delved into. His “Amazing Gospel” track, “A Mother’s Last Words To Her Daughter,” was recorded by Dranes and Johnson as “Bye and Bye, I’m Gone To See the King,” but Phillips’ version is my favorite by far. I played it over and over again and wondered how an East Texas dirt farmer in a makeshift studio in Dallas could create such a mesmerizing record. I’d never heard anything like it.  Some misinformation on liner notes had Phillips dying in Austin in 1938, which gave me the local angle to satisfy my editors at the Austin American Statesman. I went rogue on this one, not telling anyone where I was, with the story or physically, until I’d finished the first draft. One day I was in my car chasing a hot tip to Freestone County- about 155 miles northeast of Austin- when an editor called to tell me that Clifford Antone had just been released from

Washington Phillips with his mules circa 1950.

prison (on marijuana charges) and I needed to write a story. “I’m out of town on that Wash Phillips story,” I said. “I can’t do it.” The editor said I needed to come back. “No way,” I said. I was about to crack a case of mistaken identity.

Editors don’t care about writers and they have the upper hand. Priority #1 is covering their asses: that’s Journalism 99. One night in 1996 I was out in a field near Paleface Park, waiting to see James Brown for the first time, when an editor called and said that Tupac Shakur had just died. I had to come back and write the obit, even though I had already written a five-inch topper after Tupac was shot a week earlier. The night editor didn’t want the responsibility of putting what I had written at the top of the AP  obit- she somehow thought that was underhanded though it was the way the Dallas Morning News taught me to get an A1 byline- so I had to drive back to the office, minutes before “the Godfther of Soul” took the festival stage. Never again, I told myself.

“We need you back in town,” the editor insisted in 2002. He had the address of Antone’s halfway house and wanted me to try and get a couple quotes. “Get someone else to do it,” I answered. I was just passing Round Rock when I got the call, but said I was two hours out of town. Here’s my original story on Washington Phillips.

After that piece was reprinted in the Dallas Observer, I received a note from a guy up there named Dan Williams, who said I should consider also writing a story about Blind Willie Johnson, the great bottleneck player from Marlin, who recorded 30 tracks from 1927- 1930 then fell into my wheelhouse, off the face of the earth.  In the 1970s, Williams visited Marlin looking for anyone who knew Blind Willie and ended up finding his ex-wife Willie B. Harris. Up until that time, it was believed that Johnson’s second wife Angeline sang on his records. That’s what she told blues historian Sam

Only known photo of Blind Willie Johnson circa 1929.

Charters in the late 1950’s. But after hearing Harris sing, Williams correctly determined that she was the one who had nursed Johnson’s coarse, raw bass vocals in call and response style.

Williams passed on an interesting bit of information: Blind Willie Johnson’s daughter Sam Faye Kelly was back living in Marlin. This was huge. Maybe she had a photo of her father (who died in 1945) or church programs on which he played. I drove up and met her a few times, found that she had nothing but unspecific memories. and ended up writing this story for the Statesman.

(In 2016, I wrote these extensive liner notes for Alligator’s BWJ tribute.) Both my Wash Phillips and Blind Willie Johnson stories were selected for the Da Capo “Best Music Writing” of the year anthologies. That left just one.

Arizona Dranes in 1951 at age 62.

I first heard about Arizona Dranes, who introduced such secular piano styles as ragtime and barrelhouse to gospel music in 1926, when I was researching a story on Fort Worth gospel phenom Kirk Franklin and the group God’s Property in 1997. I bought a history of gospel called How Sweet the Sound by musician/ historian Horace Boyer, who credited Dranes with inventing “the gospel beat.” That’s pretty huge.

But until the arrival of “Amazing Gospel” I had not heard a note of Dranes’ music. I was excited to discover she was to the piano what Blind Willie was to the slide guitar. If these two had played the more collectable and revered blues, instead of gospel, they’d be more sufficiently acknowleged as true pioneers of their instruments. Blind Willie recorded NINE years before Robert Johnson, and Arizona’s “Christian barrelhouse” came six years before Thomas A. Dorsey switched devotions from blues to gospel music.

Soon after I retired from the Statesman, in part  to devote myself to more primary research, I was asked to write extensive liner notes for a book/ CD on Dranes by the reissue label Tompkins Square. I worked on it every day for three months and traveled to Chicago, Memphis, Oakland and Dallas-Fort Worth at my own expense to find out whatever I could about this mysterious Pentecostal pounder.

In late 2011, S.F.-based label Tompkins Square asked if I wanted to write about 10,000 words on Dranes for a book to accompany a CD reissue. This was a few months after I took the buyout from the Statesman, so I was still receiving full pay, but now I could spend fulltime on Ms. AZ Dranes! The book/CD He Is My Story: the Sanctified Soul of Arizona Dranes came out in August 2012 and was nominated for a Grammy as Best Historical Album.

The book/CD for Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams came out in Nov. 2016 and has generated a lot of new recognition for an artist who emerged fully formed against all odds. The New Yorker, Pitchfork and CNN delivered raves, plus Washington Phillips landed on the cover of Creative Loafing of Atlanta. This humble singing preacher from Freestone County, who last recorded in 1929, is having a great year.

A writer wants to leave a mark and mine won’t be the three years I terrorized local celebrities with my “Don’t You Start Me Talking” column in the Austin Chronicle (1985-88). It’ll be my research of three Texas musicians who made a blip in the 1920s and then disappeared. I found them in death certificates and city directories and school enrollment records and told their stories. sometimes assisted by folks who knew them.

When I started writing for the Austin Chronicle, I was 29 and going to live forever or die tomorrow. Didn’t matter. But now I want at least some of my work to remain long after I’m gone. And even if this is the last thing I ever write, I know I’ve reached that goal. Fifty years from now, someone is going to hear true musical visionaries Wash Phillips, Blind Willie Johnson and Arizona Dranes for the first time- perhaps in the same hour as I did in 2001- and Google their names. And they’ll read what I wrote. This seems more fulfilling than reviewing the band playing at the Continental tonight, though I’m very grateful for the time I did that, too.


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Ramblin’ Ray Remembers: Austin Music in the 1950s

Posted by mcorcoran on April 1, 2012

Ramblin’ Ray and the Ramblers, with Bert Rivera on steel, 1951. Campi second from left.

By Michael Corcoran

Wild-eyed rockabilly veteran Ray Campi wrote his first song on the last day of 1949 and left Austin at the end of 1959. He’s a man of the ‘50s in his home town, so in his mind the Magnolia Café at 1920 S. Congress Ave. is still Flossie’s Drive In, where country bands like Leon Carter and the Rolling Stones played. He still calls far South Congress Avenue, home of such 1950s clubs as the Cinderella, Rudy’s Drive In, the Alibi, Gil’s and the Top Hat, “the San Antonio Highway.”

While legions continue to mourn the 1980 closing of the Armadillo World Headquarters on Barton Springs Road, Campi has fonder memories of the 1,500-capacity hall when it was the Sportcenter in the mid-’50s. There, he and such local acts as Betty Barnes, the Hubcats with Hub Sutter, the Hungry Mountain Boys and Buck Fowler and the Black Diamonds would play the Saturday night Jamboree. Billed the “Folk Music Fireball” by an Austin promoter, Elvis Presley played the future hippie haven August 25, 1955- one of four Austin appearances before his January 1956 TV debut made him a national sensation.

“Some people talk like Austin became a music town in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” said Campi, who owns a house in Spicewood, yet has lived primarily in Los Angeles for five decades. “But the town was hoppin’ when I was coming up.“

The dynamic 77-year-old slap bassist, who still thrills crowds in rockabilly-crazed Europe by standing on his bass fiddle, remembers a time when Dessau Hall near Pflugerville and the Skyline Club on far North Lamar Boulevard  (“the Dallas Highway”) were “the Palladiums of Central Texas.” Dessau was built around a huge pecan tree which grew up through the roof, delighting such Eastern swing bandleaders as Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman and Artie Shaw. Dessau was built around a huge pecan tree which grew up through the roof, delighting such Eastern swing bandleaders as Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman and Artie Shaw.


Touring and local country bands would also play the Buckholts SPJST Hall in nearby Milam County, where an 18-year-old Campi was called up by his guitar hero Merle Travis to sing “San Antonio Rose” in 1952.

Because Austin is home to the most liberal state college in Texas, it’s always had something going on musically. In the ’50’s, downtown was swingin’ with the Jade Room (2514 Guadalupe St.), Squirrel’s Inn (415 Barton Springs Rd.) and New Orleans Club (1123 Red River). The roots rockin’ Continental Club opened at 1315 S. Congress Ave., just up from the Terrace Motel and nightclub, in 1955, but it was more of a jazz club, with Bill Turner’s trio playing most nights.

In the otherwise barren hills of West Lake, musicians played the Elm Grove Lodge, which would go on to gain fame during the ’70s as the home of Soap Creek Saloon.

Over on the East Side, you had Charlie’s Playhouse (1206 E. 11th), Big Mary’s/ Alabama Club (1808 E. 12th St.), the Victory Grill (1114 E. 11th) and more juke joints. “We used to go to Charlie’s on Friday nights to learn the latest dances,” said antique dealer Charles “Lucky” Attal, who went to Austin High, at the current 12th St. location of ACC, in the late ’50s.

Most of the major black acts, including Bo Diddley, Big Joe Turner and Little Richard on one memorable night, played Doris Miller Auditorium. The great KVET DJ and musician Lavada Durst, a true icon in the history of Austin,  also brought in such giants as Duke Ellington and Sam Cooke.

Not to be outdone, the City Coliseum on Barton Springs Road featured  an Oct. 7, 1957 show with Fats Domino, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Chuck Berry, The Everly Brothers, The Drifters, Lavern Baker, Clyde McPhatter and more. Lucky Attal’s son, Charles of C3 Presents, would be lucky to book that much talent over three days at ACL Fest.

For Hispanic fans,  a weekly highlight in the ‘50s was the Nash Hernandez Orchestra’s “Friday Frolics” at Zaragoza Park. The scene was strong, with Manuel Donley, Shorty and the Corvetts, Roy Montelongo, Lonnie Guerero and his son Louie and more local acts benefiting from nightly exposure on Lalo Campos’ “Noche de Fiesta” radio show on KVET. Accordion master Camilo Cantu, meanwhile, had couples dancing at La Polkita, an open air venue bounded by Christmas tree lights in Del Valle.

With a memory as sharp as his vintage threads, Campi remembers Austin in the ‘50s as if the past five decades were a week and a half. He’ll talk your ear off, but you’d be wise to take notes.

Ramblin’ Ray remembers not only the music scene, but can still describe details about restaurants like Lung’s Ch

Blues Boy Hubbard and the Jets were the house band at Charlie’s Playhouse

inese Kitchen (1128 Red River), Austin’s first foray into “exotic” cuisine, the Toddle House on 19th St., with its famous breakfasts, and the Sho-Nuff Café (2006 S. Lamar, later locale of Bag of Chicken), where musician Calvin Russell’s parents worked as fry cook and waitress.

He recalls the fanfare when the Twin Oaks Shopping Center (“the largest in town”) opened at South Congress and Oltorf in 1955. Twin Oaks today is just another strip mall being kept alive by computer repair shops and nail salons.

“There were seven drive-in movie theaters in Austin in the ‘50s,” said Campi, rattling off the names: the Burnet Road Drive-in, the Delwood, the North Austin (also known as the Eddie Joseph Drive-In), the South Austin, the Montopolis, the Chief, the Longhorn.

The competition was fierce and one time Campi got drawn into a big publicity stunt at the Chief Drive-In (5601 North Lamar). “There was a guy who was buried alive for a month,” Campi said, with a laugh. “He wasn’t really buried. There was a secret door and he’d go home after the last showing each night. But one day (studio owner) Roy Poole had an idea to record a song from the grave, so he had me play the guitar while the guy sang.”

Before Poole opened Austin Recording Company on the second floor of the Littlefield Building at 6th and Congress in the early ‘50s, the only recording studio in town was the Radio House on the University of Texas campus. Campi recorded several tracks there from 1951- 58. As described by Campi, the former Radio House was almost certainly the brick annex of the historic Littlefield Building on campus.

But on a recent four-day visit to Austin, Campi never made it to campus to confirm that. He did visit his childhood home at 1116 W. Sixth St. for the first time in decades. The two-story brownstone with the house in the back is now Fortney’s West End antique store.

“Hi, I’m Ray Campi and I used to live here,” he said to one of the store employees. “I made some records in the ‘50s, but you’ve never heard of me.”

He never became more than a local act, at least in his prime. Soon after recording a regional hit (/ “Play It Cool”) for San Antonio’s TNT Records, Campi was signed to Dot, the home of Pat Boone, in 1957. Although his single “It Ain’t Me” went nowhere, it led to a lipsynced appearance on “American Bandstand,” which made Campi a bit of a star back home.

After being “one and done” at Dot, Campi was courted by Domino Records, Austin’s first label of note, which made a little noise in the years between Elvis and the Beatles. Formed in 1957 as a night school project, Domino featured such acts as the Slades, Joyce Webb, Barney Tall and Joyce Harris, a white singer from New Orleans whose backing band was a black group from East Austin called the Daylighters. Once, Harris found the band coming out of the White Swan on East 12th and reminded them they had a rehearsal scheduled. But Clarence Smith (AKA Sonny Rhodes) and the others didn’t want to get in the car with a white woman. Not in the ’50s in Texas. Harris and the Daylighters made great records, but never performed live together. (Listen to “

      1. I Got My Mojo Working
” and )

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Music, Texas Music History | 18 Comments »

Praising Arizona: the playing hands of a sanctified spitfire

Posted by mcorcoran on February 2, 2012

(Originally published in 2007)

Arizona Dranes spoke at the 1953 Holy Convocation of Church of God In Christ. She was 64 and head of COGIC's handicapped section.

by Michael Corcoran

New evidence shows that Arizona Dranes, the blind Pentecostal piano player who inspired everyone from Mahalia Jackson to Jerry Lee Lewis, attended the Institute for Deaf, Dumb and Blind Colored Youths in Northwest Austin from 1896- 1912. Let that sink in for a sec: The first person to ever play piano on a gospel record, the musician Sister Rosetta Tharpe credited with influencing her raucous, syncopated style, learned how to play in Austin. Dranes remains virtually unknown today, with only a single blurry photo ever found, but she’s celebrated by prewar gospel and blues enthusiasts.

“Arizona Dranes is the most important performer for introducing ‘hot’ piano style to African American gospel music,” says Grammy-winning music historian David Evans. The first musical star of the Church of God in Christ, a Memphis-based Pentecostal sect that pioneered foot-stomping music, Dranes and her lost-in-the-spirit outbursts laid the blueprint for rock ‘n’ roll.

Her first music teacher in Austin was a Miss B.M. Boyd. Her last here was Lizzie B. Wells. Also teaching Drane (the “s” would be tacked on later) in other subjects at the institute was Mattie B. White, a noted educator and painter, who had earlier founded the first private school for African American girls in Austin in 1892. Until recently, the only known evidence that put Dranes in the Austin school was a 1910 census, which listed her age as 19. (She was actually 21, but maybe fudged a little to stay in school longer.)

The enrollment records disprove previously-accepted biographical information that Dranes was a mere 21 when she invented “the gospel beat” with recordings for Okeh Records in 1926. A minimum age of 7 for the school, puts Dranes’ birth year at 1889, as does the 1900 Federal Census.

The new information came in early 2007 when Kristi Sprinkle, a Web administrator for the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, found the official enrollment record for the 1896-1897 school year, which lists “Arizona Drane” of Sherman as a student. Not much is known of Dranes’ whereabouts from her graduation in 1910 until the early 1920s, though at some point she fell in with Hillsboro-raised singing preacher Ford Washington “F.W.” McGee.

After becoming a COGIC minister in Oklahoma, McGee presided over a pair of revival tents in Chicago in the mid-1920s. McGee and his Jubilee Singers backed up Dranes on her Nov. 1926 followup session.Then Dranes played piano on McGee’s record “Lion of the Tribe of Judah” the next year. You didn’t need liner notes to know who was thumping those keys.

Dranes had been splitting time between Dallas, where she sang for E.M. Page’s COGIC church in the Freedmantown neighborhood (now known as State-Thomas), and Fort Worth, where her divorced parents Cora and Milton lived. Dranes was also a regular at Rev. Samuel Crouch’s Trezevant Hill Church of God In Christ on West Rosedale Avenue.   It was Crouch, the great uncle of gospel star Andrae Crouch, who recommended Dranes to a traveling Okeh talent scout in early 1926.

At the time, most gospel performances were vocal only or accompanied by guitar, but Dranes stood out with her Holy Ghost-fueled piano. All six sides recorded on June 16, 1926, were released, including a sanctified ragtime instrumental called “Crucifixion,” which has greatly influenced generations of gospel keyboardists.

Arizona Dranes was the full package, with a voice that quivered with emotion. She became Okeh’s biggest gospel star almost overnight, but wasn’t always paid in a timely manner, according to correspondence between Dranes and record execs made available in 1970 to writer Malcolm Shaw. “I’ve only received 50 dollars from you,” she wrote Okeh’s owner Elmer Fearn in February, 1928, while stricken with an unspecified illness in Memphis. Her deal called for her to be paid $25 per song. “Of coarse I dident know anything about record making or prices on them and I dident even consult our white friends down here,” reads the letter. “I’m asking that you consider me as I am disable to work now and have to be confined to my room for awhile.” Fearn replie that he had lost track of Dranes (who also lived in Galveston, Oklahoma City and Memphis in the late ’20s) and wired her the $60 she asked for.

Arizona Dranes at the piano. Bishop Riley F. Williams at the podium. Atlanta City Auditorium Aug. 1943.

By the end of 1928, Dranes’ recording career was over. The Great Depression killed demand for gritty music, But Dranes remained a star on the COGIC circuit, where she often performed before church founder Bishop Charles Mason. Although Dranes established such tunes as “I Shall Wear a Crown,” “My Soul’s a Witness for the Lord” and “Lamb’s Blood Has Washed Me Clean” as COGIC standards, there is no mention of her in the official church biography.  The name Arizona Dranes brings only puzzled looks from staffers at the Mason Temple in Memphis, where A.J. Dranes wrecked the house 75 years ago.

Dranes died of a stroke on July 27, 1963 at age 74. She had been living at 5219 McKinley Ave. in Los Angeles and attending Crouch Temple, named after her Fort Worth mentor.  Dranes’ death certificate, listing her occupation as missionary, says she was buried at the Paradise Memorial Park in Santa Fe Springs, Calif. But no one knows exactly where Dranes’ 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. The undertakers would also stack bodies in the same plot, often crushing caskets to fit more in. According to the 1963 burial record, Dranes was laid to rest in section 183, block 4 and lot F-3. According to Warren Clark, a researcher for Find a Grave Inc., that was one of the recycled plots. Dranes’ remains were most likely moved to the mass grave, which was seven feet high and 50 feet wide.

Ghastly to think that one of Texas’ most influential gospel musicians would end up in such a discarded state.


An Atlanta audience awaits Arizona Dranes at the City Auditorium , August 1943

Arizona Juanita Dranes went to Chicago from Texas in June 1926 accompanied by a note that read as if it had been pinned to her sweater. “Since she is Deprived Of Her Natural Sight, the Lord Has Given Her A Spiritual Sight that all Churches Enjoy,” read the introduction from Dallas church elder E.M. Page to Elmer Fearn, owner of Chicago’s Okeh Phonograph Company. “She Loyal and Obedient, Our Prayers Assend for her.”

Blind, sickly and poor, this “holy roller” must’ve seemed quite lost at the big city recording studio. But when she sat at the piano and started thumping out a sinful rhythm while wailing about the glories of salvation, Dranes made musical history; the kind not always written about in books but passed on and modified by a succession of great players. The sanctified Church of God in Christ song leader infused her gospel songs with barrelhouse fire and ragtime flair and unleashed a sharp vocal that quivered like an arrow on impact. The template Dranes created with six tracks in one day came to be called “the gospel beat”; it’s still played against a polyrhythm of hand claps in black church services today.

It’s not known if the style was an invention of Dranes or something she nicked from the “fast Texas” boogie-woogie pianists who played in Dallas’ Deep Ellum, not far from Dranes’ State-Thomas neighborhood. No sacred-singing, female piano player had ever been recorded before Dranes, and “father of gospel” Thomas Dorsey didn’t record his first “Christian blues” until 1928. Among those who forever changed her approach to church music after hearing Dranes was Roberta Martin, the Arkansas native who would become the most respected pianist and group leader of gospel’s golden age (1940s to 1960s). But where 50,000 mourners turned up for Martin’s memorial service in Chicago in 1969, Dranes died in obscurity six years earlier in Los Angeles. There were no newspaper obituaries, no tributes to this most influential of all female Texas musicians, whose stylist offspring include such rock ‘n’ rollers as Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino. Even the writer of the liner notes for Document’s 1993 collection of Dranes’ complete recorded works (22 tracks from 1926-1929) had no idea what had become of his subject. “For all we know,” musicologist Ken Romanowski concludes in the album notes, “Dranes may still be in a storefront church somewhere, fanning the flames of a sanctified fire.”

Actually, the music pioneer had died of cerebral arteriosclerosis 30 years before the Document CD was released. According to the death certificate, Dranes was born April 4, 1894, to Cora Jones and a father listed as “Unknown Dranes.” Bios universally have Arizona born in 1905 or 1906 and marvel that she was barely 20 when she made those groundbreaking recordings. She was actually in her mid-’30s when she stepped inside a studio for the first time. Dranes’ recording career was over by 1929, when the Depression dried up demand for down-home Southern gospel, and she confined her playing to Church of God in Christ services. She’s believed to have lived in the early 1930s in Memphis, where the denomination, co-founded in 1897 by Charles H. Mason, is headquartered. She is believed to have later lived in Oklahoma City, where 90-year-old Helen Davis recalls Dranes playing conventions for the church. “She’d play before Bishop Mason spoke,” recalls Davis, a Lott native who now lives in Los Angeles. “She’d get the whole place shouting. 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.” Dranes’ last known public concert was in 1947 in Cleveland. The next year she moved to Los Angeles, where she spent the last 15 years of her life. L.A. was where her mentor, the Rev. Samuel Crouch, had moved from Fort Worth. The great-uncle of singer/pastor Andrae Crouch founded the Emmanuel Church of God in Christ in South Central L.A. in the ’30s. “She wasn’t a member of Emmanuel,” recalls a longtime parishioner, 87-year-old Willie Bell Lewis. “But Sister Dranes would play there whenever she visited. She was a big star in gospel music.” Lewis says she had no idea Dranes had been living in L.A. at the time of her death.

Having to rely on faded memories, incomplete county records (especially concerning African Americans) and artifacts that were long ago unloaded at garage sales, musical archaeologists are left with the bones from a magnificent feast of soul and innovation. But the biographical blanks only make Dranes’ music less cluttered with trivial concerns. She remains more spirit than human and when she sings, “He is my story, He is my song,” that’s all you need to know about the singer. Like the best gospel performers, she was an otherworldly vessel fueled by faith; a pet of the force that distributes talent discriminately. They can’t be contained, the voices that are unified, sanctified and possessed by a fiery spirit and so they burst out — reaching for heaven’s gate.

The roots of a sanctified style

1707 English preacher Isaac Watts publishes ‘Hymns and Spiritual Songs,’ initially met with resistance because hymns were not literal re-creations of David’s Psalms, as was the norm, but infused with personal feelings.

1740s The Great Awakening, first major U.S. evangelical movement, merges African belief systems such as magical rituals with Anglo-Protestant traditions to convert hundreds of thousands, including slaves, to Christianity.

1780s-1930s The Great Revival Movement with its integrated ‘camp meetings’ in rural regions of the country popularizes repetitive choruses and call-and-response techniques. During this ‘Second Great Awakening,’ religion becomes only institutional area in which slaves were allowed freedom of expression.

1889 Arizona Juanita Dranes born in Texas.

1906 The ‘hard gospel’ style is solidified at Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, where churchgoers were urged to speak in tongues and lose control when the Holy Ghost was received. Led by black preacher William J. Seymour, the foot-stomping, sanctified, hand-clapping, tambourine-crashing, hallelujah-wailing event ushers in Pentecostal movement.

1907 Azusa Street participant Charles Mason, in a disagreement over the speaking in tongues baptism, breaks with his Church of God in Christ co-founder Charles Jones. The Mason-led COGIC would grow into largest black Pentecostal church in the United States. Arizona Dranes would be church’s first singing star, soon followed by Marlin’s Blind Willie Johnson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Ernestine Washington.

1926 Dranes records six original compositions on June 17, including the influential instrumental ‘Crucifixion.’ It is the first time a female piano-playing gospel singer is recorded.

Posted in Gospel, Music, Texas Music History | 1 Comment »