First recorded gospel pianist got her start in Austin
A recent discovery rewrites what we know about Arizona Dranes.
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 at 4104 Bull Creek Road from 1896 until graduating in 1910. 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.
Thursday, March 01, 2007
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 emphasized foot-stomping music in the styles of secular 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. Though that document disproved accepted biographical information that Dranes was a mere 21 when she invented "the gospel beat" with recordings for Okeh Records in 1926, it doesn't show that Dranes attended school here from kindergarten through high school.
That jewel of information came just a couple months ago 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. Dranes is believed to have helped McGee establish a Church of God in Christ in Oklahoma City circa 1920. McGee later presided over a pair of revival tents in Chicago, where he and his Jubilee Singers backed up Dranes on five of her landmark recordings.
Dranes had been living in Dallas (not Fort Worth, as has been written) in the State-Thomas neighborhood when she was discovered by 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....
Vocal acc. own (p).
Chicago, June 17, 1926.
09737-A In That Day [Okeh 8380]
09738-A It's All Right Now [Okeh 8353]
Vocal acc. own (p) with Sara Martin, Richard M. Jones (vo).
09739-A John Said He Saw A Number [Okeh 8352]
09740-A My Soul Is A Witness For The Lord [Okeh 8352]
Chicago, June 17, 1926.
09741-A Crucifixion [Okeh 8380]
09742-A Sweet Heaven Is My Home [Okeh 8353]
Vocal acc. own (p) with Rev. F.W. McGee and Jubilee Singers (vo).
Chicago, November, 1926.
09877-A Bye And Bye We're Going To See The King [Okeh 8438]
09878-A I'm Going Home On The Morning Train [Okeh 8419]
09879-A Lamb's Blood Has Washed Me Clean [Okeh 8419]
09880-B I'm Glad My Lord Saved Me [Okeh 8438]
ARIZONA DRANES AND CHOIR
Vocal acc. own (p), poss. Coley Jones (md), several female (vo).
Chicago, July 3, 1928.
400980-A I Shall Wear A Crown [Okeh 8600]
400981-A God's Got A Crown
400982-B He Is My Story
400983-B Just Look [Okeh 8646]
400984-A I'll Go Where You Want Me To Go [Okeh 8600]
400985-B Don't You Want To Go? [Okeh 8646]
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Dranes became Okeh's biggest gospel star almost overnight, but she 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 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." Elmer Fearn, who owned Okeh parent company Consolidated Music Publishing, said he had lost track of Dranes and wired her the $60 she asked for.
Dranes was staying in Sherman, where her family (mother Cora Jones and siblings Milton, Millie, Rome and Bill) lived, when she was beckoned to record in Chicago for the last time in June 1928.
The Depression decimated demand for gritty gospel-blues, but Dranes remained a star on the Church of God in Christ 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 Church of God in Christ standards, there is no mention of her in the official church biography or one written about the life of Bishop Mason. 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 72. She had been living at 5219 McKinley Ave. in Los Angeles and attending Emmanuel Church of God in Christ, founded by Rev. Samuel Crouch of Fort Worth. 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.