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Arizona Dranes: The Greatest, Wildest, Blind Gospel Singer You've Never Heard Of
Arizona Dranes: The Greatest, Wildest, Blind Gospel Singer You've Never Heard Of

The Tompkins Square record label specializes in digging up treasures of American music history, often finding rarely heard gems and re-releasing them—as they did in the magnificent gospel compilations Fire in My Bones (2010) and This May Be My Last Time Singing (2011). Now they've done it again with a release of all 16 songs ever recorded by blind pianist Arizona Dranes, who revolutionized gospel music in the1920s via her raucous playing and singing. The album comes with a booklet about Dranes' life, a compelling read that's almost as good as the music itself. Here's an abbreviated version of those notes.

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. OKeh told her they were only making "test records" with no 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 market the raucous, sanctified sounds of the Pentecostal church to the new "race records" audience. 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 boogiewoogie! But her piercing, otherwordly voice and lyrics of deep praise were so filled with the Holy Spirit that the music was undeniably Christian.

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, Dranes is strangely unknown today except to small baskets of admiring musicians and prewar record collectors. Perhaps that's because she always listed her occupation as missionary or evangelist—not musician—and looked the part.

Dranes didn't release 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 gave Dranes some credit with opening his mind to laying secular styles under religious themes. Although he was a Baptist, Dorsey liked to step inside the heat of sanctified services for inspiration, as did his protégé Mahalia Jackson. "If I can put some of what she does and mix it with the blues," Dorsey said, recalling his first exposure to Dranes, "I'll be able to come up with a gospel style."

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