Arizona Dranes, Forgotten Mother Of The Gospel Beat Dranes was a blind black pianist who shook the foundations of gospel in the 1920s by introducing secular styles like barrelhouse and ragtime into spiritual music.
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Arizona Dranes, Forgotten Mother Of The Gospel Beat

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Arizona Dranes, Forgotten Mother Of The Gospel Beat

Arizona Dranes, Forgotten Mother Of The Gospel Beat

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And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Cheryl Corley. It's time now for music. And for this story, I'm going to church.

I'm at 40th & State Street in Chicago, standing right in front of Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ. In the 1920s, the sound of music in the black church underwent a revolution. And here in Chicago, Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ was a witness to what occurred.


CORLEY: The high-energy gospel beat of the music in this Pentecostal church is the creation, say music critics, of Arizona Dranes, a blind piano player, a woman who introduced secular piano styles like barrelhouse and ragtime to the church's music.

The Chicago studio where Dranes recorded her music in 1926 no longer exists, but when she played her music at Roberts Temple, she influenced people like 11-year-old Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who sat in the congregation and would go on to become a gospel superstar.


ROSETTA THARPE: (Singing) Your days are numbered.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

THARPE: Your days are numbered.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

MICHAEL CORCORAN: I mean, it's probably like hearing Jimi Hendrix for the first time. There was nothing like it before.

CORLEY: That's music writer Michael Corcoran. He's uncovered as much of Dranes' lost history as anyone ever has for the forthcoming CD package "He Is My Story: The Sanctified Soul of Arizona Dranes."

CORCORAN: She really was the first person to take secular styles and then put words of praise on top of them to make gospel music. And it was extremely influential because, you know, people like Thomas Dorsey, who's correctly considered the father of gospel music, he figured that - well, I can take blues and put that to gospel music and come up with something new. But he has acknowledged her as one of his influences.

CORLEY: So would it be right then to call her the mother of gospel?

CORCORAN: Well, a certain type of gospel. I think that gospel that is rhythmic identity from Arizona Dranes. She's the person that really put the drive in gospel.


CORCORAN: You know, she was Pentecostal. She was from the Church of God in Christ. I guess they call them Holy Rollers, or they believe in speaking in the tongues and really letting it go. So her music totally fit the church of what was going on. The preachers would preach about the spirit possession, and then they would say, here's Arizona Dranes. And she would just show them what they were talking about.


ARIZONA DRANES: (singing) Watch ye, therefore, ye know not the day when the Lord shall call your soul away. If ye all laboring striving for the right, ye shall wear a golden crown. I tell you I shall wear a crown. Oh, wear...

CORLEY: As I was reading your notes, you let me know that Arizona Dranes grew up in Texas. But what else do we know about her childhood?

CORCORAN: Arizona Dranes was a student for the Institute for Deaf, Dumb and Blind Colored Youth in Austin, Texas in 1896. You know, back then, playing music was one of the few ways that it was seen that blind people could make a living. I looked at the curriculum. She was really classically trained. I mean, she was playing Mozart and Beethoven and singing arias when she was 10, 11 years old.

It's really important to know that, too, because when I first heard the music of Arizona Dranes, it was so spooky. It sounded to me like 1930s cartoon music, but the lyrics were about lamb's blood and the Crucifixion. And then - and knowing that she was classically trained made a lot of sense, because she had such command of the piano. You match the spirit with her technique, and that is Arizona Dranes.


DRANES: (Singing) It's all right now. It's all right now. For Jesus is my savior. It's all right now. It's all right now. It's all right now. For Jesus is my savior. It's all right now.

CORLEY: I'm speaking with Michael Corcoran. He wrote the liner notes to an upcoming CD retrospective of the music of Arizona Dranes. She made the recordings that we're talking about in Chicago in 1926. How did she get to Chicago?

CORCORAN: Well, by train.


CORCORAN: What happened was in 1920, Mamie Smith had a song called "Crazy Blues" for Okeh Records, and it created a sensation. And finally, record companies realized that there was a market - that black people would buy a lot of records. And they called them race records. But nobody had ever done Pentecostal music. And so Richard M. Jones from Chicago - he was the A&R rep for race records. He decided to try gospel music, and he put a feeler out. He let certain people know we're looking for - who's the hot gospel performers out there.

And there was a preacher in Texas named Samuel Crouch. He's actually related somehow to Andrae Crouch.

CORLEY: I was going to ask you that.

CORCORAN: He told Richard Jones about this person, Arizona Dranes, and they sent her a note saying that, you know, we'll send you to Chicago. We'll do the recordings, but we have no guarantee that they're coming out. These are strictly test records, because nobody had ever done that before. She was really one of a kind.

CORLEY: Well, Okeh Records did eventually release those recordings. She recorded in 1926, again in 1928, and then that last session with F.W. McGee in 1930. But that was it. No more recordings from her, correct?

CORCORAN: Right. And that was strictly due to the Depression. You know, the Depression dried up demand for the raw, kind of energetic performances. That new style of gospel music took off in the face of the Depression, whereas, you know, people like Arizona Dranes, Blind Willie Johnson, most of the great blues performers didn't make records after 1930 because of the Depression.


CORLEY: Arizona Dranes died in 1963. How was her passing noted at that time?

CORCORAN: There was nothing. There was nothing at all. And I've searched histories for Church of God in Christ. I can see where maybe the general public wouldn't know much about her because she didn't sell many records and she only played in church for the most part.

But it really puzzled me that the Church of God in Christ didn't acknowledge her. I was thinking to myself why was that. I think that she was never really part of the church organization, and therefore was sort of forgotten through the years.

CORLEY: Now, what do you think the lasting impact or influence Arizona Dranes had on gospel musicians and singers of today?

CORCORAN: You look at Little Richard and Ray Charles and Fats Domino and people like that, just someone who gets down and they sit at the piano and they just lose themselves, but yet they're in complete control of their instrument. And that all started with Arizona Dranes. There was nobody before her that did that on record.

And when I first read about her in the - it was actually in a book by Horace Boyer called "How Sweet the Sound" in 1997, and he credited her with coming up with the gospel beat. And I started thinking, well, how important is that? I mean, the gospel beat is really the blueprint for soul music, for rock and roll.

I mean, Jerry Lee Lewis was Pentecostal, too, and I'm sure he heard - if he didn't hear Arizona Dranes' records, he heard people that heard her records. So I really think that she's such an important figure and completely obscure for really no good reason.


CORLEY: Michael Corcoran is a music writer in Austin, Texas. He wrote the liner notes for the CD package "He is My Story: The Sanctified Soul of Arizona Dranes." You can hear a few tracks at our website, Michael Corcoran, thank you so much.

CORCORAN: Well, thanks for having me.

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