by Jason Mellard / Center for Texas Music History at Texas State
Episode #13: Arizona Dranes Dies
On July 27, 1963, gospel pianist Arizona Dranes died in Los Angeles, little-known outside church circles. Born in North Texas in the late nineteenth century, Dranes attended Austin’s segregated state school for the blind from 1896 to 1910. Her extensive classical training there was long obscured in accounts that treated her as a raw folk artist. That education served her well as she joined her talents to the young Pentecostal denomination Church of God in Christ. Dranes likely facilitated the denomination’s growth, drawing worshippers in with the ecstatic music that accompanied their services. Her style wedded her classical training with secular barrelhouse piano, sacred lyrics with a new “gospel beat.” Stir in her insistent vocals, and you can understand why Okeh Records signed her up for recording sessions in Chicago in 1926 and Dallas in 1928.
After those records, Dranes’s career often became hard to trace, as she moved from town to town as part of a strategy to seed new congregations. Her influence was subtle, but steady. Father of modern gospel music Thomas Dorsey cited her as a major influence, one he would pass on to protégé Mahalia Jackson. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, another Dranes fan, would do the same in her influence on Little Richard. Add Jerry Lee Lewis’s Pentecostal piano rhythms to the mix, and it is easy to hear how Arizona Dranes’s music infused early rock ‘n’ roll. Her full credit had been a long time coming, though, and Austin author Michael Corcoran has played a major role in her critical reappraisal and recent reissues of her recordings.
Laurie E. Jasinski, Gary Hartman, Casey Monahan, and Ann T. Smith, eds. The Handbook of Texas Music. Second Edition. Denton, TX: Texas State Historical Association, 2012.
Michael Corcoran. Ghost Notes: Pioneering Spirits of Texas Music. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 2020.