Holy Roller

Arizona Juanita Dranes died in obscurity, but she is remembered now

Arizona Juanita Dranes left Texas for Chicago 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 the Okeh Phonograph Company's Chicago branch. "She Loyal and Obedient, Our Prayers Assend for her."

Blind, uneducated, 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 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 handclaps 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" barrelhouse pianists who played in 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 famous pianist of gospel's golden age (1940s to 1960s).

Arizona Juanita Dranes, right, in the only photograph of her
Arizona Juanita Dranes, right, in the only photograph of her

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-and-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 to 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 40th anniversary of the music pioneer's death is July 27. At age 69, Dranes died of cerebral arteriosclerosis in a Long Beach, California, hospital and was buried at Paradise Memorial Park in Santa Fe Springs. 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 32 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, founded in 1907 by Charles Mason, is based. 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 Cincinnati. The next year she moved to South Central Los Angeles, where she spent the last 15 years of her life. L.A. was where her mentor from the early '20s, the Reverend Samuel Crouch, had moved from Fort Worth. The great uncle of singer-pastor Andrae Crouch founded the Emmanuel Church of God in Christ in L.A. in the '30s.

"She wasn't a member of Emmanuel," recalls 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.

In a way, it was fitting that Dranes would die in the City of Angels, where the hard gospel style she perfected was launched in 1906. At the integrated Azusa Street Revival churchgoers were urged to lose control, even speaking in tongues, when the Holy Ghost was received. Led by black preacher William J. Seymour, the fervent foot-stomping, sanctified hand-clapping, piano-thumpin,' hallelujah-wailing event ushered in the Pentecostal movement.

Azusa Street participant Charles Mason formed the Church of God in Christ in Memphis. Hatching a number of gospel greats, including Sister Rosetta Tharpe (who based her blazing guitar style on Dranes' piano style), Blind Willie Johnson, Marion Williams, Margaret Allison of the Angelic Gospel Singers and Ernestine Washington and Andrae Crouch, COGIC, as it would be called, would go on to become the largest black Pentecostal church in the United States.

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