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One of the only photos of Dranes (above); Corcoran's book and CD
Courtesy Tompkins Square
One of the only photos of Dranes (above); Corcoran's book and CD

Queen of Rock 'n' Roll

Music | Remastered recordings of Arizona Dranes reveal a musical pioneer

Issue: "Reassessing the genome," Oct. 6, 2012

As Ozymandias and a lot of others have learned, don't enshrine your heroes prematurely. Author Michael Corcoran provides the latest example. In He Is My Story: The Sanctified Soul of Arizona Dranes (Tompkins Square), Corcoran all but proves that it was a poor, blind, piano-pounding, gospel-shouting woman born circa 1889 and not Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, or any other baby boomer who deserves pride of place on Rock 'n' Roll's Mount Rushmore.

"[Arizona Dranes] set the mold for rockin' singer/pianists in 1926 with six 'test records' that have stood the test of time," writes Corcoran. "The 'tongue people' started a musical renaissance that eventually gave birth to soul music and rock and roll."

Dranes was definitely "tongue people." Although she was classically trained, she was "born again" and "baptized in the Spirit" as an adult in the Church of God in Christ, a wellspring of American Pentecostalism. In the interim, she had learned ragtime, barrelhouse, and other nascent jazz styles, each of which informed what would become, along with the music of Thomas Dorsey, the most seminal gospel style ever.

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No recordings exist of Dranes' Church of God in Christ performances. But according to the secondhand testimonies cited by Corcoran ("She'd get the whole place shouting," reads one), her ability to establish the mood necessary for the onset of glossolalia knew no bounds.

Fortunately, she did make 16 relatively big-selling "non-test" recordings for Okeh Records from 1926 to 1928, and the CD accompanying Corcoran's biography includes them all, carefully remastered for maximum audio fidelity from the 78-rpm format in which they were originally recorded. The format's time limitations prevented her and her background enthusiasts from achieving full frenzy (the longest song, "Crucifixion," comes in at 3:36), but it's easy to imagine where they were heading and how joyful they'd be once they arrived.

And, Pentecostalism's deficient understanding of Acts, chapter 2, notwithstanding, what lives on in Dranes' performances such as "I'll Go Where You Want Me to Go" and the call-and-response tour de force "Lamb's Blood Has Washed Me Clean" is a purity of vicariously communicable rapture that transcends doctrinal boundaries.

Soulful blues

One of the more fascinating sections of Corcoran's biography argues for the likelihood that the blues guitarist T-Bone Walker once heard Dranes at a Dallas Pentecostal church and that therefore "the first person to play blues on an electric guitar and the first to play secular piano [styles] on a gospel record were in the same COGIC church on the same day." If Corcoran is right, the "soulfulness" long ascribed to the blues may be more than the rhetorical flourish of excitable critics. And the most soulful blues album of 2012 so far is the Robert Cray Band's Nothin but Love (Provogue).

Cray, now 59, sounds more convincing than ever singing and guitar-soloing his way through wronged-man narratives such as "Worry" and "Won't Be Coming Home," worthy follow-ups to the song that established his mainstream clout in 1986 ("Smokin' Gun," in case you'd forgotten). The underlying message, now as ever, is that the wages of adultery is pain.

But it's as a soul man that Cray continues to mature. "Side Dish" and "A Memo" are mightily tasty reminders that greener grass does not mean better grazing. —A.O.

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