By Rev. Billy C. Wirtz
Each week Rev. Billy C. Wirtz tells us about artists, albums, and music that we need to know about. Sometimes he writes about other things.
(Halfway through writing this article, I received some news that rocked my world, if this week’s article drifts a little, that’s why.)
We’ve all heard:
“The blues had a baby, and they called it rock ‘n’ roll.”
Actually, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Esquirita, and even Elvis owed as much to Sunday morning as they did to Saturday night. The more I study it, the more this seems to be the case.
Last week, while writing about another thread connecting current events with gospel music, I rediscovered an even earlier thread and the original seamstress.
I first hear of her from another piano player, around ten years ago, while doing Blues in the Schools up in Ottawa.
We were eating at a bar just up the street from the Holiday Inn, whose room service had recently gouged us nearly thirty bucks for the worst pizza outside of Norway we’d ever eaten.
We were comparing latest musical discoveries and after both raving about Merrill Moore, she mentioned a woman named Arizona Dranes, a gospel player.
Since then I have listened a couple of times to “Crucifixion” by Dranes on a couple of collections, but that was about it. Until last week.
Thanks to a recent release on Tompkins Square Records, there is some strong evidence that much of modern music may have begun with Arizona Dranes.
February 16, 1926
Okeh Records record supervisor Richard M. Jones records three tracks by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five.
February 17, 1926
Jones records a blind gospel pianist from Fort Worth, Texas.
Over the next few decades, Armstrong will become a legend while Arizona Dranes will disappear into obscurity.
Maybe not total obscurity, but close enough. Until recently, the sixteen sides she recorded have been available on various “Roots of Gospel” collections, and she’s been correctly identified as being the seminal influence on the piano styles of everyone from Amos Milburn to Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Unfortunately, that’s pretty much where it ends.
Listening to He Is My Story, The Sanctified Soul of Arizona Dranes, I hear more than that.
Consider the following:
The latest historical research on the subject has the earliest forms of “Boogie-Woogie” piano first surfacing around the turn of the century, along the railroad lines around North and East Texas.
Ms. Dranes is from Sherman, just north of Dallas, right in the middle of that region.
We know that she did play some gigs outside the church, including one at the local community theater. Piano players, being in limited quantities back then (and now), it’s almost certain she crossed paths and traded licks with some of the local barrelhouse pounders.
However, she didn’t just absorb the rhythms of the barrelhouse players and change the lyrics, Arizona Dranes was, in fact, classically trained in both voice and piano.
Unlike many recordings of blues singers from that time period, her words are clear, her enunciation and phrasing exact.
…And then there’s her playing.
Here are some random notes I took while listening to this amazing collection.
“He is My Story” – At first it sounds a bit corny, like something from an old western movie, the kind of song Debbie Reynolds would be belting out in a saloon full of drunken cowpunchers. Actually the melody line reminds me of “Sidewalks of New York.”
Her voice is shrill and full of excitement, however, as mentioned above, her diction is flawless, she even rolls her “r’s” (think Chuck Berry singing “Roll Over Beethoven”). Meanwhile, listen to her left hand!!!
Command and attitude.
“Crucifixion” – Lord Have Mercy!
After seven listenings, I heard:
At 0:15 – A clear left-hand boogie figure
At 1:01 – A left-hand run with a distinct Art Tatum pattern to it.
It’s a simple instrumental, but her variations are simply astonishing. I hear runs and patterns played by such boogie pioneers as Pinetop Perkins and Little Brother Montgomery.
Did they follow her?
Did she pick it up from them?
At thirteen seconds into the song, I hear a phrase directly quoted from “Vicksburg Blues” by Little Brother Montgomery, which won’t be actually recorded for another couple of years.
At 1:20 – There’s a Moon Mullican run on the right hand. Considering the fact that Mullican, a white piano player from Houston, famous in the fifties, openly acknowledged his debt to the barrelhouse players from North Texas, it begins to add up.
She plays an early form of that “crunch” chord (dominant 7th flat 9), that’s the virtual calling card of Jerry Lee’s manic style.
“The Lamb’s Blood Has Washed Me Clean”
Whoa!! There’s a part of the intro to “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie.”
“Going Home on the Morning Train”
One of my favorite gospel songs.
Best version is by June Cheeks and The Sensational Nightingales. Cheeks would close shows with it to intimidate groups like Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers.
At 2:40 she sings: “If I could, you know I surely would…” This line will be utilized nearly thirty years later in “Mary Don’t You Weep” by the Swan Silvertones, the song which also features the line “I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in me.”
“My Soul is A Witness for the Lord”
What the –?
The melody line is repetitive phrase also used as the basis for the bawdy “The Dirty Dozens.”
“The Dirty Dozens” is one blues’ first X-rated piano tunes. Over the years it morphed into dozens of other nasty tunes.
“Stick Out Your Can”
“Dirty Mother Fuyer”
And of course:
It reappears in toasts like “Stagger Lee” and “Dolemite,” and lately has been called the granddaddy of rap and hip-hop.
“Sweet Heaven Is My Home”
More thundering bass runs on the piano.
I recognize the melody line. It’s that church camp favorite “Do Lord.”
The chord structure also follows the form of “This Little Light of Mine.”
Her left hand incorporates figures I’ve heard in ragtime, stride, boogie, honky tonk, and of course gospel, and some I’ve even never heard before.
Whenever my circuits get busier than a brothel with bunk beds from music like this, I wonder, “Why, if it’s all that great, and so influential, haven’t I heard it before.
There are lots of different reasons and some of them not so obvious, and/or correct.
Quite often it’s due to circumstances like the changing of the guard at the record company, a shortage of raw materials, musicians strikes, unexpected events in the life of the performer, who knows.
However, when I realize that in those sixteen selections released in 1926, I’ve heard the first-known recorded examples of piano figures, rhythms and, melodies adopted by everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Mahalia Jackson and Hank Williams to Ice T, and also predating such genre-defining pioneers as Thomas Dorsey and Robert Johnson by almost a decade, the obvious answer is:
While writing this piece I made a mental note to call the friend who had first turned me on to Ms. Dranes.
For the last quarter century, along with respect for each other’s musical tastes and opinions, we have maintained a close friendship and mutual admiration society. Some of my best times on stage were with her, playing everywhere from South Carolina to Oslo from Ottawa to Harrisonburg, Virginia.
We taught kids in Canada and had serious laughs on one of the earliest blues cruises aboard the Regal Princess.
Unfortunately, before I could call, I found out at four o’clock this afternoon, that earlier that day, she’d left for her gig at the Club Eternal.
She leaves the same week I finally write about Arizona Dranes.
…And they wonder why folks like me and her fell in love with a music based on life’s ironies…
Next week, I’ll tell you a couple of stories about me and my friend, Ann Rabson.
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is a weekly columnist at BluesWax. Each week he finds artists, albums, and music that you should know about. He also plays piano. His radio show, Rev. Billy’s Rhythm Revival, is available in podcast. To hear the latest, go to Rev. Billy C. Wirtz’ page on Facebook and look for the link.
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