"Juanita" Arizona Dranes was born in Dallas, Texas around 1905. Born blind, Dranes is believed to have been of Mexican and African-American heritage, and was raised in the Church of God in Christ in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Dranes' enthusiastic shouting and piano playing were so dynamic that they practically recommended themselves, and she was only about 20 years of age when a Fort Worth-based minister, Samuel Crouch, suggested to Okeh talent scout Richard M. Jones that Dranes be given a recording test. Blues singer Sara Martin agreed to travel to Fort Worth and help the blind Dranes make it to Chicago for her test on June 17, 1926. It was so successful that the six records resulting from it were all issued. Arizona Dranes was used to working with a chorus, and on two titles, "John Said He Saw a Number" and "My Soul Is a Witness for the Lord," Richard M. Jones and Sara Martin stepped in to fulfill this role. Dranes' last two selections of June 17, 1926 can best be described as sanctified barrelhouse piano solos, practically unique in the 1920s. Yet they are representative of a sound and style within gospel piano playing that may be heard yet today.
Dranes returned to Chicago on November 15, 1926, this time partnered with Rev. Ford Washington McGee and His Jubilee Choir. The four numbers recorded that day proved the first of thirteen recording sessions for McGee who, as Rev. F.W. McGee, would become a popular recording artist for Victor, and may have recorded in the 1940s with the Library of Congress. McGee owed this honor to Dranes, who set up the date with Okeh. It is believed that Arizona Dranes is the pianist on three sides made backing up gospel singer Jessie May Hill for Okeh on May 5, 1928 and two others with McGee the following day. On July 3, 1928 Dranes led a chorus of her own on six sides, of which two were withheld; these would be her last recordings under her own name. Dranes was likely the pianist, and possibly the coordinator, of two Columbia sessions held in Dallas in December 1928 with the Texas Jubilee Singers and the Rev. Joe Lenley. Although Dranes maintained contact with Columbia/Okeh scouts for at least a year afterward, Dranes would never record again herself.
Arizona Dranes is credited by some experts to have invented the "barrelhouse," ragtime-derived style of gospel accompaniment, and at this point in time there is no known evidence to the contrary. Prior to Dranes, musical accompaniment in African-American gospel is practically unknown, as before 1920 it was only considered appropriate to present sanctified music in an a cappella setting. From 1928 forward, Dranes remained a top-billed artist in black gospel circles, and somewhere along the line she relocated from Texas to Chicago. Dranes' latest-known advertising places her in Cleveland in 1947; after that Arizona Dranes literally disappears from historical mention, but is believed to have died around 1960. Listening to such riveting performances as "Lamb's Blood Has Washed Me Clean," "Crucifixion" and "I'll Go Where You Want Me to Go" one can't imagine being in Dranes' presence without being swept up in the sheer excitement and power of her performances. Although the name Arizona Dranes is almost totally unknown to today's general public, the style of music she is said to have pioneered continues in sanctified churches literally everywhere; such was her vast and important impact on American music. ~ Uncle Dave Lewis