The story of the Prisonaires is an unusual one. They had four strikes against them: they were poor, uneducated, imprisoned and black. They were also largely innocent of their crimes. However, they sure could sing and for a year or so they were celebrities. Though their fame didn’t last long, their contribution to the foundation of modern R&B is undeniable.

The Prisonaires were a quintet confined to the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville. Convicted of crimes ranging from murder to larceny to six counts of rape, they were serving a combined total of some 850 years. Johnny Bragg, the lead singer, accounted for 594 (six 99-year sentences) of their aggregate years. By 1943, the year that Bragg was incarcerated, the group consisted of Bragg on lead, John Drue as first tenor, Ed Thurman as second tenor, William Stewart singing baritone and playing guitar and Marcell Sanders on bass. The talented quintet sang close harmony in the style of the Ink Spots. Their repertoire included blues, hillbilly, spiritual and pop songs. They would never have had the chance to perform outside the prison walls had it not been for the election of 32-year old Frank Clement as Governor of Tennessee. Clement, a liberal Democrat, took office in January 1953 and appointed his boyhood friend, James Edwards, as warden of the Penitentiary with an enlightened plan to connect prisoners with their local community, to encourage rehabilitation as much as punish- ment, and to improve the prison’s image.

Warden Edwards arranged for the group to perform at various civic functions, under armed guard. Within a matter of weeks they had regular spots on two Nashville radio stations, WSIX and WSOK, where they were heard by record man Red Wortham who got permission to record them at the prison. Sam Phillips of Sun Records was one of the people who heard the tape and he was struck by the beauty of Johnny Bragg’s pure tenor voice. Phillips persuaded governor Clement to let him record the group at his studio in Memphis.

The centerpiece of the session (on June 1, 1953) was a song called “Just Walkin’ In the Rain”, written by Bragg with the help of Robert Riley, a fellow inmate but not a member of the group. Featuring only a soft and simple guitar accompaniment, it became the A-side of the Prisonaires’ first single (Sun 186), released in July. It took off immediately, partly due to the novelty appeal of the group, cleverly exploited by Phillips. The Prisonaires received plenty of publicity and in less than a year they left the prison grounds 75 times to perform. Just how many copies of “Just Walkin’ In the Rain” were sold is not quite clear. Ebony magazine of November 1953 mentioned a number of 225,000, but according to Peter Guralnick in his recent Sam Phillips biography, sales stalled at 30,000. In any case, it was much less than the number that Johnnie Ray sold in 1956 when he recorded the song and took it to # 2 on the Billboard pop charts and # 1 in the UK.

The follow-up was “Softly and Tenderly”/“My God Is Real”, two gospel numbers. “Softly and Tenderly”, the uptempo side, was a Christian hymn from 1880 which has been recorded by countless artists, including the Million Dollar Quartet and Johnny Cash. Ike Turner’s piano intro was derived from his intro on “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston. But the Prisonaires version was probably too lively for the average gospel fan and bombed completely. Only six weeks later, Sam Phillips released the third single by the group, “A Prisoner’s Prayer”/“I Know”, but this didn’t sell either. After a fourth Sun single in mid-1954, again with poor sales, Phillips ended his affiliation with the Prisonaires. They were drawing on traditions that were alien to Phillips, who recorded little else in the close-harmony style, either sacred or secular.

After the Sun period, two members of the Prisonaires were paroled and Bragg formed a new group called the Marigolds. They recorded four singles for Excello in 1955-56, of which the first one, “Rollin’ Stone” (a calypso-styled song written by Robert Riley) reached # 8 on the R&B charts. It was covered by the Cadets and the Fontane Sisters (# 13 pop).

These were the group’s final recordings. Frank Clement pardoned Johnny Bragg in 1959. Bragg had two solo releases on Decca that year, but he soon found himself back in trouble. Jailed again in 1960 (unjustly), he was visited by Elvis Presley (a long time fan), who offered him help, which Bragg declined. He was eventually released in 1967, had two more releases on Elbejay in 1969 and died of cancer in 2004, aged 78.

More info :

Obituary Johnny Bragg :

Book :
Jay Warner, Just Walkin' In the Rain : The True Story of the Prisonaires. Los Angeles : Renaissance Books, 2001. 251 pages.

CD : The Prisonaires, Just Walkin’ In the Rain (Bear Family BCD 15523). 25 tracks, complete Sun recordings. Released 1990. Liner notes by Colin Escott.

Acknowledgements : Jay Warner, Peter Guralnick, Colin Escott & Martin Hawkins.

YouTube :
Just Walkin’ in the Rain : Baby Please : Softly and Tenderly : Don’t Say Tomorrow : That Chick’s Too Young To Fry : Surleen : What About Frank Clement : Rollin’ Stone (Marigolds) : Documentary (11 minutes) :

Dik, January 2016

These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
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