THE PRISONAIRES - Johnny Bragg, 27-years-old from Nashville, was the lead singer in the Prisonaires, and convicted on
6 counts of rape, and sentenced 594 years in prison. Other members of the group are, John E. Drue, 29 years-old from Lebanon, lead tenor vocal, sentenced 3 years for larceny; Marcel Sanders, 29-years-old from Chattanooga,
bass vocal, sentenced 1 to 5 years for involuntary manslaughter; 30-year-old Williams Steward, baritone vocal and guitar who has been imprisoned since he was 17 years old, got to crying, his mother was
crying, because he was sentenced 99 years for murder; and Edward L. Thurman, 36-years-old from Nashville, tenor vocal, also sentenced 99 years for murder. The group was made up of inmates from the Tennessee State Penitentiary.
They wrote and recorded for Sun Records. According to prison records, Johnny Bragg was a bastard kid, born in Nashville, Tennessee on January 18, 1926, and jailed on May 8, 1943 on six counts
According to Bragg, he was born on May, 1929 (the earlier date is his brother's birth date, which he used because the City had no trace of his own birth), and the prison term was the result of a frame-up and
terrible misunderstanding. "My troubles started when I was twelve years old", said Bragg cagily. "My friend was dating my girlfriend,
we got to fighting, and she said I tried to rape her. While they had me, they put all these unsolved cases on me, told the peoples I was the one. Later some of them said they was wrong, and wanted to clear their consciences before they died. A lady goes to my church, and she shakes her head and says, 'We sure
did you wrong, John'".
Once inside, Bragg joined a gospel group with Ed Thurman, William Steward, Clarence Moore and another whom Bragg recalls only as 'Sam'. They subsequently argued,
and Bragg formed another group called the Prisonaires. He later brought in 36 year-old Thurman (99 years for murder)
as manager, and 30 year-old Steward (99 years for murder) as music director. Guitarist Steward had a convict since his seventeenth birthday. They were joined in the early 1950s by John Drue (3 years for larceny), and Marcel Sanders (1 to 5 years for involuntary manslaughter). Incidentally, it appears as though Steward was not
the same William Steward who recorded country blues for Sun. The William "Talking Boy" Steward tapes were recorded
in 1951, and Bragg recalls that William Steward never played country blues.
It is unclear how the Prisonaires came to be heard outside the prison walls. A contemporary report stated that Joe Calloway of
WSIX, Nashville, was at the prison for a newscast, heard the group and arranged for them to have a regular show on WSIX, and on the local black station, WSOK. Calloway's approach came as a wind of change was blowing through the prison. Previously known as 'Swafford's Graveyard' after the previous warden, the jail was now being managed by James Edwards, a friend of Governor Frank Clement, who wanted to prepare the inmates for their return to society.
According to Johnny Bragg, he had already made contact with the outside world - in particular with hillbilly singers, who would come to the penitentiary to buy songs. "Word go around there was a nigger who could write any kind of songs", said Bragg.
"Hank Williams come out there, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Little Jimmie Dickens... they all come". Among the songs that
Bragg claims to have sold was "Your Cheatin' Heart", and it is at least possible that Williams bought the genesis of the song from Bragg, as he bought other songs that he made uniquely his own. One of those who came to the prison looking for copyrights was Red Wortham, owner of Wortham Music.
Johnny Bragg says that Wortham came to buy songs from him; according to the 'Commercial Appeal' report, Wortham came to the prison to check out a hillbilly songwriter (possible Clarence "Two Hats" McKeel who later wrote songs for Hugh X.
Lewis and others, and helped write the lead-sheet for "Just Walking In The Rain"), but was asked to listen to the
Not regarding himself a judge of rhythm and blues
acts, Wortham sent a tape of the Prisonaires made at WSIX to his cousin, Jim Bulleit. By that point, Bulleit had a long career in the Nashville music business - as a partner in Bullet Records, as manager of his own labels, and representative of others. Early in 1953 he bought himself a minority holding
in Sun Records, and one of his first moves was to forward Wortham's tape to Sam Phillips with the recommendation that
the group be signed. That tape is probably the one that contains earlier versions of "Just Walking In The Rain" and "Baby Please", together with the Louis Jordan tune "That Chick's Too Young To Fry". The songs were tapes over a WSIX radio show, "Youth On Parade", starring Pat Boone.
Johnny Bragg recalled that he had written "Just Walking In The Rain" (SUN 186) in conjunction with Robert Riley, an inmate who couldn't sing. They were walking to the prison laundry, when Bragg said, "Here we are walking in the rain. I wonder
what the little girls are doing?". Riley said it sounded like a good song title, and they quickly worked up the song.
Bulleit evidently persuaded Phillips to record the group, while Wortham retained the music publishing rights. Sam Phillips released "Just Walking In The Rain" on July 8, 1953. On July 28, Jud Phillips went to Nashville to meet Bulleit and the Prisonaires.
Jud had joined Sun a few months earlier, and was learning the fine art of record promotion and distribution. "They
boys (Prisonaires) are getting from 10 to 25 letters a day from all over the country", wrote Jud. "They plan to bring all of them to you when they come over. They make me think of a bunch of baby birds. They are fine boys all of them. I get great joy out of helping people like that... I know you do too".
Phillips also got great joy from watching the orders roll in. Ebony magazine reported
that "Just Walkin' In The Rain" sold almost a quarter of a million copies, and heaped praise on the Sun label. If
Sam Phillips was able to press 50,000 of this song he was lucky, but the publicity was important to Sun.
The Prisonaires' lead singer, Johnny Bragg, told a number of reporters that Elvis Presley helped with the lyrics to "Just Walkin' In The Rain". Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins, in Good Rockin' Tonight, published in 1991, report Braggs' claim that Elvis Presley was
in the studio when the Prisonaires recorded "Just Walkin' In The Rain". It is unlikely that Elvis Presley was hanging
around Sun Records during the Prisonaires recording sessions. "It was hard to keep Elvis Presley from the studio", Marcus Van Story remembered. "He loved the Prisonaires gospel sound". Despite this, Bragg's claim remains unsubstantiated. "I don't remember Elvis watching the Prisonaires record", Ronald Smith commented.
The Prisonaires were nevertheless an important influence upon both Elvis Presley and Sam Phillips. Elvis Presley was
mesmerized by Bragg's vocals, and Sam Phillips was intrigued by the crossover sound the Prisonaires produced.
The group making personal appearances on day passes throughout the state, and - with considerable complication - outside the state. They were held up by warden James Edwards(*) and Governor Clement as shining examples of rehabilitation. "The hopes of tomorrow rather than the mistakes of yesterday", gushed Clement, who brought the group to the governor's mansion, and bought William Steward a new guitar. His enthusiasm earned him the unissued paean "What About Frank Clement (A Mighty, Mighty Man)", which had "Parole - Please" written all over it.
Sam Phillips found it impossible to continue the Prisonaires' success, however. As the follow-up record to "Just Walkin' In The Rain" Phillips selected "Softly And Tenderly" (SUN 189). Billboard reviewed this release enthusiastically, but it failed
to sell in large numbers. Sun Records then released two more pop Prisonaires records before the group faded into obscurity.
There remain a number of unreleased Prisonaires recording, years later, released by Bear Family Records in Germany.
Around early 1955, the group started breaking up. Drue and Sanders were released, followed by Steward and Thurman. Surprisingly, Thurman's release excited some controversy in the local press, "The people of Tennessee can only hope that the killers still behind bars are non singers", said the editorial in the Nashville Tennessean on April 29, 1955. Bragg re-formed the Prisonaires as the Marigolds with a new set of
faces including Hal Hebb (Bobby Hebb's brother).
Unknown to Bragg, though, events were taking place that would help to secure his future once he got outside. In May 1954, Joe Johnson (later
president of Challence Records, then working for Gene Autry's publishing company, Golden West Melodies) arranged for Autry to acquire the copyright of "Just Walking In The Rain" from Red Wortham, shortly after, Autry recorded a dismal version for Columbia, but Don Law, Columbia's head of country Artist and Repertoire, saw something in the song, and when he was in New York he ran into Mitch Miller who was scouting songs for a Johnny Ray session. Ray recorded "Just
Walking In The Rain" on June 29, 1956 in his usual petulant style, and it provide to be his commercial rebirth after a year
or two in the wilderness.
Johnny Bragg claims to have had a premonition
of Ray's recording, but he had no premonition of the vast amount of money it would bring him. "The first cheque was for $1400",
recalls Bragg, "and I told the warden to go ahead and put the cheque in the commissary so I could buy some candy and so on. I thought the amount was $14.00! The next cheque was for $7500". Johnny Bragg received and invitation to the Annual BMI Awards dinner in New York for December 3, 1956. The invitation specified that he could
bring a guest, who - had he gone - would probably have been an armed guard.
By this point, Johnny Bragg was far less keen to sell compositions. He successfully pitched a few of his songs, including
"Don't Bug Me Baby", recorded by Milton Allen for RCA in 1957 (and reissued on Bear Family BFX 15357). Ernie Young, owner of Ernie's record Mart and Excello/Nashboro Records, signed the Marigolds and they cut four singles, including "Two Stranger", first recorded by the Prisonaires at Sun. At roughly the same time, another unissued Prisonaires song, "Don't Say Tomorrow" was cut by the Hollyhocks on Nasco Records. Detail hounds may care to note that the Marigolds also cut an unreleased
version of the song.
Johnny Bragg was finally released from prison in 1959, and he started recording for Decca Records in Nashville and writing for Tree Music. However, he was back behind
bars again the following year for robbery and attempted murder, charges that Bragg asserts were setup. "A man whose
name I can't say, said 'If that Bible totin' governor turns that nigger loose, I'll get him back inside even if I have to frame him", said Bragg darkly. "They charged me on three counts and finally got me on a charge of stealing $2.50 - and I had all kinds of money. It was pitiful". UPI reported that Johnny Bragg had indeed been
indicted on harges of stealing $2.50, but that he had done so at gunpoint, whereupon two other white women identified him as the
man who had tried to attack them. One of the charges finally stuck, and Johnny Bragg went back inside in May 1960.
A few months later, the Elvis Presley connection had its final postscript. Bragg was visited by Elvis Presley, who had just returned from West-Germany. "He asked repeatedly", said Bragg, "Did I need a lawyer, was there anything he could do for me". Needing
help so bad he could taste it, Bragg nevertheless declined. "They said if I didn't take the case to the Supreme Court,
they'd get me out in nine months", asserted Brag, "but I didn't get out in nine months, and that messed me up a little bit".
An article in the local press in Nashville reads: ELVIS VISITS PRISON. En route home to Memphis after Wednesday's visit to the State Legislature, singer-actor Elvis Presley stopped
for approximately 45 minutes at the State Prison. He toured the various workshops, dining hall, and death-house, and talked briefly with song-writer Johnny Bragg, who is doing time for a parole violation. "It was Elvis' idea to drive by the penitentiary", one of his traveling companions - buddy-guard - said. "He has
known Bragg from back when he was starting out as an entertainer; scrounging for a living".
Upon his re-release seven years later, Johnny Bragg formed Elbejay Records in partnership with Raymond Ligon and
Cyril Jackson, and recorded three singles for them.
By his account, he forgave Red Wortham for cheating the Prisonaires out of publishing royalties on "Just Walking In The Rain", and brought him in as Artist and Repertoire
manager at Elbejay Records.
Johnny Bragg's troubles didn't end upon his re-release, though. He was returned to prison for shoplifting, and released on parole (for the third time) following
the death of his wife, leaving him a single parent. With his faith and his health still more-or-less, intact, though, he
has done better than the other members of the Prisonaires. They all died in varying degrees of poverty or distress. The saddest case was that of William Steward who died of alcohol poisoning in a cheap motel room in Florida. Only Robert Riley manager to eke a
more-or-less successful career in the music business.
Before his death he became a contracted writer at Three Music and cranked out country-soul songs for Nashville-based labels
such as Dial, Todd and Sound Stage Seven.
The Prisonaires gained
their moment of fame as a novelty act, but, as his music proves convincingly, their work transcends more novelty appeal. Johnny Bragg had a stilling lead tenor that ranks alongside that of his idol, Bill Kenny of the Inkspots. The music they cut for Sun Records was quite unlike anything else on the label - sophisticated
and urbane, largely lacking the raw edge that Sam Phillips cherished. Certainly, there were some performances that
missed the mark, but there's also "Just Walking In The Rain", a classic by any criterion.
There is fierce pride in Johnny Bragg - evident in the way he spits out the world "Penitentiary". There is also darkness
within him, which he laid aside to produce some hauntingly beautiful music.
Original Sun Recordings licensed from Sun Entertainment, Inc.
© - 706 UNION AVENUE SESSIONS - ©