1-CD with 28-page booklet, 26 tracks. Playing time approx. 67 mns.
The only major Sun vocal group was a good one. The Prisonaires were five inmates of Tennessee State Penitentiary led by the incredible tenor of Johnny Bragg. This is the first and only complete edition of their work (1953 – 1955), including the original version of Just Walkin' In The Rain (never reissued on CD or LP to this point, an alternate version was always used) as well as harmony classics like
That Chick's Too Young To Fry, Softly And Tenderly, A Prisoner's Prayer, Don't Say Tomorrow, and Rockin' Horse. All told, 26 tracks and an incredible booklet featuring photos from Johnny Bragg's personal album.
Early in the morning of June 1, 1953 a prison bus from the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville rumbled down old Highway 70 towards Memphis. It held five convicts, an armed guard and a trusty. The five convicts had formed themselves into a singing group called 'The Prisonaires', and they were getting unaccustomed exposure to the outside world. "Gee look at that funny cemetery," said lead singer Johnny Bragg, as they passed an empty drive-in movie theatre.
At 10:30am, they grouped themselves around a microphone at the Sun Records studio, at the junction of Union and Marshall Avenues in Memphis. The guard and the trusty went next door to Taylor's Restaurant, and the group tried to get a recording balance for Sun Records' owner, Sam Phillips. They sang in the sweet close harmony style for which Phillips had little affection, so he called over to local bottling and vending don, Drew Canale, and asked if his houseboy, Joe Hill Louis, could come down and sit in on guitar. Louis's music was at the polar op-posite extreme of black music: raw, unsophisticated and bluesy. "You guys are good," said Louis to Bragg, "but you've got to stick together." Bragg replied that, with three of the group in for 99 years, there was not much chance of doing otherwise.
They worked on two songs until 8:30pm. Louis gave a hard, bluesy edge to one of the songs, Baby Please - for which he was paid $10.00, but the group per-suaded Phillips to make Louis sit out the other song, Just Walking In The Rain. Phillips saw potential in Baby Please, but Bragg and the other group members knew that Just Walking In The Rain held something special. They didn't want its poignancy destroyed by Louis's rough-hewn guitar licks.
That much we know for certain. Most of it was reported the next day by Clark Porteous in the 'Memphis Commercial Appeal'. Porteous made no mention of another visitor to the session, whom Bragg remembers clearly. "I had problems with my phrasing," recalled Bragg, "and this kid with dirty clothes was standing around. He said, 1 can he' p him, Mr. Phillips,' and Sam got mad. He said, 'Boy, didn' t I tell you to stay outta here. These men are prisoners. You could get me in a mess of trouble'. I said, 'Mr. Phillips, ain't nobody been able to help me get my wording right yet, why don't you let him try' . Sam got disgusted, but he said OK. The other guys went next door and we worked on it some, and when they came back, we got it on the first cut."
According to Bragg, that visitor, was Elvis Presley. If so, it means he was hang-ing around the studio a year before his first record was cut, which invites a minor re-write of history. True or not, though, the Prisonaires story bisects the Presley story at various odd tangents.
Bragg was indisputably right about one thing. Just Walking In The Rain was the side to watch. To Phillips' surprise, it started breaking through in several major markets just weeks after release. National magazines latched onto the novelty slant, and the Prisonaires started to bask in their fifteen minutes of fame. Their story, as told at the time, and as subsequently recounted by Johnny Bragg (now the sole survivor of the group), goes as follows:
According to prison records, Bragg was a badass kid, born in Nashville on January 18, 1926, and jailed on May 8, 1943 on six counts of rape. According to Bragg, he was born on May 5, 1929 (the earlier date is his brother's birthdate, 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! 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 didyouwrong,John; "
Article properties: PRISONAIRES: Just Walkin' In The Rain (CD)
According to prison records, Johnny Bragg was a badass kid, born in Nashville on January 18, 1926, and jailed on May 8th, 1943 on six counts of rape. According to Bragg, he was born on May 5, 1929 (the earlier date is his brother's birthdate, 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 Stewart, Clarence Moore and another whom Bragg recalled only as Sam. They argued, and Bragg formed another group, the Prisonaires. He recruited 36 year-old Thurman (99 years for murder) as manager, and 30 year-old Stewart (99 years for murder) as music director. Stewart, who also played guitar, had been inside since his seventeenth birthday. They were joined in the early '50s by John Drue (3 years for larceny), and Marcell Sanders (1 to 5 years for involuntary manslaughter).
We recount in the song notes how the Prisonaires came to be heard outside the prison walls, and how their first record, Just Walkin' In The Rain, became an unaccountable hit. After that, the sales of the Prisonaires' next three records dipped sharply. A fifth single was scheduled for release in the fall of 1954, but was never shipped. The group broke up. Drue and Sanders were released, followed by Stewart and Thurman. Paroling Thurman excited some controversy in the local press, "The people of Tennessee can only hope that the killers still behind bars are non singers," editorialized the Nashville Tennessean on April 29, 1955. Bragg re-formed the Prisonaires as the Marigolds with a new set of faces including Bobby Hebb's brother, Hal. Signed to Excello/Nashboro Records, they cut four singles.
Johnny Bragg was finally released in 1959, and recorded for Decca Records in Nashville while joining Robert Riley (the cowriter of Just Walkin' In The Rain) at Tree Music. He was back behind bars again the following year for robbery and attempted murder, charges that Bragg asserts were set-up. "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 Bragg had indeed been indicted on charges of stealing $2.50, but that he had done so at gunpoint, whereupon two white women identified him as the man who had tried to attack them. One of the charges finally stuck, and Bragg went back inside in May 1960. In March 1961, Bragg was visited by Elvis Presley, confirming Bragg's lifelong contention that he met Presley at Sun. "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. Upon his re-release seven years later, Bragg formed Elbejay Records in partnership with Raymond Ligon and Cyril Jackson, and recorded three singles.
Bragg's troubles didn't end upon his re-release, though. He was returned to prison for armed robbery of a liquor store and attempted murder of a security guard, and released on parole for the third time when the death of his wife left him a single parent. With his faith and health still more-or-less intact, he fared better than the other Prisonaires, all of whom died in varying degrees of indigence. The saddest case was that of William Stewart who died of alcohol poisoning in a cheap motel room in Florida.
The Prisonaires gained their moment of fame as a novelty act, but, as their work on this set and on Bear Family's supplementary volumes of Prisonaires and Johnny Bragg recordings, attests they easily transcended tawdry novelty appeal. Bragg's stilling lead tenor ranks alongside that of his idol, Bill Kenny of the Inkspots. The music they cut for Sun was quite unlike anything else on the label or anything else heard at that time. Sophisticated and polished, it lacked the rough edges that Sam Phillips cherished as much as it lacked the greasy, urban sound of then-contemporary doo-wop. The Prisonaires' sounds harked back to the 1940s, in other words the music that played when they went inside. Doo wop was the sound of teenagers singing of idealized love, cars, and hoped-for sexual encounters. On no level could the Prisonaires identify. But on Just Walking In The Rain Johnny Bragg laid aside the darkness within him and transcended fashion to produce one hauntingly beautiful performance.