Who was/is The Prisonaires ? - CDs, Vinyl LPs, DVD and more
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.
PRISONAIRES Just Walkin' In The Rain
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