Google+ Followers

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Johnny Bragg born 18 January 1926

The Prisonaires were an African American doo-wop group whose hit "Just Walkin' in the Rain" was released on Sun Records in 1953, while the group was incarcerated in the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville.  

The group was led by Johnny Bragg, (born John Henry Bragg, 18 January, 1926) who had been a penitentiary inmate since 1943 when, at the age of 17, he was convicted of six charges of rape. 

A native of Nashville, he was blind from the time of his birth in 1926. Quite unexpectedly, he began to see when he was six years old and he grew up a wild child, fighting and killing chickens for sport. When he was 14, he served a month's confinement for riding in a stolen car. His life changed forever in 1943 when he caught his girlfriend with his best friend. The naked girl fought with Bragg and, in order to explain her bruises, she accused Bragg of raping her. Her mother rang the police, who beat him until he signed a confession. Then they paraded rape victims in front of him and six claimed that Bragg had raped them. Meanwhile, Bragg's girlfriend had retracted her statement. 

A singer since childhood, Bragg had joined a prison gospel quintet soon after his incarceration, but after a falling out, Bragg took two of its singers, Ed Thurman and William Stewart, each of whom were doing 99 years for murder, and hooked up with recent penitentiary arrivals John Drue (three years for larceny) and Marcell Sanders (one-to-five for involuntary manslaughter), and the Prisonaires were born. 

They were discovered by radio producer Joe Calloway, who heard them singing while preparing a news broadcast from the prison. Calloway suggested to warden James Edwards that the group be allowed out to perform on the radio. Edwards, a liberal reform-minded warden who saw this as part of his strategy of rehabilitation, agreed. In the meantime, Bragg was busy selling songs to music publisher Red Wortham, who sent a tape of the Prisonaires' radio performance to Jim Bulliet, a minority shareholder in Sun Records.

Bulliet sent the tape to Phillips, and despite his initial reservations (Phillips was not a huge fan of the group's Ink Spots-style close harmony crooning), arranged to have the groups transported under armed guard to Memphis to record. A few weeks later, "Just Walkin' in the Rain" was released and quickly sold 50,000 copies, a small success that was not without long-term ramifications.

"It was the song that put Sun Records on the map, and very likely the item that captured the attention of Elvis Presley as he read about the studio, the label, and painstaking Sam Phillips," the biographer Peter Guralnick wrote in "Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley."
The attendant publicity was more than had been predicted, and soon warden Edwards was allowing the group out on day passes to tour throughout the state of
Tennessee. The band became favorites of the state's governor, Frank Clement, and frequently performed for assembled guests at the governor's mansion.
After breaking from Sun Records in 1954, Bragg renamed his group the Marigolds and recorded Riley's "Rollin' Stone" for the local Excello label. The Latin-flavored tune landed in the Top 10 of Billboard's R&B chart, giving Excello its first significant hit.
The group never had another hit, and within a year they were finished, the result of the rise of rock & roll and Phillips' preoccupation with a young singer from Tupelo, MS, named Presley. Clement pardoned Bragg in 1959, but the singer landed back in prison. In 1961, after Presley was discharged from the Army, he visited Bragg and offered to pay his legal bills, but Bragg declined.
Most of the Prisonaires had no careers outside of the prison with the notable exception of Bragg, who, despite remaining in jail off and on until 1977, recorded some marginal R&B and country for small labels in Nashville. He died on 1 September 2004 of cancer, at the Imperial Manor Convalescent Center in Madison, Tennessee. Stewart died of a drug overdose in a Florida motel in 1959, Sanders died in the late 1960s, Thurman was killed in an accident in 1973 and Drue died of cancer in 1977.

In an interview recounted in a 1999 article about the Prisonaires by John Dougan in American Music, Bragg said that the group was his fondest career memory. "I'm very proud of them, and I miss that. They're all gone now. That's something you can't forget," he said. 
(Info mainly edited from All Music Guide;; and www rocky52net)


boppinbob said...

For Only Believe – Prisonaires go here:

01 When The Saints Go Marching In
02 In The Garden
03 Bony Moronie
04 Suppertime
05 Caldonia
06 Gentle Hands
07 Just Walkin' In The Rain
08 The Boastin' Texan
09 Message From Prison Warden - Lynn Bomar
10 A Prisoner's Prayer
11 Only Believe
12 Senor Siskin
13 Rollin' Stone - Marigolds
14 Why Don't You - Marigolds
15 Don't Say Tomorrow - Marigolds
16 Rollin' Stone (unrel. alt. take) - Marigolds
17 Front Page Blues - Solotones
18 Pork And Beans - Solotones
19 Two Strangers - Solotones
20 Love You - Love You - Love You - Solotones
21 Juke Box Rock And Roll - Solotones
22 It's You Darling, It's You - Solotones
23 Baby Please (Sun unrel. alt. take 2)
24 What'll You Do Next (Sun Unreleased Alternate Take 2)
25 There Is Love In You (unrel. alt. take vers. 2)
26 Rockin' Horse (unrel. alt. take)
27 Two Strangers (unrel. alt. take)
28 Lucy, You Know I Want You

A big thank you to Jake @Vocal Group Harmony blog for the link.

Jake said...

You're welcome !