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, who had been a penitentiary inmate since 1943 when, at the age of 17, he was convicted of six charges of rape. The Prisonaires were formed when Bragg joined up with two prison gospel singers, Ed Thurman and William Stewart (each of whom was doing 99 years for murder), and two new penitentiary arrivals, John Drue Jr. (three years for larceny) and Marcell Sanders (one-to-five for involuntary manslaughter).
The Prisonaires were discovered by the radio producer Joe Calloway, who heard them singing while preparing a news broadcast from the prison. He arranged for the group to perform on the radio, a performance which was eventually brought to the attention of Sam Phillips of Sun Records.
Sam arranged for the group to be 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.
Their success was such that they were allowed out on day passes to tour throughout the state of Tennessee. The band became favorites of the state's governor, Frank G. Clement, and frequently performed at his mansion.
The group's legacy was confirmed when "Just Walkin' in the Rain", written by Bragg, was recorded by Johnnie Ray.
They gradually became high-status figures in Tennessee, and never betrayed the trust placed in them by trying to escape their guards on their numerous forays outside the prison. A second single followed in August 1953, the highly spiritual “My God Is Real”, followed by “I Know” and its autobiographical b-side, “A Prisoner’s Prayer”. While recording it they made the acquaintance of Elvis Presley, who later visited them in prison.
When some of his colleagues had become eligible for parole, Bragg formed a new version of the band titled the Sunbeams with Thurman, Stewart, Drue, Hal Hebb (d. 1963), Willy Wilson, and pianist Henry “Dishrag” Jones.
This line-up lasted only until 1955 when Alfred Brooks replaced a pardoned Stewart and the group was retitled the Marigolds. They had a number 8 R&B chart success with “Rollin’ Stone” before changing their name to the Solotones for another single release, “Pork And Beans”.
By 1956 Bragg had been released and he recorded a series of singles under his own name for Decca Records. He was then arrested for “parole violation” in 1960 and his penalty was to return to prison for an incredible six and a half years. Bragg put together another version of the Prisonaires with new inmates, but they never recorded again.
On release, he recorded a number of singles for independent labels before finding work in a cemetery. He returned to prison for a third time at the end of the 60s and finally left prison for good in August 1977. Bragg continued to receive royalties for “Just Walkin’ In The Rain’ but was now content to sing only in church. Read More
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