NASHVILLE, TN — One fateful day in 1953, Nashville-area radio producer Joe Calloway visited Tennessee State Prison to prep a broadcast from the fearsome institution.
Instead of the grunts, crashes, and even worse cacophonies Calloway dreaded having to work around for the air, though, he was stunned to hear music — sweet, harmonious music — echoing up from a cellblock.
The sounds came from the Prisonaires, a vocal quintet of inmates led by Johnny Bragg, 27, who had been locked up at that point for 10 years on six charges of rape.
He formed the group after meeting gospel singers William Steward and Ed Thuman, each of whom was doing a 99-year stretch for murder. The more recently convicted John Drue, Jr., (in for three on a larceny rap) and Marcell Sanders (doing one-to-five for involuntary manslaughter) filled out the core five.
After inquiring about the Prisonaires, Calloway rushed to get them on the radio. The group sang on the air to huge acclaim and became shining examples of Governor Frank G. Clement’s controversial reform programs.
During that broadcast, the Prisonaires’ voices caught the ear of an up-and-coming local record business entrepreneur named Sam Phillips.
Appealing to the governor in the summer of ’53, Phillips arranged to have the Prisonaires transported under near-military guard to his fledgling Sun Records studio in Memphis. Once there, the group laid down “Just Walkin’ in the Rain,” a beautifully heartbreaking track cowritten by Johnny Bragg and another inmate.The record rapidly sold 50,000 copies. In 1956, the song itself became an international smash when it was covered by proto-rock-star Johnnie Ray.
Based on the song’s success, the Prisonaires routinely received day passes to perform around their home state. The governor himself frequently hosted the group for music nights at his mansion.
“Just Walkin’ in the Rain” also prompted another Tennessee musician to take notice. In his book Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, author Peter Guralnick writes:
“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.”
Governor Clement commuted Johnny Bragg’s sentence in 1959, after which he continued writing and recording songs. Unfortunately, Bragg violated his parole fairly quickly and remained in and out of jail until 1977. He died of cancer in 2004 at 79.
More recently, new interest has arisen in the Prisonaires by way of the CMT TV series Sun Records. Former Hootie and the Blowfish frontman, present country superstar, and Grand Ole Opry member Darius Rucker portrays Johnny Bragg on the series. Here’s hoping all this leads to a full-blown Prisonaires revival.
Main photo: The Prisonaires, “Just Walkin’ in the Rain”/detail from record cover image