A Prisoner’s Song 

Legendary local R&B singer-songwriter’s story is finally captured in recent biography and reissue disc

Legendary local R&B singer-songwriter’s story is finally captured in recent biography and reissue disc

Johnny Bragg & the Prisonaires

The Johnny Bragg Story: Just Walkin’ in the Rain (Relentless)

Just Walkin’ in the Rain (Renaissance Books)

The life of Nashville vocalist Johnny Bragg was marked by early good fortune, then cruel tragedy. A stirring singer blessed with a commanding voice and masterful timing, his life was marred by repeated clashes with the law and several lengthy stints in prison. Still, Bragg would eventually form a fine vocal group behind bars, become a noted songwriter, and ultimately be pardoned, only to be rearrested and then released for good. Interest in Bragg and the musical groups he formed at Tennessee State Prison, chief among them the Prisonaires, was rekindled last year by his inclusion in a film on legendary record producer Sam Phillips. That special, which aired as part of the A&E network’s Biography series, discussed the impact of the Prisonaires and featured interview footage with a 74-year-old Bragg, who in the ’50s recorded for Phillips’ Sun label.

A book and a CD chronicling the life and times of Johnny Bragg were both released earlier this year. Just Walkin’ in the Rain, by music historian and song publisher Jay Warner, examines Bragg and his groups, recounts the Prisonaires’ rise, and illuminates the singer’s ties to Tennessee Gov. Frank Clement, who championed the Prisonaires as part of his effort to reform the Tennessee prison structure. Warner’s book also documents the numerous shady incidents for which Bragg was imprisoned. The companion disc, The Johnny Bragg Story: Just Walkin’ in the Rain, features 14 Prisonaires tunes, plus four cuts by two other groups Bragg was in, The Marigolds and The Solotones, along with four latter-day numbers he made as a solo vocalist.

Warner’s research presents a portrait of a talented and troubled singer whose life was in turmoil almost from the beginning. Bragg was born blind, then miraculously gained his sight at age 7. An early love of music and singing led him to listen closely to gospel, pop, and country on the radio. But his fortunes were forever altered when in 1943, at age 16, he was falsely accused of rape. He was eventually convicted of multiple rape charges (all ultimately proven false) and given six 99-year sentences. Sent to the Tennessee State Prison in 1944, right after his 17th birthday, Bragg never gave up singing. He discovered other prisoners equally interested in harmonizing and performing, and started composing tunes despite being unable to read or write.

When a young, newly elected Frank Clement became governor in 1952, he quickly became an advocate for Bragg and his prison group. Partly through his efforts, Joe Calloway, a radio reporter for Nashville station WSIX, came to the prison in 1953 to do a story on Bragg’s group and became an immediate fan. The Prisonaires subsequently found themselves given freedom to leave the prison for work engagements, appearing on WSIX and a local black station, WSOK. Eventually, they even got a chance to record for Sun, then a struggling independent label seeking a foothold in the R&B market. The group scored a hit with “Just Walkin’ in the Rain” in 1953, and Bragg gained a new friend in a young aspiring singer named Elvis Presley, who Warner says helped him with his diction during the Prisonaires’ first recording session. (The author admits that the Presley anecdote sounds as though it could easily be apocryphal, but he cites a 1977 interview with Sam Phillips’ brother, Jud, in which he confirms the story.)

Just Walkin’ in the Rain details many other crucial events while presenting some interesting, if totally undocumented, allegations. For instance, Bragg insists that Hank Williams Sr. got the idea for “Your Cheatin’ Heart” from him during a backstage conversation at the Tennessee State Prison before a concert in the early ’50s. Williams reportedly paid Bragg $5 for the song, but Warner admits there is no factual evidence to support the contention. The author adds that several country artists, among them Red Foley, Roy Acuff, and Ernest Tubb, reportedly conferred with Bragg about song ideas, but he doesn’t elaborate on specific concepts or tunes that they may have developed out of those conversations.

While the Prisonaires enjoyed some success in the ’50s, they never became a superstar group for obvious reasons: The roster constantly changed, due to members being released via pardon or parole. Meanwhile, Phillips got out of R&B and into rock ’n’ roll. The group tried making records using other identities, but the one major smash they needed always eluded them. Bragg would gain fame as a songwriter, largely due to the success of “Just Walkin’ in the Rain.” Johnnie Ray’s 1956 cover version peaked at No. 2 on the pop charts, and later renditions were recorded by the Ray Conniff Orchestra (who backed Johnnie Ray on his original hit) and by country singer Jim Reeves. In 1988, Bragg was honored by BMI, in recognition of the fact “Just Walkin’ in the Rain” had earned more than 1 million radio performances.

The singer was initially released from prison on Jan. 28, 1959, when Gov. Clement commuted the singer’s sentence as one of his final acts in office. But as the book’s last chapters detail, Bragg had a hard time staying out of trouble: He found himself back in prison again by 1960, convicted on another extremely questionable charge, this time for robbery. Imprisoned for seven more years, he formed another edition of the Prisonaires and tried to adapt to changing styles, before leaving the Tennessee State Prison again in 1967. He later found himself ensnared in legal difficulties and was sent back to the prison in 1977 on a parole violation. Finally, on Aug. 22, 1977, Johnny Bragg’s tenure behind bars ended forever.

The Prisonaires have been cited in several rock anthologies as a footnote or afterthought. But the new reissue disc finally gives Bragg and the group their due. The selections reveal that Bragg was a good R&B singer—and potentially a great gospel artist. “A Prisoner’s Prayer” and “Softly & Tenderly” have an earnestness and hypnotic clout lacking in much of the group’s secular material. Indeed, Bragg was at his best on either heartfelt love tunes or spiritual material. Jive numbers such as “Rockin’ Horse” and “That Chick’s Too Young to Fry” sound perfunctory and lifeless when compared to “Just Walkin’ in the Rain,” which decades later still has an evocative edge and ethereal quality.

The Prisonaires can’t really be considered an innovative ensemble, but nor were they a novelty—despite their unusual story. They could have been a fine gospel or R&B outfit, and under more normal circumstances, signed to a label with developmental and promotional resources, they might even have become stars. Instead, Bragg and his cohorts emerge on this disc as another example of erratic, at times exciting performers who in a small way helped change the course of American music. Warner’s invaluable book, meanwhile, shows that Johnny Bragg was repeatedly victimized by racial injustice, yet survived against the odds and evolved into a solid composer and vocalist. His life story has finally and convincingly been told.

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