Just Walkin’ in the Rain: Reform, Redemption and the Story of the Prisonaires
Maybe the best promotional photo ever. The Prisonaires, lower tier at left, were inmates at Tennessee State Prison in 1953 when they cut a series of wonderful vocal group harmony records that were issued just slightly before Elvis Presley’s first releases on Sun Records.
Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection
Written By: Ben Cosgrove
For much of the 20th century and well into the 21st, much of popular music rock and roll, R&B, hip hop has banked on the appeal of the rebel. Arguably no single label in the history of music had as many true hell-raisers and genuine pioneers as Sam Phillips’ Sun Records. Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and, of course, Elvis Presley were all early Sun stars, and their personae all contained that element of danger.
But another Sun act, signed to the label in the early 1950s, was comprised of five men who made Sun’s more famous bad boys look like proverbial choir boys. The doo-wop group the Prisonaires were actual prisoners, all of them doing hard time for serious offenses. Here, LIFE.com offers a series of unpublished pictures of the Prisonaires from 1953.
The group was led by Johnny Bragg — who, by the time LIFE’s Robert W. Kelley was photographing the quintet, had been an inmate at Tennessee State Penitentiary for a solid decade; he was convicted at the age of 17 on six charges of rape. The other Prisonaires included convicted murderers Ed Thurman and William Stewart, Marcell Sanders (involuntary manslaughter) and John Drue Jr. (locked up for for larceny). One of their very first singles, “Just Walkin’ in the Rain,” written by Bragg and fellow inmate Robert Riley, was a solid hit for Sun Records in 1953 and three years later was an absolute smash for Johnnie Ray, his version eventually reaching #2 on the Billboard chart and #1 in England.
The Prisonaires never became megastars, but even while incarcerated they definitely had fans, sold records and were often allowed out of Tennessee State (under guard, of course) to perform at VFW halls, in churches, on TV and, frequently, at the prison warden’s home, where they’d sing for the warden, James Edwards, his wife and their two kids, Joyce and Jim.
The Prisonaires were a vocal singing group in the 1950's made up of incarcerated inmates serving time at the maximum penal facility in Nashville, Tennessee.
The Prisonaires recorded several tracks at the now famous Sun Records and several hit songs including "Just Walkin in the Rain". Johnny Bragg and Sam Phillips brought the vocal perfection of The Prisonaires to the public through very extraordinary measures and difficult political times. Thanks to the ernest efforts of then Governor Clement's prison reform, The Prisonaires forever changed the landscape of music history.
In the halls of American pop culture there is a legend about music setting the prisoner free.
The story of The Prisonaires has been identified as one of the earliest known cases where the prisoner truly was set free by the power of music. The Prisonaires, 5 amazing men in the Tennessee State Prison who captured the hearts of officials with their music (the group started as a quintet, first). The most famous song was "Just Walkin' in the Rain". Take a captivating look back at the realities of life, hardship, music, racism and ultimate triumph over extreme adversity.
THE PRISONAIRES - Johnny Bragg, 27-years-old from Nashville, was the lead singer in the Prisonaires, and convicted on 6 counts of rape, and sentenced 594 years in prison. Other members of the group are, John E. Drue, 29 years-old from Lebanon, lead tenor vocal, sentenced 3 years for larceny; Marcel Sanders, 29-years-old from Chattanooga, bass vocal, sentenced 1 to 5 years for involuntary manslaughter; 30-year-old Williams Steward, baritone vocal and guitar who has been imprisoned since he was 17 years old, got to crying, his mother was crying, because he was sentenced 99 years for murder; and Edward L. Thurman, 36-years-old from Nashville, tenor vocal, also sentenced 99 years for murder. The group was made up of inmates from the Tennessee State Penitentiary. They wrote and recorded for Sun Records. According to prison records, Johnny Bragg was a bastard kid, born in Nashville, Tennessee on January 18, 1926, and jailed on May 8, 1943 on six counts of rape.
JOHN E. DRUE; Tenor Vocal.
Sentenced 3 years for larceny.
JOHNNY BRAGG; Lead Singer.
Convicted on 6 counts of rape. Sentenced 594 years in prison.
MARCELL SANDERS; Bass Vocal.
Sentenced 1 to 5 years for involuntary manslaughter.
WILLIAM STEWART; Guitarist & Baritone Vocal.
Sentenced 99 years for murder.
EDWARD L. THURMAN; Tenor Vocal.
Sentenced 99 years for murder.
On a bright day in June 1953, five young African-American men entered Sun Studios in Memphis for a recording session that made them a music sensation. Not unusual for the place that produced the first recordings of stars like B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf. But these five men were convicts, all still serving time at the Tennessee State Prison.
MTSU professor John Dougan chronicles the story of the Prisonaires in his new book, The Mistakes of Yesterday, the Hopes of Tomorrow – a tale of popular music, an aspiring politician, and social reform in the South.
What About Frank Clement (A Mighty Man)
The Prisonaires' lead singer, Johnny Bragg, told a number of reporters that Elvis Presley helped with the lyrics to "Just Walkin' In The Rain." Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins, in Good Rockin' Tonight, published in 1991, report Braggs' claim that Elvis Presley was in the studio when the Prisonaires recorded "Just Walkin' In The Rain." It is unlikely that Elvis Presley was hanging around Sun Records during the Prisonaires recording sessions. "It was hard to keep Elvis Presley from the studio", Marcus Van Story remembered. "He loved the Prisonaires gospel sound." Despite this, Bragg's claim remains unsubstantiated. "I don't remember Elvis watching the Prisonaires record," Ronald Smith commented. The Prisonaires were nevertheless an important influence upon both Elvis Presley and Sam Phillips. Elvis Presley was mesmerized by Bragg's vocals, and Sam Phillips was intrigued by the crossover sound the Prisonaires produced.
The group making personal appearances on day passes throughout the state, and ─ with considerable complication ─ outside the state. They were held up by warden James Edwards and Governor Clement as shining examples of rehabilitation. "The hopes of tomorrow rather than the mistakes of yesterday," gushed Clement, who brought the group to the governor's mansion, and bought William Steward a new guitar. His enthusiasm earned him the unissued paean "What About Frank Clement (A Mighty, Mighty Man)", which had "Parole ─ Please" written all over it.
December 21, 1957 at Gov. Clement's mansion. Photo Elmer Williams.
In 1952, Frank Clement was elected governor of Tennessee; at the age of 32, he was the youngest governor in the nation and he saw himself as an agent of change.
“He saw Nashville as being emblematic of where the South was going, not so much as where the South had been,” music historian John Dougan says. “And that meant a kind of sea change in terms of social issues and policies relating to incarceration.”
One of Clement’s first acts was to appoint a new warden at the Tennessee State Prison. Warden Glen Swafford’s brutal 37 year rule had earned the prison the nickname “Swafford’s Graveyard.” Clement’s new handpicked warden, James Edwards, replaced retribution with rehabilitation by fostering inmate’s skills and talents, including music.
Photo courtesy ─ Sally Cook.
Presley watching Johnny Bragg at Governor Frank Clement's mansion in Nashville, December 21, 1957.
A Prisoner’s Prayer
“It started out with Joe Calloway who was a reporter for WSOK who had come to the prison in early 1953 to do a story on the reform efforts,” John Dougan says. “One of the things that James Edwards did was make sure that he would listen to the Prisonaires sing.”
The Prisonaires, five African-American inmates led by singer and songwriter Johnny Bragg had become a favorite at the Prison’s talent shows and church services. Although inmates frequently formed ad hoc singing groups, the practice was at best tolerated by the previous warden. Under James Edwards, such groups were encouraged to provide an emotional release for prisoners and with the idea that the skills and discipline required for musical performances would translate to the outside world upon the inmates’ release.
The publicity from that first radio story led to the Warden granting The Prisonaires day passes to perform at Nashville radio stations and a few special events. In a short time, they became the symbol for the new era of reform. It was a role they were eager to fill as Bragg recalled in a 1996 interview.
“Thanks to Warden Edwards, and Governor Clement, we started practicing day and night,” Bragg said. “And we got something like what you would call excellent . . . them voices were high and the bass voices were low. We was ready.”
Members of American music group the Prisonaires sit in the Kayne Avenue Baptist Church, where they were to give a performance, Nashville, Tn., Sept. 1953. Robert W. Kelley ─ LIFE Picture Collection.
Sam Phillips of Sun Records was a staunch supporter of Clement’s reforms and was eager to record the Prisonaires. With the approval of the Governor and the Warden, Phillips paid the expenses for the group to travel to Memphis on June 1, 1953, under armed guard.
“They booked a session at Sun for ten o’clock in the morning,” John Dougan says, “Which meant they had to leave Nashville around 6:00 a.m. They showed up in leg irons and shackles. They were there all day, and just cut two tracks.”
The single from that session, “Just Walkin’ in the Rain” written by Bragg and a non-singing inmate, Robert Reilly, became a sensation.
“They became stars,” Dougan says. “And the Governor and Warden Edwards tried to capitalize on that by bringing them to the Governor’s Mansion on a regular basis to perform for local and national dignitaries. They performed for Harry Truman when he was here visiting in Nashville. They would go out and do performances at VFW halls, and at football halftimes, and schools – all over the place.”
But the road to the Prisonaires’ success turned out to be a dead end.
“For better or for worse it was the song that made them celebrities and made them significant,” Dougan says, “but the downside of “Just Walkin’ in the Rain” was that it’s hard to catch lightning in a bottle twice and they weren’t able to do it.”
The Prisonaires on the steps of the Tennessee State Prison. Robert W. Kelley ─ LIFE Picture Collection.
No More Tears
Between 1954 and 1959, the Prisonaires each earned parole. But other than Johnny Bragg, none found careers in music and died in various stages of poverty and obscurity.
Robert Riley, the co-author of “Just Walkin’ in the Rain” wrote many soul and country hits after his release, but for Bragg, the path was more complicated.
“He kind of bounced in and out of prison for the next few years,” Dougan says. “I think a lot of the charges were specious. He was, again, in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it really wasn’t until 1977 that he walked out of prison for the last time.”
A hit cover version of “Just Walkin’ in the Rain” by pop singer Johnnie Ray earned thousands of dollars in royalties for Bragg and Riley. But sixty years later, it’s the Prisonaires’ original that has stood the test of time.
1953 - Just Walkin' In The Rain / Baby Please (Sun 186)
1953 - My God Is Real / Softly And Tenderly (Sun 189)
1953 - I Know / A Prisoner's Prayer (Sun 191)
1954 - There Is Love In You / What'll You Do Next (Sun 207)
1976 - I Wish / All Alone And Lonely (Sun 511) (Bootleg) (1953)
1976 - Don't Say Tomorrow / No More Tears (Sun 512) (Bootleg) (1953)
1976 - If I Were King / That Chick's Too Young To Fry (Sun 513) (Bootleg) (1953)
1976 - What A Fool (Friends Call Me A Fool) / Rockin' Horse (Sun 516) (Bootleg) (1953)
1976 - Two Strangers / Lucille I Want You (Sun 517) (Bootleg) (1953)
1976 - Dreaming Of You / Surleen (Sun 519) (Bootleg) (1953)
1953 - Friends Call Me A Fool (Sun)
Members of the incarcerated musical group the Prisonaires with sheet music of their first hit song, Tennessee, 1953. Robert W. Kelley — LIFE Picture Collection.
“It’s just a remarkably beautiful song,” Dougan says, “that has a lot of messages in it, not just about falling out of love or a relationship ending, but I think there are certain sentiments there about what it’s like to be in prison, what it’s like to be separated from the rest of the world. I think there’s a sadness that the song has that you hear in Johnny’s vocal.”
“Just Walkin’ in the Rain” stands as a testament to the human spirit – a record that goes beyond mere pop music and speaks of the ability for men to find hope in their despair, a moment of freedom in incarceration, and a spark of beauty in the darkest of places.
The Prisonaires, a unique quintet of singing Tennessee convicts, are the first musical unit to attract national attention while serving prison terms. Trusties at Tennessee State Prison, the Prisonaires became a sensation following a broadcast over Nashville radio station WSOK and later recording the blues-ballad "Just Walkin' In The Rain." Their repertoire: spiritual, blues, popular, and hillbilly.