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)
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.
Special thanks to Cass Paley, director of the forthcoming documentary film The Prisonaires (www.theprisonaires.com) for supplying the archival audio used in this story.