Meet The Prisonaires: Convicted Murderers Who Trailblazed The Rock 'N' Roll Genre
Throughout much of the 20th century and well into the 21st, the allure of rebellion has been a cornerstone in popular music, from rock and roll to R&B and hip hop. Few labels embody this spirit as profoundly as Sam Phillips’ Sun Records. Boasting true hell-raisers and genuine pioneers, including Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and the iconic Elvis Presley, Sun Records artists were known for their dangerous personas.
Among these, a lesser-known Sun act from the early 1950s stood out—The Prisonaires, a doo-wop group comprised of five men who made the more famous bad boys look tame. Unlike their fellow Sun artists, The Prisonaires were actual inmates, serving time for serious offenses. Led by Johnny Bragg, who had spent a solid decade in Tennessee State Penitentiary after being convicted at the age of 17 for six charges of rape, the group included convicted murderers Ed Thurman and William Stewart, Marcell Sanders (involuntary manslaughter), and John Drue Jr. (imprisoned for larceny).
Shortly after their formation and the grant of practicing rights due to their impressive performances in the gospel choir, authorities recognized the considerable talent within these troubled souls. Seizing an opportunity, the prison aimed to showcase this self-formed band as a testament to the success of rehabilitation in Tennessee.
Under armed guard, they played at various civic functions for high-ranking officials and governors. Their skillful and non-threatening musical style, akin to a dream-like literary recital, portrayed the journey of a downtrodden traveller searching for their place in America. The prison shared in their success, and Warden James E. Edwards reached out to talent scouts at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records, leading to the recording of a hit.
Their song, 'Just Walkin’ in the Rain,' caught the ear of a young Elvis Presley, who may have witnessed their recording at Sun Studios. Although claims of Elvis being present during the recording were later questioned, there's no doubt he was influenced, even visiting band member Johnny Bragg in prison as a token of appreciation. Bragg recalled Elvis looking around his measly cell, and in response, he asked him what it was like being a star. Elvis replied: “Well, it’s the best and the worst of everything.”
Elvis, now a revolutionary force in music, raises questions about the impact of a Tennessee prison on shaping musical history. However, the narrative takes a sombre turn as Bragg's sentence, initially commuted, reflects the racial prejudice in the legal system. Bragg faced further arrests, questionable violations, and an incongruous sentence in 1960.
Despite his lifelong dedication to music and protests of innocence, Bragg's legacy is tainted by the exploitation of his songs when beneficial to those in power. The Prisonaires' music, celebrated only when convenient for gatekeepers, highlights the disparity between the time of their prosperity and their convictions. Musical historians strive to reconcile this complex narrative, leaving The Prisonaires and their music in a delicate balance.