Previous Vocal Group Record of the Week
(Week of 1/8/05 - 1/14/05) [Complete Upgrade on 11/4/17]

(In Memory of Johnny Bragg who left us on September 1, 2004)

"Just Walkin' In The Rain"/"Baby Please"
by The Prisonaires
on Sun 186
released in 1953

Above: The Prisonaires in WSOK studio: (L-R) John Drue (tenor), Ed Thurman (tenor), Johnny Bragg (lead tenor), William Stewart (baritone, guitar), [WSOK Disk Jockey?], and Marcell Sanders (bass). WSOK was a black operated radio station located in Nashville, TN.

Above: The Prisonaires (L-R) Johnny Bragg, Ed Thurman, William Stewart (with guitar), John Drue, and Marcell Sanders.

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.

Above: The Prisonaires. On the guitar case: The Prisonaires Quintet.

Above: Johnny Bragg with yours truly (Tony Fournier) at the 2001 U.G.H.A. Hall of Fame Tribute Ceremony in New Jersey. Johnny and The Prisonaires were inducted that year. In my conversations with him, he proved to be a deeply religious person.

Magazine Article From 1954:
When five self-trained Tennessee State Prison convicts waxed a cool disc called "Just Walking In The Rain," the Prisonaires became a nation-wide sensation. Their sweet ballad has already sold a quarter-of-a-million copies.

The story of the group's success as artists, however, is not nearly so staggering as the story of five cons who can leave prison just about any time they please. You see, in order to maintain their popularity, the boys have to go beyond the gates of the state prison. Since they began recording almost a year ago, they have breathed free air 75 times to make the scene at television, school, radio and recording engagements. Although three of them are 20-year men and will never be up for parole, Warden James E. Edwards feels the group can do a great deal to help convict rehabilitation.

The Prisonaires were first heard over WSOK in Nashville, Tennessee, and have appeared in some of the town's finest hotels and night spots. They offer a repertoire of R&B, pop, hillbilly and spiritual songs.

As we have said, the Prisonaires are a five-man organization. William Stewart, thirty-year-old guitarist-baritone, has been a convict since he reached his seventeenth birthday. Stewart is perhaps one of the best examples of the warden's rehabilitation program. Despite his confinement, he is setting a fine example for his eight children. In addition to his excellent musical contribution to the Prisonaires, William Stewart has developed into a talented photographer and movie projectionist.

Soloist for the group is Johnny Bragg, who has been behind bars a year longer than Stewart. Johnny is not sure of his real age, but thinks that he has just turned twenty-seven. Under the law he is not eligible for parole.

Thirty-six year old Edward L. Thurman is the tenor for the group. Ed is the quiet, reserved type, somewhat on the religious side. At one time this man attended college and now heads the Bible study group in the prison.

Handsome tenor of the Prisonaires is John E. Drue, who also doubles as their master of ceremonies. When he is not attending to his singing obligations, John acts as personal chauffeur for Warden Edwards.

Despite the seriousness of the crimes that put the Prisonaires behind bars, they usually travel with only one guard when they are outside of the gates. They drive an automobile that was originally purchased for them by the deputy warden.

Warden Edwards is particularly proud of the fact that the boys have never tried any type of escape whatsoever during the many occasions they have been on the outside. It is a standing joke around the prison that the group has actually had difficulty getting back inside after one particularly successful engagement. It seems that the audience enjoyed their performance so much that they tried to get the boys away from their guard. The fans screamed for more, and amid all the tearing and screaming, the boys became separated from their armed escort. However, they did not let Warden James down. His faith in them was justified, and the next morning the Prisonaires were again behind bars.

EXTRA AUDIO (Windows Media Player):

Above Left: Label image of Sun 191 recorded on August 3, 1953 (A Prisoner's Prayer)/October 17, 1953 (I Know) and released on November 1, 1953. James Proctor, the composer of "A Prisoner's Prayer," was a Tennessee Bureau of Investigations official.

The 45-rpm Sun labels are different from the 78-rpm labels (for this time period) because, not only is there no rooster or "Record Company," but also, the two quarter-notes just left of top center are half-notes on the 78-rpm labels. Wonder, if they are played all the way around, will the notes form realistic music or are they random? In any case, the Sun label design, especially the 78-rpm version, has to be one of the best of all time!

The Cash Box Review (12-2-53):

A Prisoner's Prayer
The boys blend sweetly on a slow tender ballad with a light religious touch. Lead is excellent, the harmony smooth and the general effect of the etching touching. Lyrics ask God to forgive for the misdeeds that put them in prison. This deck could repeat the success of their "Walking In The Rain."
I Know (B) The Prisonaires sing a slow love ballad tenderly and with feeling. Drawback might be the sound created which is too similar to another well known group. [Do they mean The Ink Spots?]

(NOTE: A rating of B+ was considered "excellent" and B was "very good.")

Listen to "A Prisoner's Prayer" - The Prisonaires - Sun 191 - 1953.
Listen to "I Know" - The Prisonaires - Sun 191 - 1953.
BOTH played in sequence.

ROCHESTER DEMOCRAT AND CHRONICLE, September 6, 1953: 5 Tennessee Convicts Score As Musicians
Memphis, Tenn.—The murderer slapped his guitar in irritation and glared at the lead tenor, a rapist with a velvety voice. "You flatted," he accused softly. In a corner of the studio an armed guard shifted in his chair. It creaked loudly in the silence.

A weary recording engineer popped out of his glass-fronted cubicle. The job already had taken 12 hours. "What's the matter?" he cried. "It sounded good. I had a perfect mix. Don't stop in the middle of it like that. Let's take it again."

But it was two hours more before the "Prisonaires," five Negro convicts from Tennessee State Penitentuary in Nashville were satisfied with "The Prisoner's Prayer." Sam C. Phillips, owner-engineer of the Memphis Recording Service, wasn't surprised. He had worked with the Prisonaires before. "That guitarist!" he said. "He's a perfectionist."

Despite the 14-hour session, Phillips was pleased. To his ear, "The Prisoner's Prayer" had that curious mixture of tears and hope that sometimes makes a hit record. Oddly enough the ballad was written for the convicts by a Nashville cop, James Proctor. And Governor Frank G. Clement personally presented the Prisonaires with the guitar used by the baritone and musical director, William Stewart, 31, convicted of murder.

The men travel under strict guard with big prison numbers sewn to the backs of their white shirts. Music is their only respite from cell block routine. To the governor, the popular crew is a symbol of "our program of rehabilitation... Their musical message is for the people everywhere."

Phillips hopes to have the quintet back soon for another session. It isn't likely the lineup will change much. Lead tenor John Bragg, 27, is serving six 99-year terms for six cases of rape; tenor Ed Thurman, 36, drew 99 years for murder; Marcell Sanders, 29, the bass, got 1 to 5 years for involuntary manslaughter; John Drue, 27, has 3 years for grand larceny. Stewart also is serving a 99-year term.

The Prisonaires are an odd package, but Phillips, a thin, wiry, blue-eyed man of 30, is shock-proofed. He has specialized in off-beat "race" records for three years. Raw jazz, dusky blues, rhythmic spirituals and shoutin' boogie are his life. He gives a cottonpatch original the same close hearing Tin Pan Alley would accord Cole Porter's latest. He listens to them all—from cottonpickers to honky tonk professionals. "You can't tell where you'll strike gold," he says. The biggest strike to date was a violent jazz record, "Rocket 88," which sold 325,000 copies. He distributes under the "Sun" label.

Phillips treats his artists with easy humor and understanding. If they're broke, he feeds them. When he feels the situation warrents, he loans money against future earnings. The Prisonaires, of course, don't have to float loans. Eating regularly is no concern of theirs. But suppose their new tune is a hit and maybe sells 225,000 copies? It would bring them about $3000. The state will hold the money in trust.

Above: Label for Sun 186 recorded on June 1, 1953 and released on July 8, 1953. The Prisonaires had four releases on the Sun label (1953-54). Bragg, Thurman, Drue, and Stewart went on to perform with The Marigolds/Solotones on Excello (1955-56).

The Cash Box Review (8/1/53):

THE PRISONAIRES — SUN 186.... Just Walkin' In The Rain/Baby Please
A group of six men, in a Tennessee prison for assorted crimes, banded together in a more passive activity, vocalizing. The group, The Prisonaires, come up with a delicious sound in the top deck, "Just Walkin' In The Rain," a slow, tender item. A beautiful and effective word picture is softly projected by the lead against a delicate chorus assist. A strong platter that must create excitement with the proper exposure. The under lid, "Baby Please," is a slow bounce on which the group performs smoothly. One of the team, Robert Stanley Riley, wrote both tunes. [Note that Johnny Bragg is credited as co-composer on the top side.]

Listen to this week's selections featuring The Prisonaires on Sun 186 from 1953:
[Audio restoration by Dave Saviet.]

     A. Stream RealAudio...
          1. Just Walkin' In The Rain
          2. Baby Please
          BOTH played in sequence

     B. Download RealAudio...
          1. Just Walkin' In The Rain
          2. Baby Please

     C. Stream/Download Media Player...
          1. Just Walkin' In The Rain
          2. Baby Please
          BOTH played in sequence

      [To download audio files, right-click on link and then select "Save link (target) as..."]

(Will open in separate windows)