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Thursday, 5 September 2019

The Prisonaires - Five Beats Behind Bars

Side One:
01. Baby Please
02. Just Walking In The Rain
03. My God Is Real
04. Softly And Tenderly
05. I Know
06. No More Tears
07. Don't Say Tomorrow
08. What Do You Do Next?

Side Two:
01. That Chick's Too Young To Fry
02. Lucille, I Want You
03. If I Were A King
04. Surleen
05. All Alone And Lonely
06. Rockin' Horse
07. Two Strangers
08. Frank Clement (What About)

A rare foray by Sam Phillips into vocal group recordings. The Prisonaires were in fact prisoners in the State Penitentiary in Nashville Tennessee whose music came to Sam's attention via Red Wortham of Wortham Music, and Jim Bulleit who in early 1953 owned a small share in Sun Records.

The Prisonaires were first formed in the State Pen in the early 1940s and this is reflected in most of the music they recorded which is heavily influenced by the Ink Spots and the close harmony groups of the late 1930s.The main man was Johnny Bragg who was serving a 99 year stretch for rape. Two more group members were also serving 99 year sentences (for murder) - Ed Thurman and William Stewart. The lineup which first recorded for Sun in June 1953 had been put together by Bragg in 1951: Johnny Bragg (lead, 99 years); John Drue (lead tenor, doing a 3 year stretch for larceny); Ed Thurman (2nd tenor and 99 years); Marcel Sanders (bass, 1-5 years for involuntary manslaughter); William Stewart (baritone, guitar, 99 years).

Bragg was also a songwriter who cowrote the group's first release on Sun, "Just Walkin' In The Rain" which became a minor R&B hit and was covered very successfully 3 years later by Johnnie Ray. The influence of the Ink Spots is obvious on this wistful ballad, but its success was almost immediately dissipated by the decision to issue a religious record as a follow up - My God Is Real / Softly And Tenderly. Their third release, A Prisoner's Prayer / I Know, also failed to sell. "I Know" sounds even more like an Ink Spots performance than "Just Walkin' In The Rain" while "A Prisoner's Prayer" is what might be called "overwrought."

A final release in July 1954, There Is Love In You / What'll You Do Next, also went nowhere.There were a couple more recording sessions at the Sun studio before the end of 1954 but nothing was released. Some of these unreleased tracks were in a much more contemporary R&B style, especially "Lucille I Want You," ""Rocking Horse," "Surleen," and "All Alone And Lonely."

The group broke up in 1955 as Drue and Sanders finished their sentences and Stewart and Thurman were released on parole. Back in the hoosegow Johnny Bragg formed a new group called the Sunbeams which recorded some unreleased tracks for Excello and then after a change of name to the Marigolds, achieved a hit on the same label with "Rollin' Stone."

Bragg was released in 1959 and started recording and songwriting for Decca. His new career came to an abrupt end in 1960 when he was reincarcerated for parole violations. He remained in prison until 1967. After his release he recorded a couple more discs for ElBeJay, but the following decade was an unhappy one for the former Prisonaire as he spent several more spells in prison until his final release in 1977.

The final phase of Bragg's life was uneventful. He made no attempt to reignite a musical career and confined his singing to performing in church. He died in 2004.

Prisonaires Singles on Sun Records:

Sun 186 - Baby Please / Just Walkin' In The Rain - July 1953

Sun 189 - My God Is Real / Softly And Tenderly - September 1953

Sun 191 - A Prisoner's Prayer / I Know - November 1953

Sun 207 - There Is Love In You / What'll You Do Next - July 1954

Thanks to Joan for the labelshots

Two CD collections have been issued which have identical titles and which cover the same ground, i.e. just about everything ever recorded by The Prisonaires:

 Bear Family BCD 15523

Charly CPCD 8120

The Bear Family CD was released in 1990 and the Charly CD in 1996. Both have 26 tracks.