The Prisonaires

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The Prisonaires
OriginTennessee, United States
GenresBlues, gospel
Years active1953–1955
Past membersJohnny Bragg
John Drue
Marcell Sanders
William Stewart
Ed Thurman

The Prisonaires were an American doo-wop group, whose hit "Just Walkin' in the Rain" was released on Sun Records in 1953, while the group was incarcerated in the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville.[1] The group was led by Johnny Bragg (born either 1925,[2] 1926 or 1929)[3] who had been a penitentiary inmate since 1943 when, at the age of 17, he was convicted of six charges of rape. The Prisonaires were formed when Bragg joined up with two prison gospel singers, Ed Thurman and William Stewart (each of whom was doing 99 years for murder), and two new penitentiary arrivals, John Drue Jr. (three years for larceny) and Marcell Sanders (one-to-five for involuntary manslaughter).


The group was discovered by the radio producer Joe Calloway, who heard them singing while preparing a news broadcast from the prison. He arranged for the group to perform on the radio, a performance which was eventually brought to the attention of Sam Phillips of Sun Records. He arranged for the group to be transported under armed guard to Memphis to record.[4] A few weeks later, "Just Walkin' in the Rain" was released and eventually sold 250,000 copies.[1]

Their success was such that they were allowed out on day passes to tour throughout the state of Tennessee. The band became favorites of the state's governor, Frank G. Clement, and frequently performed at his mansion.

The group's legacy was confirmed when "Just Walkin' in the Rain", written by Bragg, was recorded by Johnnie Ray, whose version sold over eight times that of the Prisonaires.[1]

When Bragg's sentence was commuted in 1956, he formed a new group including Hal Hebb, Willy Wilson, Al Brooks and Henry 'Dishrag' Jones, who were known as the Sunbeams. When they were rechristened as the Marigolds they had a No. 8 hit in the US R&B chart with "Rollin' Stone" on Decca Records.[5] In 1960, he was arrested for 'parole violation' for being found in the back of an automobile with a white women. It was his wife. This saw him returned to jail for six and a half years. Putting together another group called the Prisonaires, they did not record any material. Upon his further release, Bragg worked in a cemetery.[1]


Stewart died of a drug overdose in a Florida motel in 1959, Sanders died in the late 1960s, Thurman was killed in an accident in 1973 and Drue died of cancer in 1977.[6][7]

Bragg died of cancer in 2004.[8]


  1. ^ a b c d Colin Larkin, ed. (2002). The Virgin Encyclopedia of Fifties Music (Third ed.). Virgin Books. p. 343. ISBN 1-85227-937-0.
  2. ^ "Country Musings - Death of an unknown legend - Johnny Bragg, October 2004". Retrieved October 27, 2019.
  3. ^ "The Prisonaires". Retrieved October 27, 2019.
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ "Randy Wood: The Dot Records Story". Retrieved October 27, 2019.
  6. ^ "Johnny Bragg, singer from behind the wall". African American Registry. Retrieved October 27, 2019.
  7. ^ "These Men Wrote A #1 Hit While Incarcerated And Helped Shape Rock Music". Retrieved October 27, 2019.
  8. ^ "Johnny Bragg, Prisonaires Singer, Dies". Retrieved October 27, 2019.


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