March 27, 2012
As their name suggests, this doo-wop group was formed while each member was in the State Penitentiary, Tennessee, USA. The founding member was lead singer Johnny Bragg (John Henry Bragg, 6 May 1925, Nashville, Tennessee, USA, d. 1 September 2004, Madison, Tennessee, USA), who took on Ed Thurman (b. USA, d. 1973; second tenor), John Drue (b. USA, d. December 1977, Lebanon, Tennessee, USA; first tenor), William Stewart (b. USA, d. 1959; baritone and guitar) and Marcel Sanders (b. USA, d. 1969; bass). The group was paraded around a variety of receptions and civic functions as demonstration of the jail’s enlightened rehabilitation programme, where they played a mix of blues, gospel and pop songs under armed guard. New warden James E. Edwards then arranged for two talent scouts from Sam Phillips’ Sun Records to see the group. They were subsequently driven down to Memphis in June 1953 to record a song written by Bragg and fellow inmate Robert Riley, “Just Walkin’ In The Rain”. The record took hold first on radio and then became a major seller, moving over 250,000 copies, despite a competing version from Johnny Ray that sold eight times that amount. Still, the Prisonaires had arrived, and found themselves in demand for a series of television and concert appearances. They gradually became high-status figures in Tennessee, and never betrayed the trust placed in them by trying to escape their guards on their numerous forays outside the prison. A second single followed in August 1953, the highly spiritual “My God Is Real”, followed by “I Know” and its autobiographical b-side, “A Prisoner’s Prayer”. While recording it they made the acquaintance of Elvis Presley, who later visited them in prison.
By now some of his colleagues had become eligible for parole, so Bragg formed a new version of the band titled the Sunbeams with Thurman, Stewart, Drue, Hal Hebb (d. 1963), Willy Wilson, and pianist Henry “Dishrag” Jones. This line-up lasted only until 1955, when Alfred Brooks replaced a pardoned Stewart and the group was retitled the Marigolds. They had a number 8 R&B chart success with “Rollin’ Stone” before changing their name to the Solotones for another single release, “Pork And Beans”. By 1956 Bragg had been released and he recorded a series of singles under his own name for Decca Records. He was then arrested for “parole violation” in 1960 and his penalty was to return to prison for an incredible six and a half years. Bragg put together another version of the Prisonaires with new inmates, but they never recorded again. On release, he recorded a number of singles for independent labels before finding work in a cemetery. He returned to prison for a third time at the end of the 60s and finally left prison for good in August 1977. Bragg continued to receive royalties for “Just Walkin’ In The Rain’ but was now content to sing only in church.