Johnny Bragg, singer from behind the wall

Date: 
Mon, 1926-01-18

Johnny Bragg was born on this date in 1926. He was an African American singer.

He was born in Nashville, Tenn. As a teenager in 1943, Bragg was sentenced to six life terms in the Tennessee State Prison. The charge was rape, but he always denied the charges, and Governor Frank Clement commuted his sentence in 1959. He soon returned to prison on a parole violation and spent time in and out of incarceration until 1977. While serving time his only expressive outlet for his spirit, was singing. In 1953, a young governor Clement, heard Bragg's vocal quintet the Prisonaires.

He was deeply impressed with their talent and recognized that these were men who might be saved. For years he showcased Bragg and the Prisonaires at state events at the governor's mansion. There they met President Truman, Senator Lyndon Johnson, and many celebrity entertainers. Eventually, the Prisonaires were signed by a young, white, record producer Sam Phillips of Sun Records. Bragg's claim to glory, however, lies in his authorship of the hit "Just Walkin' in the Rain," recorded by '50s pop legend Johnnie Ray. "Just Walkin" was one of the best selling singles of the decade.

At the center of this group was Bragg, whose faith and persistence testified eloquently to the power of the human spirit. Bragg was alive and well in his mid-'70s. He had the sweet tenor voice that made him an extraordinary artist 50 years ago.

His original Prisonaires partners had not been so fortunate. William Stewart died of a drug overdose in a rundown Florida motel in 1959. Marcel Sanders died in the late '60s. Ed Thurman was killed in an accident in 1973. And John Drue Jr. died of cancer in December 1977, in Lebanon, Tennessee. Bragg's recording discography consists of other releases including many un-issued songs which were included on a CD from Bear Family, West Germany, in 1990. With the Marigolds, Bragg had 5 releases in 1955 and 1956 for the Excello label including "Rollin' Stone."

On June 8, 2000, Bragg, accompanied by his daughter, Misti, and longtime friend and lawyer Don Hildebrand, appeared in Memphis by invitation at a pre-screening of the A&E television special Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n Roll. With Hildebrand's help, the Tennessee State Penitentiary was opened for the first time since The Green Mile was shot there in order for Johnny to do an interview and walking tour, including a visit to cell five on Walk Ten.

Standing on the ramp outside his former cell, Bragg sang a spontaneous a cappella rendition of "Just Walkin' in the Rain" and did the entire third verse in falsetto. When he finished with his falsetto flourish, there was a standing ovation led by Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Sam Phillips. The history of rock ‘n roll and rhythm and blues is filled with inspiring characters; Bragg is one of them. Johnny Bragg died in August, 2004; he was 79.

Reference:
Just Walkin' in the Rain: The True Story of the Prisonaires:
The Convict Pioneers of R & B and Rock & Roll
by Jay Warner
ISBN: 1580631401

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Person / name: 

Bragg, Johnny