Johnny Bragg

Convicted rapist who sang with the Prisonaires
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The Independent Online

John Henry Bragg, singer and songwriter: born Nashville, Tennessee 6 May 1926; married Gail Green (died 1977; one daughter); died Madison, Tennessee 1 September 2004.

In 1956, when "Just Walkin' in the Rain" was a No 1 record for Johnnie Ray, its writer, Johnny Bragg, was incarcerated as a convicted rapist in Tennessee State Prison. He was serving six consecutive life sentences - a total of 594 years.

Bragg's parents, Wade and Maybelle, lived in the poorest quarter of Nashville. Wade was a railwayman who worked 12 hours a day six days a week to support his wife and three children. Maybelle died giving birth to their fourth child, John Henry, on 6 May 1926. The child was born blind and was raised by his grandmother and then his uncle, who was a minister, and taught him gospel songs.

Quite unexpectedly, he began to see when he was six years old and he grew up a wild child, fighting and killing chickens for sport. When he was 14, he served a month's confinement for riding in a stolen car. His life changed for ever in 1943 when he caught his girlfriend, Jenny, making love with his best friend. The naked girl fought with Bragg and, in order to explain her bruises, she accused Bragg of raping her. Her mother rang the police, who beat him until he signed a confession. Then they paraded rape victims in front of him and six claimed that Bragg had raped them. Meanwhile, Bragg's girlfriend had retracted her statement.

Bragg was given six 99-year sentences to run consecutively and he was sent to the notorious Tennessee State Penitentiary. He was assigned to making prison clothes and, when the authorities thought he was not working quickly enough, the guards tied him to a ring suspended from the ceiling and beat him unconscious with their leather belts.

When Bragg heard the prisoners singing spirituals, he did not understand why they could not be as disciplined as the groups he heard in church. He had a natural ear for harmony and was a lead tenor. He formed the Prisonaires vocal group with Ed Thurman, tenor (who had killed the man who had killed his dog), William Stewart, baritone (charged with bludgeoning a white man to death, even though someone else had confessed to the killing), Marcell Sanders, bass (who stabbed the man who stabbed his girlfriend), and John Drue Jnr, tenor (serving time for car theft). Their first performances were serenading prisoners before execution. Bragg would stay behind to loosen the straps on the condemned men and clear up the mess.

Bragg became known as "Bucket Head" as he would write his songs with a bucket on his head to simulate echo. Nashville stars would sometimes perform at the prison and, when Bragg met Hank Williams, he asked, "Do you ever sing songs written by other people?" "Depends," said Williams, "Are you one of those other people?" Bragg sang Williams a song which Williams bought for $5. The song eventually became "Your Cheatin' Heart", a country standard.

In the winter of 1953, Bragg was walking across the courtyard to his duties in the laundry with a burglar, Robert Riley. The rain was beating down and Bragg said, "Here we are just walking in the rain and wondering what the girls are doing." Riley said, "That's a song." With a few minutes Bragg had written two verses and was convinced it was a hit. As he was illiterate, he asked Riley to write it down in exchange for a writing credit.

The Democrat politician Frank Clement became America's youngest state governor when he was 32. He appointed James Edwards as the new warden and ordered him to make Tennessee State Penitentiary tolerable. As soon as Edwards heard the Prisonaires, he informed Clement that this could help their reforms. In an unprecedented move, the Prisonaires were allowed to perform under armed guard at churches and civic functions and then on local radio.

In June 1953 Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records in Memphis, produced their first single, "Just Walkin' in the Rain". The song with its elegant but simple arrangement sold well in Nashville and Memphis and made the nation's R&B Top 10. The Prisonaires received national publicity when the country star Roy Acuff presented them with a Gibson guitar. Their privileges were such that Sanders refused parole, saying that he wanted to stay with the group. The Prisonaires recorded a glowing tribute to their saviour, "What About Frank Clement (A Mighty Man)?" Bragg also sang "Don't Say Tomorrow" with such lines as "Don't say tomorrow, why dear must you wait?" - an unlikely song if he really had committed rape.

In August 1953 they recorded a raucous "Softly and Tenderly" with Ike Turner on piano, but the A-side of their second single was "My God is Real". Their third single, the plaintive "A Prisoner's Prayer', was printed with stripes on the label, and their next, "There is Love in You", was recorded at the penitentiary itself. The whole prison had caught the bug of performing and writing songs as, whilst there, Phillips picked up two songs from white inmates, "Without You" and "Casual Love Affair", that he was to rehearse with Elvis Presley.

Eventually, Sanders was told that he would have to leave the prison and Drue was also given parole. Bragg reconstituted the group and, when one of his replacements, Hal Hebb, was killed in a mugging in 1963, his brother, Bobby, wrote and recorded the million-selling "Sunny" by way of a tribute.

With the new rock'n'roll era, the Prisonaires felt that they should be recording more upbeat material and have a suitably positive name to go with it. They chose the Marigolds and, although "Rocking Horse" topped the R&B chart, it was outsold by a cover version for the pop market from the Fontane Sisters.

In 1956 Johnnie Ray's record producer, Mitch Miller, alighted on "Just Walkin' in the Rain" and realised it was perfect for the "Cry Guy". Ray's fully orchestrated and highly histrionic performance went to No 2 in the States and topped the UK chart. Some songwriting royalties were put into a trust fund for Bragg.

When Clement asked the Marigolds to perform at an event honouring Elvis Presley, he told them to perform "Jailhouse Rock". Presley was most impressed with their harmonies and wanted to record with them, but Colonel Parker did not consider this a good career move.

Bragg was released on parole in January 1959. He was 32 years old and had spent 15 years in prison for crimes he almost certainly did not commit. Unusually for a black performer, he sang on the Grand Ole Opry and he also opened for Sammy Davis Jnr in Las Vegas. He recorded the singles "True Love Will Never Die" and "Everything's Alright", showing that he could copy either Brook Benton or Jackie Wilson effectively. He met Johnnie Ray and gave him a follow-up, "Laughin' in the Rain", but Ray was not interested.

In 1960 he was again arrested, this time for robbery and attacking a white female, allegedly over $3. He was given a 10-year sentence and his record company, Decca, dropped him for not delivering further singles. Presley visited him in prison and offered help, but Bragg shrugged his shoulders and formed another band. He was delighted when Sanders was given time for burglary and he could work with him again.

Bragg received parole in 1967 and worked at a cemetery, singing at funerals and keeping the graveyard tidy. He befriended a white girl, Gail Green, and he married her when she became pregnant. He recorded a joyous record about his life, "I'm Free", in 1969 but he spoke too soon as within weeks he was arrested for pimping. When he was released, he had a fight with a security officer who had dated his wife and, in retaliation, he accused Bragg of shoplifting. Bragg returned to prison and, to make matters worse, his wife died from an aneurysm. In August 1977, the same week as Presley died, Johnny Bragg left prison for good.

Bragg was too jaded and disheartened to pursue a musical career and he relied on royalties from "Just Walkin' in the Rain", which had become a standard. He sang at church services and he offered encouragement to those who were having hard times. In the Nineties, CD collections of his work appeared and in 2001 his life story was told in Just Walkin' in the Rain by Jay Warner. It surely has the makings of a major film.

Spencer Leigh