The moving and mind-boggling story of Tennessee jailbird harmonizers Johnny Bragg and the Prisonaires, from music impresario and author Warner (Billboard’s Book of American Singing Groups, not reviewed).
Bragg emerged from dire circumstances and poverty in Nashville to march straight into prison. The year was 1943, and Warner strongly suggests that the charges (six rapes) were trumped up against the illiterate black teenager in what was at the time a routine way for southern lawmen to clear their books of unsolved crimes. Bragg got 594 years. In the slammer, he joined a gospel group to help mitigate the boredom, the ugliness, and the violence of prison life. His tenor was glorious, and singing restored some of his dignity. Neatly braiding story strands involving music, religion, and politics, Warner explains in homey prose how the election of progressive Tennessee governor Frank Clement, who wanted to prove that men could overcome their errors and do good, helped alleviate Johnny’s situation. The Prisonaires played at churches, clubs, all the way up to the governor’s mansion. They recorded a number of songs, including the hit single “Just Walkin’ in the Rain.” Finally, Johnny got paroled, 15 years after he received his life sentence. It would be nice to report that he got a singing contract and all due royalties, but Warner goes on to report that what Johnny got instead was another (evidently) bum rap and another 10 years before he was released. He continued to sing thereafter, but his main gigs were at burial services. He still sings today, having married and attained a measure of security, as well as an unexpected old age. Johnny is quite the storyteller, and Warner makes good use of some terrific anecdotal material about Elvis, an interesting claim regarding Hank Williams’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and Bragg’s reflections on his strange life.
Living proof of the healing power of music.