Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Author Details Story of Incarcerated Vocal Group

It sounds like a film script: five African-American men incarcerated at the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville during the '40s and '50s form a vocal group and release a hit record. But the story is true.

The blues quintet, dubbed The Prisonaires, was led by Johnny Bragg, who was serving 594 years for multiple counts of rape, and included William Stewart, serving 99 years for witnessing the murder of a man; Marcel Sanders, facing one to five years for involuntary manslaughter; Ed Thurman, serving 99 years for murdering a man who killed his dog; and John Drue Jr., serving three years for larceny.

They made history with their song, "Just Walkin' in the Rain," which was released on Sun Records in 1953.

Jay Warner, a six-time Grammy-winning music publisher and the founder of National League Music recounts The Prisonaires story in "Just Walkin' in the Rain: The True Story of the Prisonaires: the Convict Pioneers of R&B and Rock & Roll" (Renaissance Books, $25).

The tale is complex and inspiring as it deals with the issues of civil rights and prison reform, but its main focus is on the relationship between Bragg and the governor of the time, Frank Clement.

"It's really two men from opposite ends of the social and political spectrum who find a need in each other.