Darius Rucker, who has guest starred on TV series like CBS’s Hawaii Five-0 (as a bomb-contractor) and CMT’s Still the King (as Jesus) makes another CMT appearance this week, playing real-life singer Johnny Bragg of Fifties vocal group the Prisonaires on Sun Records. As they are headed into the Sun studios in shackles in an exclusive clip from the episode, premiering Thursday, March 23rd, Bragg and the Prisonaires sing a cappella. Elvis Presley (played by Drake Milligan) is seen too, driving by in a pick up and smiling as he hears the group. (See the Youtube video below.)
With 20-foot walls, topped with five feet of electrically charged barbed wire, the Tennessee State Prison in Nashville was built to keep its prisoners protected from the public – and vice versa. The improbable story of the Prisonaires is the focus of this episode of Sun Records, with Rucker stepping into the shoes (and stripes) of Prisonaires lead singer Johnny Bragg, who made records for Sam Phillips and the Sun label at the exact same time as he was serving a sentence for six counts of rape.
A singer since childhood, Bragg had been incarcerated in 1943, at age 17, and had joined a gospel quintet in the prison shortly after his term started. After a falling-out, he and two of the members of that group, William Stuart and Ed Thurman, both improsoned multiple year stretches for homicide, began singing with Marcel Sanders, John Drue and recent arrivals. As the Prisonaires, radio producer Joe Calloway, who was putting together a news report from the penitentiary found the group. With the assistance of warden James Edwards, they were given a performance slot on the radio by Calloway.
Phillips had the group carried via armed guard and driver to Memphis to record at Sun Studios, where they cut the melancholy “Just Walkin’ in the Rain,’ a doo wop hit with unforgettable vocal harmonies. Then-Tennessee Governor Frank Clement felt the group would be a valuable asset in his continuing prison-reform system, and the Prisonaires afterwards sang for several dignitaries and stars, including President Harry S Truman.
“Just Walkin’ in the Rain,” which sold more than 50,000 copies upon its release, was after a huge pop hit for singer Johnnie Ray in both the U.S. and the U.K. But it absolutely was the Prisonaires’ variation which was said to have greatly influenced young Elvis Presley in his decision to approach Sun about recording with the label. Presley signed to Sun the subsequent year, and also would see Bragg in penitentiary in 1961.The group would never have another hit, but the Prisonaires continued to record with Bragg as the only remaining original member, with other members moving on after serving their sentences. Bragg, whose sentence was commuted by Governor Clement, spent time in and out of prison until 1977. He died in Nashville at age 79 in 2004.