The Prisonaires, The Complete Sun Recordings

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

The Prisonaires were five inmates at Tennessee State Penitentiary; though his immaculate tenor may be nothing short of angelic, leader Johnny Bragg had been incarcerated for six consecutive life sentences at age 16 for raping his girlfriend.

Talk about original gangstas — these genuine yardbirds were Sun’s answer to the Ink Spots.

The quintet was Sun's sole viable vocal group even though their style hewed to the urbane close harmonies of the Ink Spots and Mills Brothers — a sound Sam Phillips scorned — rather than Southernizing doo wop. Bragg co-wrote the 1953 "Just Walkin 'in the Rain" with inmate Robert Riley (who was not a group member), and his smooth, classy and gimmick-free lead was backed only by the harmonies and a strummed guitar. (Though it sold well, Johnnie Ray's #2 pop cover three years later dwarfed it.) But their gospel follow-up — totally without commercial potential — killed their momentum, even though "Softly and Tenderly" had the conviction and Ike Turner played churchy piano on "My God Is Real." After one more single the Prisonaires were gone. Still, there's some interesting stuff here. "What About Frank Clement," so reminiscent of the Swan Silvertones '"Why I Like Roosevelt," honors the Tennessee governor whose mansion they often played; it's a rather curious attempt to pull a Leadbelly and win executive clemency through sheer flattery. And they turn in a very snazzy reading of Louis Jordan's "That Chick's Too Young to Fry."