Elvis Presley and Johnny Bragg
July 1, 2022
Radio producer Joe Calloway, who heard the Prisonaires singing while preparing a news broadcast from the prison, suggested to Warden Edwards that the group be allowed out to perform on the radio. Edwards, a liberal reformist who saw this as part of his strategy of rehabilitation, agreed. In the meantime, Bragg, who was busy selling songs to Nashville-based music publisher Red Wortham, sent a tape of the Prisonaires' radio performance to Jim Bulleit, a minority shareholder in Sun Records. Bulleit forwarded the tape to Sam Phillips and arranged to have the group transported under armed guard to Memphis to record at 706 Union Avenue.
On June 1, 1953, Johnny Bragg completed the first of even recording sessions at Sun Records. Elvis' friendship with him dates from this period and, according to Bragg, their initial meeting actually occurred during the Prisonaires' very first recording session which produced the single 'Baby Please' b/w 'Just Walkin' In The Rain'. He specifically recalled Elvis helping him with his diction. However, when interviewed on this matter, Sam Phillips stated that Bragg might have been right but that he could not remember if Elvis was there or not on the particular day in question.
With many respected authors and music historians - including Peter Guralnick and Colin Escott - having investigated the truth of Johnny Bragg's recollections, their conclusions seem to suggest that he probably confused a later session with this first recording date. Another author, Jay Warner, conducted many personal interviews with Bragg, including sixty telephone conversations over a four-year period, and initially remarked that he was willing to cut the Prisonaire some slack when told about his friendship and first meeting with Elvis. Before the interviewing process began, however, Warner assumed that Bragg, who could not read or write and who appeared to be an old guy living in a romanticized past, would simply be out to impress him. Then, as Warner carried out his research using newspapers and magazines, and talked with other scholars of popular culture and interviewed many credible witnesses, all of Bragg's recollections began to stack up. One particularly interesting and important quote came from Sam Phillips' older brother Jud, who did recall Elvis being at that first recording session by the Prisonaires. Such memories are included in this book to provide a complete overview of Elvis' association with Johnny Bragg.
It has been suggested that Elvis was prompted to cut his first acetate - 'My Happiness' and 'That's When Your Heartaches Begin'- soon after hearing 'Just Walkin' In The Rain', which was released on July 8, 1953, and then reading an article about the Prisonaires that appeared a week later in the Memphis Press-Scimitar. More certain is that, in May 1954, Elvis would unsuccessfully attempt to cut 'Without You', a ballad which Sam and Jud Phillips obtained from a state prisoner when they went to Nashville to record further tracks by the Prisonaires.
Note: Elvis is known to have owned the single 'Baby Please' b/w 'Just Walkin' In The Rain' (Sun 186) by the Prisonaires.
Elvis visited me out here too. They called me down from the cell-block. They says, 'Two friends want to see you outta here'. I said, 'Who is it?' 'I don't know. Says one of them is Elvis - Elvis Presley. You know Elvis Presley?' I said. 'Man, Elvis Presley hasn't come down here! Elvis is in the Army'.
A year after joining RCA, on December 4, 1956, Elvis returned to Sun Studios for the now famous 'Million Dollar Quartet' session. One number the group can be heard singing is 'Softly and Tenderly', which was recorded by the Prisonaires on August 3, 1953 and released as Sun 189. A further Sun-related connection between Elvis and the Prisonaires includes the fact that Marion Keisker typed out the label for Elvis' first acetate on the back of a spare label for the Prisonaires'. Softly and Tenderly'. Furthermore, because the re-use of recording tape was a common cost-saving measure, snippets of 'Good Rockin' Tonight' by Elvis can be heard on tapes that were used to record the Prisonaires'.
Throughout Governor Clement's administration, Johnny Bragg and the Prisonaires - and their replacement group, the Marigolds - were frequently called in to perform at gatherings held at the Governor's Mansion in Oak Hill. The next recorded occasion when Bragg and Presley would meet was here on the evening of December 21 and the early hours of December 22, 1957.
Elvis Presley | December 21/22, 1957.
On December 20, 1957, Elvis received his draft notice and later drove a rented truck for the 200-mile-long trip from Memphis to Nashville with Cliff Gleaves, Lamar Fike and Billy Smith. The next day, the group of four arrived at 1215 Gallatin Road South, Colonel Parker's home address in Madison, where Elvis gave his manager a $1,800 BMW red Isetta bubble-car as a Christmas present. 'It is snug', observed Parker. At the same time, Gordon Stoker came over to the Colonel's house to collect the Jordanaires' Christmas bonuses, amounting to $4,000, and recalled that Elvis said to him, 'If I had some dress-clothes, I'd go down to the Grand Ole Opry with you guys tonight.' Stoker told Elvis that he would gladly make arrangements with a local store. 'He went with me downtown (to Mallemee's outfitters in Nashville) but to my surprise, he picked a complete tux outfit down to the shoes', the Jordanaire recalled. Suited and booted, Elvis and his group did made their entry to the Grand Ole Opry that Saturday evening. Although he did not perform on stage, Elvis apparently did walk out to wave to the audience before hanging around backstage with many of his old friends'
That same day, from around 4.00 p.m. until 8.00 p.m., Johnny Bragg and the Marigolds performed for an audience of politicians and advisers in the second-floor sitting-room of the Governor's Mansion. Along with Bragg, the Marigolds consisted of Al Brooks, Hal Hebb, Willy Wilson and Henry 'Dishrag' Jones. After taking a dinner break, they were back performing by 9.00 p.m. with an audience of family members only. Two songs that were showcased were 'My Rock' and 'Rollin' Stone'. At around 10.00 p.m. the sound of several cars pulling up in the driveway created a buzz throughout the house. Moments later, followed by an entourage of state troopers, in walked the Governor's special guest, Elvis Presley, along with Colonel Parker, Lamar Fike, Cliff Gleaves and Billy Smith.
Elvis shook hands with Governor Clement, his wife Lucille, and other members of the Clement family. By this time, Bragg's voice had become hoarse and was beginning to fade, so Hal Hebb took over the lead vocal. Johnny sat at the piano where he suggested, in whispered tones, to the group, 'Do that new Elvis thing.' He then announced, 'In honor of the Governor's newest guest, we're gonna do a tribute song' and launched into 'Jailhouse Rock'. Before the number had finished, Elvis had joined in with the singing. Elvis called out, 'Good to see you, Johnny.' Bragg replied, 'Good to see ya, Presley.' Elvis then took over on the piano to sing the Prisonaires' number 'Just Walkin' In The Rain'.
Johnny Bragg recalled his conversation with Elvis.
Elvis: That's one of my favorite songs, Johnny. That guy (Hebb) you have over there's tearing me all to pieces. Him and your group, man those guys are singing!
Bragg: Yeah, but you're Presley.
Elvis: You play this dump a lot?
Bragg: Much as I can. What's it like, Presley?
Elvis: Bein' a star? Well, it's the best and the worst of everything.
Bragg: You too, huh?
Elvis: You ain't the only prisoner, Johnny. My bars are just different. Still, there's worse ways to live.
Bragg: But you're Presley! How could it be better?
Elvis: I don't know Sometimes, you just want 'em to all leave you alone.
The singing came to an end around 3.00 a.m. and Bragg overheard Elvis commenting to Colonel Parker: 'I'd love to sing with these guys. Can't we get 'em on a session or something?'
The warden had sent word down to bring blankets with the singing group since the prisoners would be staying over that night. Governor Clement had requested that they attend the McKendree Methodist Church in Nashville the next day where he would preach and the group would sing.
Elvis visited the Tennessee Legislature in Nashville on March 8, 1961. On this occasion he discussed with Governor Buford Ellington his admiration and previous association with Johnny Bragg, who remained detained at the Tennessee State Prison. Governor Ellington accordingly arranged for Elvis to take the short trip to the prison that same day to visit Bragg. Accompanying him on this trip were Alan Fortas, Joe Esposito and the Governor's daughter, Ann. They took the journey in Elvis' black Rolls Royce.
Bragg: Presley! What are you doin' in these parts?
Elvis: Heard you had some trouble. Thought I'd drop by - kinda check up on you.
Bragg: I'm doin' okay. But look at you - fine clothes, big limousine, those pretty girls all over ya!
Elvis: Do you need a lawyer? Let me get you a lawyer. Is there anything I can do for you?
(Johnny Bragg told Elvis that he already had a lawyer but that he appreciated the offer)
Elvis: I know you're a proud man, Johnny, but I'll bet my lawyers can help shorten your time. Well, let me do something for you, Johnny. Do you need any money?
Bragg: No, everythin' is fine right now. Governor Clement's helpin' me and his daddy's gonna help me.
Elvis: Well, you know, I'm planning on recording 'Just Walkin' In The Rain'. That'll help some more royalties come in.
Bragg: Presley, you don't have to do that. Me and you's good friends. We go way back to when you were a kid in Memphis. I'm fine. You look after Presley. Hell, I sing as much as you and spend a lot less.
The meeting lasted between ten and fifteen minutes. As their conversation concluded, Bragg and Presley shook hands hard and said their goodbyes. Johnny remembers overhearing a conversation as Elvis walked over to the car. One of the guards asked Elvis, 'Anything else you'd care to see, Mr Presley?' Elvis replied, Thank you very much. I've seen who I came to see'.
One of the people that he wanted to meet while he was up at that particular time was a gentleman by the name of Johnny Bragg. Johnny was incarcerated at the Tennessee State Prison at that time. And John had a group called the Prisonaires, who sang a lot of gospel songs, incredibly talented people. And there were times when we had state functions at the state, at the Governor's residence, that we would have them come out and perform. And because of their mutual love of music, Elvis wanted to meet him. So my dad arranged for, Elvis and Joe and Alan to go out to the state prison and meet, have time with Johnny Bragg. And we drove out there and the warden at that time came out to meet the car. And we started to get out to get in, and the warden says, 'I'm sorry, but Ann can't come in'. And so Joe and Elvis went inside to meet with Johnny, and Alan, bless his heart, got the chore of sitting in the car with me while all of this was going on inside. Both of us would love to have heard the conversation, but we weren't allowed to do that.
Elvis Visits Prison
The Nashville Banner,
March 9, 1961
En route home to Memphis after Wednesday's visit to the State Legislature, singer-actor Elvis Presley stopped for approximately 45 minutes at the State Prison. He toured the various workshops, dining hall, and death-house, and talked briefly with song-writer Johnny Bragg, who is doing time for parole violation. 'It was Elvis' idea to drive by the penitentiary' one of his traveling companions - buddy-guards said. He has known Bragg from back when he was starting out as an entertainer, scrounging for a living.
(Talking about Elvis and the song, 'Just Walkin' In The Rain'.)
He often sang it around the house or whatever when he was feeling blue
We Need To Talk About . . . Johnny Bragg: Inside looking out, then out and in again
The way Johnny Bragg told it, this is what happened.
He went over to his girlfriend Jenny's house and found her sexually engaged with his friend Chester. Johnny was angry, she shoved off Chester and laid into Johnny who fled.
When her parents came home Jenny said Johnny had raped her and he was taken into custody.
While in jail a white woman and a few black women were brought in to look him up and down.
By the time Johnny's case went to trial Jenny had recanted and her family dropped the charges, but what Johnny didn't know (and nor did his lawyer) was that the women who had been brought in to eye-ball him were all victims of rape by an unidentified black man. So when Johnny got to court he found himself facing seven separate rape charges.
The white woman's case was thrown out and Johnny was advised not to testify on his own behalf, but the other charges stood. The all-white, all-male jury found him guilty.
On his 17thbirthday Johnny Bragg was transported through the gates of Tennessee State Prison in Nashville to start his six 99-year sentences without the possibility of parole.
In one sense his life was over, but in fact it had only just begun.
As writer Jay Warner noted in Just Walkin' in the Rain, his 2001 biography of Bragg: “Johnny's career when he lived under lock and key almost certainly offered him better opportunities than he ever would have had in the freedom of the ghetto”.
Before his imprisonment as a somewhat tearaway black teenager he'd got into a bit of trouble and doubtless would have continued in that way. However he was also interested in singing groups of all kinds – from church to street corner groups – and after a while hanging around on the edge of the many singing groups inside the jail he started to sing with, arrange for and discipline one particular group into a classy ensemble.
He named them the Prisonaires and through the help and understanding of a couple of key figures in the prison (and most notably the reformist, Christian state governor Frank Clement who was very supportive, to the point of regularly having the group perform at the governor's mansion where they met President Truman, senator Lyndon Baines Johnson among others), the group were eventually signed up by an ambitious young white record producer for his new label, Sun Records.
Yes, the Prisonaires were on Sun before Elvis (who apparently was in the studio when the group recorded their first single) and that roll-call of Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash.
The first song they recorded for Sun was Bragg's '53 original Just Walkin' in the Rain which became one of biggest hits of the Fifties when it was much covered, notably by Johnnie Ray.
The Prisonaires' catalogue included doo-wop, early rock'n'roll and the typical, sentimental ballads of the era. Alongside a slightly salacious That Chick's Too Young to Fry they also – because of Bragg and other Prisonaire's religious convictions – sang My God is Real.
How they survived in prison as favoured inmates with concerts beyond the walls, eventually only accompanied by a sole guard, was down to Bragg's smarts: a percentage of the money they earned was put into a fund for all prisoners. And a Prisoner's Prayer.
And with royalties from his songwriting, Bragg was making a considerable income – much of it siphoned off by others as he would learn.
In the days before integration, the story of the relationship between young black Bragg and the older white Clement was quite extraordinary.
It often came at a political cost for Clement who believed in the rehabilitation of prisoners and in Bragg he had a living embodiment of his belief.
Inevitably the highly visible Bragg wasn't quite as free as he should have been once he was released and he found himself harassed by cops wanting his scalp and returned to jail.
Marrying a white woman made him an additional target.
But Bragg continued to make music (not always as successfully as with the Prisonaires, on Sun and Decca among other labels) and in the course of his long life went from unstrapping dead prisoners from the electric chair to tux'n'tails at governor's banquets, meeting the politically shapers and music stars like Hank Williams (Bragg said he sold Williams what became Your Cheatin' Heart for $5), Ray Charles, LaVern Baker and Elvis who the Prisonaires jammed with for hours, and at one point when times were tough working in a cemetery.
His light but strong tenor in the context of the vocal groups he formed remains a delight and the life of Bragg – who was apparently born blind, gained his sight at 6 and died in 2004 at probably age 79 – is one unique in popular music.
And that's why we need to talk about Johnny Bragg.
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