Johnny Bragg came to the music business by a stranger route than most other artists. When he formed his first group and began to write songs, he was doing serious time in a Tennessee prison for rape. Falsely accused of numerous counts of the crime at the age of 16 and convicted at 17, Bragg had already begun serving six sentences of 99 years each when he began singing. The court had ordered that he serve his sentences consecutively. While singing with a group of other inmates he called the Prisonaires, and with a decade of time served already under his belt, he came to the attention of a reform-minded governor and eventually to the notice of Sam Phillips, who recorded Bragg on his Sun label. Many evenings, Bragg and his fellow bandmates left prison walls behind to perform at concerts held in such esteemed venues as the governor's mansion. Bragg and the Prisonaires also sang on television. Their list of appearances also included the home of Al Gore, Sr. All the while they were performing, they were held under armed guard before being transported back to their tiny cells.
In retrospect, it seems Bragg might not have received the big musical break with Phillips if he hadn't also gotten one of the worst breaks of his life by being wrongly accused and convicted. Just Walkin' in the Rain, a book about Bragg and his group of musical prisoners written by Jay Warner, was published in 2001 by Renaissance Books. A CD titled The Johnny Bragg Story: Just Walkin' in the Rain was also issued that year by Relentless. Bragg led the Prisonaires during the 1950s. Later he sang with two other groups, the Solotones and the Marigolds, who recorded on the label Excello. He also recorded as a solo act for ElBeJay and Tree Music in 1959. His greatest claim to fame, however, came when he wrote the best-selling "Just Walkin' in the Rain." Bragg and the Prisonaires first recorded the song in 1953. Three years later, Johnnie Ray's version soared up the charts, barely missing the top spot. Jim Reeves also made a cover of the song. BMI acknowledged Bragg with honors in 1988 when the number of times "Just Walkin' in the Rain" had been played on the radio topped a million.
While Bragg surely got a bad break when he was sent off to prison, the periods of his life that bracket his time behind bars weren't much easier. A native of Nashville, he was blind from the time of his birth in 1926. His affliction suddenly disappeared when he was around the age of six or seven. His teen years were marked by small-time scrapes with local authorities. Bragg eventually was released from prison when Tennessee's governor, before leaving office, commuted his sentence early in 1959. Bragg landed back in jail a few more times before finally leaving prison life behind for good in 1977. ~ Linda Seida