Just Walkin’ In The Rain
One day, the story goes — and it’s a true story — Johnny Bragg walked in on his teenage girlfriend and his best friend. A fight ensued (he lost), and the explanation she offered her parents was that Bragg had raped her. The Nashville police, young black male in hand, brought a succession of other rape victims in, all of whom identified Bragg, and off to prison he went. Six 99-year sentences with no possibility of parole. He was 16 years old.
Maybe Martin Luther King did his work too well, for it seems almost impossible to imagine that this was routine business in 1943, but apparently it was. And 1943 wasn’t that long ago.
Johnny Bragg didn’t achieve his fame as a symbol of injustice, but as a singer, as the writer of “Just Walkin’ In The Rain” (a huge hit for Johnny Ray in 1956), and as a symbol of prison reform.
Tennessee twice had a governor named Frank Clement, a reform-minded Democrat who navigated difficult and uncertain Southern waters, and once had vice-presidential aspirations. (He was killed in a car crash in 1969.) Clement installed a new warden at Bragg’s prison, and the informal doo-wop group — one of many on the grounds — who came to be dubbed the Prisonaires became the governor’s house band.
They met Elvis. They played nightclubs. They recorded (and his collected work has just been reissued by Relentless Records as The Johnny Bragg Story, including the Prisonaires, the Marigolds, and Bragg’s solo work). Membership in the group (and subsequent ensembles) changed according to prison time and parole board whims. One member declined parole to stay with the group.
Bragg was pardoned. Then arrested on another silly charge, imprisoned, then released again. When Gov. Clement died, Bragg was working at a graveyard, digging and singing over the newly deceased.
It is a Kafka-esque story, recounted by Jay Warner, a Grammy-winning music publisher and writer. He is a serviceable but not spectacular prose stylist (certainly not Taylor Branch, say). His research seems sound, and it helps that most of the parties cooperated.
Johnny Bragg sang with a silky, smooth, effortless voice, thoroughly at odds with the harshness of his life. So much so that it is difficult to connect the sound of his music to the story of his life. All the more reason to honor an extraordinary man.