Stars Behind Bars: LIFE With the Prisonaires

Members of the incarcerated musical group the Prisonaires, Tennessee, 1953.
Robert W. Kelley—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Members of the incarcerated musical group the Prisonaires, Tennessee, 1953.
Culture
'50s

For much of the 20th century and well into the 21st, much of popular music — rock and roll,  R&B, hip hop — has banked on the appeal of the rebel, the outsider and even the straight-up criminal to sell records and provide a kind of cartoonish “cred”to what is, at heart, a business and entertainment enterprise. (Death Row Records, anyone?) But arguably no single label in the history of music had as many true hell-raisers and genuine pioneers as Sam Phillips’ Sun Records. Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and, of course, Elvis Presley were all early Sun stars, and the music they made — as well as the personae they perfected — possessed the one quality that’s always vied with sex for the almighty dollar: danger.

But another Sun act, signed to the label in the early 1950s, was comprised of five men who made Sun’s more famous bad boys look like proverbial choir boys. The doo-wop group the Prisonaires was not comprised of miscreants occasionally jailed overnight for misdemeanors. They were not musicians who performed in prisons. They did not play hell-raisers in the movies. The Prisonaires were actual prisoners, all of them doing hard time for serious offenses. Here, on the 50th anniversary of the closing of one of America’s most notorious prisons — Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary — and the anniversary of the date when Alan Freed held what’s widely considered the first-ever rock and roll concert in 1952, LIFE.com reflects on the nexus of crime and the creative impulse,  while offering a series of unpublished pictures of the Prisonaires from 1953.

The group was led by Johnny Bragg who, by the time LIFE’s Robert W. Kelley was photographing the quintet, had been an inmate at Tennessee State Penitentiary for a solid decade; he was convicted at the age of 17 on six charges of rape. The other Prisonaires included convicted murderers Ed Thurman and William Stewart, Marcell Sanders (involuntary manslaughter) and John Drue Jr. (locked up for for larceny). One of their very first singles, “Just Walkin’ in the Rain,” written by Bragg and fellow inmate Robert Riley, was a solid hit for Sun Records in 1953 — and three years later was an absolute smash for Johnnie Ray, his version eventually reaching #2 on the Billboard chart and #1 in England.

The Prisonaires never became megastars, but even while incarcerated they definitely had fans, sold records and were often allowed out of Tennessee State (under guard, of course) to perform at VFW halls, in churches, on TV and, frequently, at the prison warden’s home, where they’d sing for the warden, James Edwards, his wife and their two kids, Joyce and Jim.

Read more about the Prisonaires — and other legendary R&B and rock and roll acts — on the Sun Records site.

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