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Death of an unknown legend - Johnny Bragg

Country Musings by Robert Loy, October 2004

I believe I've mentioned before that I am an obituary aficionado. I read them every day because it's important to me to see that people who have made significant contributions to our culture get a proper send-off. And I have to say that when Johnny Bragg died on Sept. 1 of this year, he did not get the farewell he deserved.

But then he didn't get the welcome he deserved either.

Bragg was born in 1925 in the poor black side of Nashville. His mother died giving him life. According to some accounts, he was born blind and somehow gained his sense of sight at the age of six. He was a troubled young man and had already been in jail for riding in a stolen car when he found his girlfriend in bed with another man and beat her. The young lady, who had to think of some way to explain the bruises to her mother, said that Johnny had raped her.

The police picked him up, tricked him into signing a confession (Bragg left school at age 11) and then pinned 6 more unsolved rapes on him, 1 of them involving a white woman. Even though his girlfriend retracted her accusation, Johnny was sentenced to 6 99-year sentences to run consecutively. (I'll do the math for you, that's 594 years.)

In the Tennessee State Penitentiary, Johnny Bragg caught one of the few breaks his life would yield him. Governor Frank Clement believed in the possibility of rehabilitation, and he had instituted a controversial prison-reform program.

Bragg was allowed to form a musical group with other inmates that would perform for prisoners before execution. The group became known as the Prisonaires. The group performed at the Governor's mansion and for visiting dignitaries like President Harry Truman. In 1953, they were allowed to visit a recording studio in Memphis and record "Just Walking in the Rain" a song which Bragg had co-written.

A few years later, a pop singer named Johnny Ray would record that song, and it would go on to sell more than a million copies.

But that was not "Just Walking in the Rain"'s biggest claim to fame. For the studio that Johnny Bragg and the Prisonaires visited that day was Sun Records; it was run by a man you may have heard of named Sam Phillips. And the song caught the attention of a young truck driver named Elvis Presley, who shortly thereafter went to Sun Records, recorded a couple of demo tracks and changed musical history forever.

And if my name was Paul Harvey, right here is where I'd say, "And now you know. . . the rest of the story."

But you wouldn't. Because although none of the American obits I've seen mentioned this, the following story was included in many European obituaries, including the London Independent.

A country singer named Hank Williams played a concert at the prison where Bragg was incarcerated. Bragg managed to talk to the singer after the show and asked him if he ever performed other people's songs. Hank said he might, it depended on the song. Bragg played him a tune he'd written and Williams bought it for five dollars.

The song was "Your Cheatin' Heart."

Maybe that happened, and maybe it didn't. One thing's for sure. Johnny Bragg was a talented man who overcame a lot of obstacles to made a huge - and let's hope not anonymous - contribution to American music.

Mr. Bragg is survived by a daughter, Misti Bragg, and two grandchildren. The views in this column are those of Robert Loy and do not necessarily reflect those of CST.

The views expressed in this column are Robert Loy's and do not necessarily reflect those of CST.