Label: Bear Family
Catalog Number: BCD 16893
Format: CD digipack with booklet
Release date: May 10, 2011
The new Bear Family release, Only Believe… tells part of the endlessly fascinating story of the Prisonaires, a vocal R&B group founded in the early 1940s at the Nashville State Penitentiary in Tennessee. While it was not uncommon at the time for groups of prisoners to form causal singing ensembles to pass away their sentences, the Prisonaires were an exceptional case who, through a series of chance events, became Southern celebrities. They had both the right mix of talent, with lead tenor Johnny Bragg providing new original songs, and the right timing, with a new prison leadership focused on rehabilitation and community involvement. They were signed to Sun Records and released recordings on Excello as well, all the while remaining prisoners of the State of Tennessee.
While there have been previous compilations that anthologize the Prisonaires’ Sun and Excello releases, Only Believe… features previously unreleased concert recordings and alternative tracks that provide unique historical insight into various aspects of the group’s career. For example, at the time these recordings were made, around the early 1960s, the prison had begun to receive negative press for wasting money by allowing the Prisonaires to travel and record. The prison warden saw an opportunity to change public opinion and make money by developing a program to sell indulgences—personalized songs and recordings from the Prisonaires for wealthy sponsors. This album draws from one such rare record and is primarily a concert of the Prisonaires performing for a wealthy donor. There are introductions to songs by the Prisonaires, thanking the warden and asking for the well-wishes of the sponsor. The spiel is clearly scripted and rehearsed but serves as a useful historical framing device. Also included are six alternative versions of songs recorded for Sun Records by the Prisonaires, plus eleven tracks by the Solotones and the Marigolds (later prison groups led by Johnny Bragg).
The sacred and secular songs on Only Believe… are well performed by the groups but will probably be of only causal interest to all but the most devoted Prisonaires fan. The album is still worthwhile, however, for the historical value of the previously unheard concert, as well as the account of the recording career of this one-of-a-kind group in the meticulous booklet written by Martin Hawkins.
Reviewed by Dorothy Berry
Editor’s Note: Bear Family released the Prisonaires early recordings in the 1994 compilation Just Walkin’ in the Rain), and is planning one additional CD, World of Make Believe, which will contain all the rare and unissued recordings by Johnny Bragg as a solo vocalist. For more on the Prisonaires, see also Jay Warner’s 2001 biography Just Walkin’ in the Rain: The True Story of the Prisonaires: the Convict Pioneers of R & B and Rock & Roll.