The Fabulous ’50s: Unravel the mystery of Sun 207

By  Hank Davis

By any reckoning, Sun 207 by the Prisonaires is a mysterious record. There are at least two good reasons for all that mystery. First, try to find a copy. There were probably fewer than 500 copies originally pressed, and by now, you’re competing with both doo-wop afficianados and Sun collectors.

Fab50sPrisonaires.jpgSecond, if you can listen to Sun 207 (which is admittedly easier to do than buying a copy), you’ll probably come away a tad confused. In particular, it’s the ballad side, “There Is Love In You,” that tends to mystify musicologists and collectors alike. Just what do we have here? Is this a love song or a spiritual?

More on that later. For now, let’s focus on how and when the record was made.

Sun 207 was recorded by the Prisonaires barely two months before Elvis started using Sun’s little studio at 706 Union Ave. as his personal playground and music-therapy workshop. The best information we have lists May 8, 1954, as the recording date. As far as we know, this was at least the sixth time the Prisonaires had recorded a session for Sun, and it may have been their last. As they had on at least one previous occasion, the group stayed put. It was label owner Sam Phillips (and his portable tape recorder) who made the trip. The session was held inside the walls of Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville.

The Prisonaires had already seen their names on three Sun releases, enjoying one hit record in the process. Their first release, “Just Walking In The Rain” (Sun 186), sold moderately well for the quartet and composer Johnny Bragg in 1953, but it was Johnny Ray’s pop version for Columbia Records in 1955 that brought the song to national attention. More often than not, the real-life saga of the Prisonaires was merely a colorful anecdote your local DJ could share while he queued up Ray’s hit version.

The Prisonaires “quartet” actually contained five voices: lead singer Johnny Bragg, Ed Thurman and John Drue (both tenors), baritone William Stewart (who also played acoustic guitar) and bass singer Marcel Sanders. Whatever else you could say about them, the Prisonaires had plenty of time to practice. Their repertoire consisted largely of spirituals, pop ballads and R&B/jump tunes. Listening to the nearly two dozen titles that survive in the Sun vaults (issued on Bear Family BCD 15523), it is clear that the group did its share of listening to mainstream artists like the Ink Spots and Louis Jordan. They were entertainers rather than innovators; it is simply their unique circumstances that raise them above a footnote in recorded music history.

Which is not to say they didn’t make some fine records. Many collectors single out not their most famous side, the plaintive “Just Walking In The Rain,” but rather their unusually spirited version of the gospel standard “Softly and Tenderly” (Sun 189).

Supported only by Ike Turner’s piano, the recording exudes drive, passion and authenticity. It sounds as if Phillips barely managed to hit the record button in time, as the group spontaneously broke into joyous song. There is no denying the honesty of the recording, made all the more noteworthy by its unusual tempo. “Softly and Tenderly” is normally — one is tempted to say always — taken at a slow, even dirge-like pace. Here, it positively rocks.

But our focus here is on the ballad side of Sun 207. The uptempo “What Do You Do Next” is propelled by William Stewart’s acoustic guitar and some bongos played by an anonymous fellow inmate of the Nashville Penitentiary, whose identity has long since disappeared into the mists of time.
The song, written by Bragg and fellow Prisonaire William Stewart, is an ode to distrust. Despite its brief (1:30) running time, the material is both strong and catchy. The release (“Don’t tell me you’re not giving…”) really soars.

But it is the ballad flipside that has continued to draw attention to Sun 207 for the past half century. The song is called “There is Love In You.” Basing your answer solely on the title, what do you imagine this little ditty might be about? You’re almost better off trying to guess without hearing the record.

Before putting the mystery front and center, where it belongs, the fact is that whatever the song is about, it is beautiful. This is, quite simply, a gorgeous composition, performed to perfection with sweetness as well as unresolved tension. Despite the relatively simple chord changes, the song manages to be a lot more complex musically than anything else the group ever recorded. And that’s just the music. When you start to consider the lyrics, you realize you’ve got something pretty special on your hands.

Here’s the dilemma in a nutshell: Is this a love song or a spiritual? Is lead singer William Stewart singing about his girlfriend or God? The original 45 label is no help, listing the performance as a “Blues Vocal,” which it plainly is not. The choices would seem to be spiritual or pop ballad. The God vs. girlfriend distinction seems quite odd. In fact, when was the last time you experienced that kind of confusion around a lyric? For most of us, the answer is probably “never.”

The wonderful thing here is that the lyrical confusion is probably unintentional. What drives this record is an almost achingly pure sense of loneliness or, perhaps even more deeply, emptiness.
How do you fill that space? Some men turn to women. Others turn to God. Many turn to both. It’s true; a romantic fantasy about your girlfriend and a spiritual encounter with the Big Guy may go about relieving that emptiness in different ways. But at some point — and remember, we’re not simply talking about sex here — thinking about a good woman and the good Lord probably provide similar benefits. If this is all sounding a little far-fetched, sample these lyrics.

There is joy in you
I want you so
There is peace in you
Everywhere you go

How’s it sounding so far? Still a bit fuzzy about whether this is an idealized woman or a deity? Let’s continue:

Somehow I seem to follow right in your footsteps
I’m so glad my heart won’t let us stay apart.

This is tougher than you thought, right? No disrespect intended, but girlfriend and deity both seem to bring out the best, most loving and devoted singer. Let’s continue.

There is hope in you
Faith keeps me strong.

Aha! “Faith.” Now the scales seem to be tipping toward the Big Guy. Hope is one thing. That’s still part of the girlfriend range. But faith seems more like something one has in God, not a girlfriend. So just when we’re ready to vote for the Man in the Sky, the proverbial other shoe drops. Here’s the next couplet:

There is rest in you
When you’re in my arms.

Whoops! That does it. The Lord may be many places, but “in my arms” is rarely among them. And yet… The final two lines do nothing to seal the deal. They simply say,

Just as you are
Is just the way I like
For you to be
I need you, yes I do
There is love in you.

And so you have it, straight from the Prisonaires. God, girlfriend, it’s all the same. Both feel good in a world that mostly feels bad. Either or both can be a source of hope, peace and love. The singer has faith in them. He follows in their footsteps and wants never to be apart from them. They are just as he wants them to be. Forever and ever, amen.

What a beautiful sentiment, really. One way or the other, it’s a heck of a relationship: uplifting and inspirational. And can you think of a more appropriate place to have such a relationship than sitting in a non-air-conditioned 6’ x 8’ prison cell in Tennessee in 1955? And that’s probably the key to the mystery. If this song was written in an office in 1650 Broadway by a couple of professional tunesmiths, they might be slapping each other on the backs for this clever bit of genre-bending. But turning up here in prison, this song gets our vote for the “strictly subconscious” approach to songwriting.

Those steeped in the Golden Age of TV might have drawn a parallel. Way back in the early ‘50s, not far from when this record was originally released, there was an episode of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” that charted similar waters. As I recall the story, Laura (Dick’s wife) is looking over some love poetry given to her back in her college days by a man who later became a priest. She has kept these romantic and flattering poems over the years until she realizes, very much after the fact, that they were written to God, not to her. The point is simply that she had been unable to tell the difference. Love is love; that much she got. Whether the object of this devotion is of this world or some other is sometimes harder to decipher.

Jay Warner’s book, “Just Walking In The Rain,” documents a continuing connection between Johnny Bragg and Elvis, beginning with the (possibly apocryphal) story of Elvis visiting the studio during a Prisonaires session and helping to shape Johnny Bragg’s delivery of a lyric. One additional connection between the Prisonaires and Elvis cannot be disputed, and it is a sad one indeed.

Short of cash, Sam Phillips recorded a Prisonaires session over outtakes of one of Elvis’ early studio ventures. How many precious studio moments back in 1954 were consigned to oblivion because Sam Phillips was so strapped for cash? (A 7-inch box of recording tape cost less than $5). Listening today to repeated takes of unreleased Prisonaires’ material like “Surleen,” “Rockin’ Horse” and “All Alone and Lonely” and hearing snippets of “Good Rockin’ Tonight” bleeding through is an unnerving experience.

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