Written By: Ben Cosgrove

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. 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 their personae all contained that element of 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 were actual prisoners, all of them doing hard time for serious offenses. Here, LIFE.com offers a series of unpublished pictures of the Prisonaires from 1953.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.

Members of the incarcerated musical group the Prisonaires, Tennessee, 1953.

Members of the incarcerated musical group the Prisonaires, Tennessee, 1953.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The incarcerated musical group the Prisonaires performs for other inmates, Tennessee State Penitentiary, 1953.

The incarcerated musical group the Prisonaires performed for other inmates, Tennessee State Penitentiary, 1953.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The incarcerated musical group the Prisonaires performs for other inmates, Tennessee State Penitentiary, 1953.

The incarcerated musical group the Prisonaires performed for other inmates, Tennessee State Penitentiary, 1953.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Robert Riley, serving 10 to 16 years for housebreaking, sits in his cell composing music, Tennessee State Penitentiary, 1953. Riley co-wrote the hit song, "Just Walkin' in the Rain."

Robert Riley, serving 10 to 16 years for housebreaking, sat in his cell composing music, Tennessee State Penitentiary, 1953. Riley co-wrote the hit song, “Just Walkin’ in the Rain.”

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Members of the incarcerated musical group the Prisonaires, Tennessee, 1953.

Members of the incarcerated musical group the Prisonaires, Tennessee, 1953.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Prisoners talk through heavy screens to friends and relatives, Tennessee State Penitentiary, 1953.

Prisoners talked through heavy screens to friends and relatives, Tennessee State Penitentiary, 1953.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Prisonaire William Stewart and night warden, Tennessee State Penitentiary, 1953.

Prisonaire William Stewart and night warden, Tennessee State Penitentiary, 1953.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Prisoners talk through heavy screens to friends and relatives, Tennessee State Penitentiary, 1953.

Prisoners talked through heavy screens to friends and relatives, Tennessee State Penitentiary, 1953.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Members of the incarcerated musical group the Prisonaires rehearse in the prison auditorium, Tennessee, 1953.

Members of the incarcerated musical group the Prisonaires rehearsed in the prison auditorium, Tennessee, 1953.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Members of the incarcerated musical group the Prisonaires, Tennessee, 1953.

Members of the incarcerated musical group the Prisonaires, Tennessee, 1953.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The Prisonaires leave Tennessee State Penitentiary for a performance, 1953.

The Prisonaires left Tennessee State Penitentiary for a performance, 1953.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The Prisonaires at Kane Street Baptist Church, Nashville, Tenn., 1953.

The Prisonaires at Kane Street Baptist Church, Nashville, Tenn., 1953.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

"Prisonnaires" of Nashville

The Prisonaires

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The Prisonaires at Kane Street Baptist Church, Nashville, Tenn., 1953.

The Prisonaires at Kane Street Baptist Church, Nashville, Tenn., 1953.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The Prisonaires at Kane Street Baptist Church, Nashville, Tenn., 1953.

The Prisonaires at Kane Street Baptist Church, Nashville, Tenn., 1953.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The Prisonaires at Kane Street Baptist Church, Nashville, Tenn., 1953.

The Prisonaires at Kane Street Baptist Church, Nashville, Tenn., 1953.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The Prisonaires' guard rests at Kane Street Baptist Church, Nashville, Tenn., 1953.

The Prisonaires’ guard rested at Kane Street Baptist Church, Nashville, Tenn., 1953.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

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The Prisonaires performed at Tennessee State Penitentiary warden James Edwards’ home, Nashville, Tenn., 1953.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The Prisonaires perform at Tennessee State Penitentiary warden James Edwards' home, Nashville, Tenn., 1953.

The Prisonaires performed at Tennessee State Penitentiary warden James Edwards’ home, Nashville, Tenn., 1953.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The Prisonaires under the watchful eyes of guards, Nashville, Tenn., 1953.

The Prisonaires under the watchful eyes of guards, Nashville, Tenn., 1953.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Prisonaire Marcell Sanders, Tennessee State Penitentiary, 1953.

Prisonaire Marcell Sanders, Tennessee State Penitentiary, 1953.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Prisonaire Johnny Bragg, Tennessee State Penitentiary, 1953.

Prisonaire Johnny Bragg, Tennessee State Penitentiary, 1953.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Prisonaire and convicted murderer Ed Thurman inspects cloth in prison textile school, Tennessee State Penitentiary, 1953.

Prisonaire and convicted murderer Ed Thurman inspected cloth in prison textile school, Tennessee State Penitentiary, 1953.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Members of the incarcerated musical group the Prisonaires, Tennessee, 1953.

Members of the incarcerated musical group the Prisonaires, Tennessee, 1953.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Prisoners at the Tennessee State Penitentiary auditorium, 1953.

Prisoners at the Tennessee State Penitentiary auditorium, 1953.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Members of the incarcerated musical group the Prisonaires prepare to perform, Tennessee, 1953.

Members of the Prisonaires prepared to perform, Tennessee, 1953.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Members of the incarcerated musical group the Prisonaires with sheet music of their first hit song, Tennessee, 1953.

The Prisonaires posed with sheet music of their first hit song, Tennessee, 1953.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Writing music, Tennessee State Penitentiary, 1953.

Writing music, Tennessee State Penitentiary, 1953.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

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