Welcome to (Legal) Career Killers — a series that looks at how the law, lawyers or lawsuits killed a band’s or artist’s careers. In other words: They fought the law and the law won.
After all, if anyone helped form what we now know as rock & roll, it was Berry. There were better guitarists, but Berry’s flamboyant playing style and flair for creating simple yet infinitely catchy and memorable riffs established a template for countless musicians to follow, including arguably the two greatest and most influential rock bands of all time: The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
He was a talented songwriter who created some of the best and most popular songs of all time — songs that still hold up to this day, like “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music” and “Johnny B. Goode,” among many others.
Perhaps most importantly, his appeal to audiences of all ages and races (especially as a Black man whose career peaked in the 50s) represented the ultimate ideal of rock and roll as a utopian, unifying force that transcended color and class.
And of course, his offstage debauchery and repeated run-ins with the law made him a trailblazing rock star in other ways. Berry was arrested multiple times on charges ranging from assault to tax evasion to drug possession to child abuse. He was also sued by multiple women for allegedly videotaping them using the restroom in his restaurant without their knowledge. And years before R. Kelly was accused of recording himself urinating on young girls, Berry starred in homemade porn tapes involving Golden Showers and Cleveland Steamers (look it up, but not if you’re in a public place).
But there was one arrest in December 1959 that was so controversial and generated so much outrage that it, effectively, killed his career. It also set him on the path towards establishing another rock cliché: the aging, over-the-hill star who makes a living by becoming a fixture of the oldies circuit.
In four short years from his recording debut in 1955 to his 1959 arrest, Chuck Berry was, arguably, the biggest rock star in the world. During that time period, Berry scored nine Top 40 hits on the Billboard 100, including five Top Tens. He had also starred in several rock-themed movies as himself, including Go, Johnny, Go! (1959), in which performed “Johnny B. Goode,” appropriately enough.
These were the early days of rock & roll. What the music seemed to stand for – a youthful refusal to defer to adult authority, a preference for turbulent sounds made from outsider forms like blues, boogie and hillbilly, and a willingness among young whites and blacks to listen to and adopt one another’s music, to gather and dance to it – signaled social change that both anticipated and corresponded to the emerging civil-rights struggle. Berry’s charisma and sexiness, his lyrical and musical brilliance and his early edge in the game (Elvis Presley had not yet ascended) made him a natural point man for this change.Mikal Gilmore, “Chuck Berry: Farewell to the Father of Rock,” Rolling Stone, April 7, 2017.
But it also made him a target. As Rolling Stone points out, Berry’s love of women of all races had already resulted in several scrapes with the law to the point where he believed authorities were trying to set him up so he could be charged with violating the Mann Act.
That was no small matter. Known officially as “The White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910,” the Mann Act was a powerful criminal statute that forbade the transportation of any female across state lines “for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” Authored by U.S. Representative James Robert Mann (R-IL), the act reflected a pervasive fear that perverted and depraved foreigners were invading the country and kidnapping sweet innocent white girls (hence the “white slavery” part of the law’s name) and forcing them to become sex workers.
One thing should be made very clear to the girl who comes up to the city, and that is that the ordinary ice cream parlor is very likely to be a spider’s web for her entanglement. This is perhaps especially true of those ice cream saloons and fruit stores kept by foreigners. Scores of cases are on record where young girls have taken their first step towards “white slavery” in places of this character. And it is hardly too much to say that a week does not pass in Chicago without the publication in some daily paper of the details of a police court case in which the ice cream parlor of this type is the scene of a regrettable tragedy.Ernest Bell, Fighting The Traffic in Young Girls or War on the White Slave Trade, 1910
The Mann Act was meant to combat interstate sex trafficking, but its language was broad enough that it was used to punish all sorts of behaviors found to be “immoral.” For instance, Charlie Chaplin was charged with violating the statute after having an affair with a younger woman that involved her traveling cross-country. Frank Lloyd Wright also got brought up on Mann Act charges after marrying for a third time (the scharges were dropped).
The Mann Act was especially effective at punishing Black men who engaged in consensual interracial relationships. Put simply, if a Black man and white woman fell in love and traveled to another state to get married, then they could be subject to the Mann Act if authorities considered said union to be “immoral.”
That’s what happened to Jack Johnson. Like Berry, Johnson liked the ladies and didn’t discriminate in his tastes. The first Black heavyweight champion in boxing, Johnson was accused of violating the Mann Act in 1912, but the named victim, a white 18 year-old prostitute named Lucille Cameron, refused to cooperate and later married him.
So the feds immediately tried again, getting another white woman to testify that Johnson had transported her across state lines for the purpose of prostitution in 1909 and 1910. The alleged acts took place before the passage of the Mann Act, nevertheless, Johnson was convicted by an all-white jury in the courtroom of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the future baseball commissioner who stubbornly enforced the color barrier throughout his entire tenure. Johnson fled the U.S. and defended his title abroad for several years before returning and serving his sentence. He was posthumously pardoned in 2018.
Plenty of commentators and experts have argued that the prosecution of Johnson was racist in nature — revenge for being a bit too good at his job and making a few too many white boxers look bad at theirs.
As for Berry, there were similar dynamics at play. Accused of transporting Janice Escalanti, a 14 year-old Apache girl, across state lines and raping her repeatedly, Berry claimed he merely hired her to work in one of his clubs. Neither the jury nor judge bought it — the judge even used some racist language during the first trial that led to a successful appeal from Berry.
His retrial didn’t go much better for him and he ended up going to prison from February 1962 to October 1963.
Berry never admitted to any sexual impropriety with Escalanti, and years later he would grow cold or angry when interviewers brought it up. He would sometimes go so far as to deny he’d done any jail time on the matter – but he did: He served one and a half years in federal prison. He believed he’d been targeted by the press and by Missouri powers that weren’t happy with his interracial Club Bandstand in St. Louis.Gilmore, Rolling Stone, April 7,2018
Berry’s career never really recovered after his prison sentence. While he never went away, it was clear that his days as a hitmaker and innovator were over. In the first couple of years after his release, Berry had three Top 40 hits (including “No Particular Place to Go,” which hit #10), and a few minor hits. But then the well dried up until 1972, when he had the last two hits of his career: a cover of a novelty song, “My Ding-a-Ling,” that became a fluke #1 (the song is about exactly what you think it is), and a live version of his 1957 hit Reelin’ and Rockin’ that hit #27.
Nevertheless, he remained relevant as an entire generation of singer-songwriters such as Brian Wilson, Keith Richards and John Lennon paid their respects to him and tried to emulate him. There was no shortage of A-listers willing to perform with their idol, and Berry was happy to share the stage and spotlight with them (although I’m sure he rethought his priorities during this performance with Lennon when Yoko Ono started shrieking into the microphone for no discernible reason).
He also remained in demand as a live act — provided you paid him in cash before he took the stage and didn’t file a W-2. His shows could be hit-or-miss, though. To keep expenses low and maximize profits, he started touring without a backup band, instead simply hiring some local musicians wherever he went. On the one hand, this allowed him to unearth some rising stars like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and Steve Miller. On the other hand, it also led to some poor performances since it’s not like you can find those types of musicians in every city. Plus even the best bands need time to practice with their leader — too bad Berry had about as much respect for practice as Allen Iverson did.
Then, in 1986 two big things happened. First, filmmaker Taylor Hackford got the idea to stage a couple of concerts to celebrate Berry’s 60th birthday and recruited several all star musicians to take part, including Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Etta James, Linda Ronstadt, Julian Lennon and others. The resulting documentary film, Hail! Hail! Rock & Roll, wasn’t a major success but it helped introduce Berry to a new generation of fans who had probably first heard of him the previous year, when “Johnny B. Goode” was used in a memorable scene in the box office smash Back to the Future.
Also that year, the Mann Act finally got some much needed changes. Congress removed the open-ended language applying the law to “debauchery or for any other immoral purpose,” instead restricting the Mann Act to prostitution or “any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense.” The law was also amended to be gender neutral, protecting all persons rather than just females. In recent years, the Mann Act has been used against the likes of R. Kelly and Ghislaine Maxwell.
As for Berry, he settled into a pattern of touring constantly, getting in trouble with the law, generating embarrassing headlines and performing alongside awestruck A-Listers. The Mann Act conviction resulted in him spending most of his entire post-incarceration career as an oldies act who hadn’t been relevant in decades. Nevertheless, his stature and influence ensured he would never become irrelevant. Hail, hail rock & roll, indeed.