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.
When Chuck Berry passed away in 2017 at the age of 90, plenty of commentators, musicians and critics dubbed him the “Father of Rock & Roll.”
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.(more…)