Crime: Violation of the Mann Act
Term: Three years (served 20 months)
Prison: Federal Medical Center, Springfield, Mo.
If you read the biography on Chuck Berry’s official website, you will find no mention of the word prison. This bit of revisionist history glosses over the fact that the rock pioneer has been incarcerated three different times.
From 1947-1950, he served two and a half years for armed robbery. It was an interstate spree, with the 19-year-old Berry hijacking a car at gunpoint, then sticking up a gas station and a convenience store. In 1979, he did three months for tax evasion. But Berry’s most notorious stint was from February 1962-October 1963, for violation of the Mann Act (“transporting an underage female across state lines for immoral purposes”).
The trouble started on Dec. 1, 1959. Before a concert in El Paso, Texas, Berry and his band stopped in Juarez, Mexico. After hitting a few strip clubs, they had lunch at a local cantina, where Berry flirted with a girl at the next table. Janice Escalante was a full-blooded Apache Indian and a 14-year-old runaway from Yuma, Ariz. (she told Berry she was 21). On a whim, he invited her to work as a hostess at his nightclub, Club Bandstand, back in St. Louis; his idea was that she would dress in Pocahantas-style garb. She accepted and joined the band for the rest of the tour.
According to Escalante, she became Berry’s lover on the road. But in his autobiography, Berry claims it was strictly a case of Johnny being good: “It was no easy thing to lay off of her when she proceeded to undress right before me and climb into my bed. But without the challenge that usually confronts a guy, I managed to postpone the joys, thinking we’d have a chance on the road later.”
When they arrived in St. Louis, Escalante started hostessing at Club Bandstand. A few weeks later, Berry was back on the road and heard that Escalante had stopped showing up for work. Worse, the local police had been asking to speak to him regarding a teenage employee of his who’d been arrested for prostitution at a downtown hotel.
After two separate hearings—what Berry called “the Indian trials”—he was fined $10,000 and sentenced to three years in prison.
For years, Berry would deny the whole incident. In a 1972 interview he said, “That’s the misconceptions that people have, that Chuck Berry went to jail. They’re just totally wrong. It might have said something in the large papers in the bigger city headlines and things. But, you take a look at any of the local papers and you will see that I was acquitted. I never went to jail.”
Fifteen years later, in his autobiography, Berry finally admitted to doing time, but recast the sentence as a period of self-improvement. “I spent all of my off-duty time studying business management, business law, accounting [perhaps this led him to those cash-up front performances], typing, world history . . . ”
Berry had another brush with the law in 1989, when he was caught secretly videotaping women in the bathroom of his restaurant, The Southern Air. A former employee took him to court with a suit that alleged that the tapes “were created for the improper purpose of the gratification” of Berry’s “sexual fetishes.” Several women followed with similar class-action suits. Chuck denied it all. Shortly after The Southern Air was closed, the Feds raided his estate. Along with firearms and marijuana, a cache of videotapes was found, showing underage females in sexual poses. This kept Berry in court for over a year. Charges were finally dropped when the prosecuting attorney became embroiled in his own financial scandal.
As Berry narrowly escaped a fourth go-round in the hoosegow, you could almost hear echoes of his song “Thirty Days”:
If I don’t get no satisfaction from the judge /I’m gonna take it to the FBI as a personal grudge
If they don’t give me no consolation / I’m gonna take it to the United Nations.
By Bill DeMain
Photo by Robert Altman, 1969
Category: Best of PS