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Stars Behind Bars: Chuck Berry

| October 18, 2010 | 12 Comments

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

From “Stars Behind Bars,” featuring stories on Chuck Berry, David Crosby, Paul McCartney, Jerry Lee Lewis, Merle Haggard and James Brown

June 2006, Issue 94

Category: Best of PS

Comments (12)

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  1. Retired from MODOC says:

    He did spend time in a the Missouri prison system. I saw the mugshot before it was sent to Archives.

  2. Aidan Stewart says:

    I do not know if all this stuff I read is true or not, but I do know this that there are many other people branded as Pedophiles for the same thing.

  3. Grandfather Michael B says:

    Some of the negative hateful comments sound like Faux New. Haters please stay with the facts, When he was a teenager he did get arrested for stupid stuff, when I was that age I and most of us did stupid stuff and got lucky because we did not get caught or had the right lawyer or family connections. The Mann Act charge was the same BS as the boxer Jack Johnson got charged with as racist white people did not like the idea of a black musician and a white girl and sex,regarding her age, prove it, she had no birth certificate or ID, was a convicted hooker but claiming being underage helped the DA make the case in front of an all white male jury just 20 minutes from Ferguson Mo. where recently a white policeman,D. Wilson got a free walk from the DA and a white Grand Jury for gunning down an unarmed black Michael Brown. Can’t be any racism in America at least according to my conservative friends who keep drinking the Fox kool-Aid.I am an old Irish American grandfather who thinks the shortest phrase in the Bible (Jesus wept)was because he could foresee our current racist mindset from forty percent of our population. How sad.

  4. Gilles says:

    Who are you Mr LeClade to call Chuck Berry a “lowlife”, not to mention “scumbag”? The whole planet knows his music and his name, how many will even care on the day YOU lose your oh so “crucial” life..

    • Johnny says:

      I agree with you. None of us is perfect. Chuck was a guy who gave the world a lot of pleasure. Anyway at that time you could get married at age 13 in some states.

  5. Hugo says:

    @ RnR_Man
    An in depth interview appeared in Rolling Stone magazine around that year. I son’t have a copy of that, and I don’t remember anything about this case, but most likely this is the most serious interview Berry did in thos days.

  6. Thomas LeClade says:

    What a lowlife. Taking up with a 14-year old (you can’t tell 21 from 14 Chuck? come on), lying about his arrest and then revising the lie into a positive. Oh, and an armed robber as well! Chuck likely pimped the girl out as well.


  7. Robert says:

    chuck berry was incarcerated at the federal prison camp in lompoc ca in 1979. I know because I worked at the prison he also put on a show inside the maximum prison.

    • Joe says:

      I sent Chuck Berry a letter of support when he was in Lompoc (a federal tax beef, maybe). In December 1979, shortly after his release, I received a handwritten form letter in reply, thanking those of us who wrote him. The return address was a house in Hollywood, but the postmark was St. Louis.

  8. RnR_Man says:

    A minor correction: The dates of his first prison stay are off. He was arrested at age 17 in 1944, and was released on his 21st birthday, Oct. 18 1947. Therefore, it should be 1944-47, not 1947-50.

    Anyone know where the 1972 interview appeared? That would be interesting to read. I never knew there was a time that Berry denied going to prison in the early 60’s. Perhaps he was just messing with the interviewer?

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