Legendary musician Chuck Berry has died at the age of 90.
In the aftermath of this saddening news, fans everywhere are taking time to reflect upon Berry’s incredible life and legacy. One important part of Berry’s story is the fact that he spent a year and a half in prison in the 1960s, with this time behind bars later being pointed to as something that changed Berry as a person forever. So what’s the story behind Chuck Berry’s prison time?
On December 23rd, 1959, Chuck Berry was arrested in St. Louis, Missouri, charged with violating the Mann Act. This is a federal law which makes it illegal to engage in the transportation of an individual for “prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” It was intended to crack down on human trafficking and prostitution, but in a number of cases, it was used to target high profile black men; boxer Jack Johnson was also charged with violating the Mann Act in a case that was highly racially motivated.
While performing on the road, Berry had met a 14-year-old waitress, Janice Norine Escalanti, and he invited her to come work at his nightclub in St. Louis. However, she was fired from the club after only a few weeks. Berry said that he fired her because she came on to him at work.
According to the book American Legends: The Life of Chuck Berry, it didn’t help Berry’s case that Escalanti had a background in prostitution, and some firsthand accounts suggest that he was flirting with her on the road, something that Berry vehemently denied. Not long after she was fired, Escalanti was arrested on charges of prostitution, she told the police about her working situation with Berry, and this lead to his arrest.
At the conclusion of a two-week trial, Berry was sentenced to five years in prison. He appealed, arguing that the judge was racist and biased against him; the jury in the case also consisted entirely of white men.
Berry’s appeal was successful, but in the second trial, he was convicted again, this time to three years in prison. He appealed a third time, and in the end, Berry spent a year and a half in prison. During this time, his Club Bandstand was closed down.
According to The New York Times, Bruce Pegg writes in the biography Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life and Hard Times of Chuck Berry, “The issue in the trials was one of Janice Escalanti’s age. But as with everything in Berry’s life there’s always an ambiguity — that he is as much a victim as perpetrator.”
Pegg also says that during the trial, “Every witness that got on the stand, when they identified somebody, the judge would interrupt and say ‘Was that a white man or a black man?’ attempting to remind the jury at every turn that they needed to view the events through the lens of race.”
For a while, Berry flatly denied that he even went to prison at all, saying in a 1972 interview, “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.”
However, Berry later admitted that he did in fact go to jail. In his autobiography, he refers to this time in prison as being a period of self-improvement. He remained musically active behind bars, writing a number of songs that later became hits including “Promised Land,” a song with lyrics describing a road trip across the United States.
Berry was released from prison in 1963, and he quickly resumed his career. Later, in 1979, Berry plead guilty to tax evasion, and he served 120 days in federal prison plus four years’ probation and 1,000 hours of community service.