Should We Celebrate Chuck Berry?

chuck berry

It goes without saying that Chuck Berry, who passed away last week aged 90, was one of the originators of rock ‘n’ roll. His songs were just about as racy, both in subject matter and actual speed, as was possible in the middle of the last century. As is evidenced by the outpouring of tributes from musicians who idolised him, he, with tracks like ‘Johnny B Goode’, ‘Never Can Tell’, and ‘No Particular Place To Go’, had an immeasurable influence on artists ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Paul McCartney to Bob Dylan. That’s quite a triumvirate to effect. You could even argue that he was one of the first to mix black rhythm and blues music with country music, therefore paving the way for Elvis while also bringing whites and blacks closer together in a time of extreme racial segregation.

However. He was also a convicted human trafficker and a proven sex offender. In 1959, Berry met a 14 year old Apache prostitute named Janice Escalanti in Texas. The story goes that he hired her to work as a ‘hatcheck’ girl at a nightclub he had invested in in St. Louis. When he fired her three years later she went to police. He was sentenced to three years in prison for “transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes.” Berry later said that, “She (Escalanti) was anything but innocent.” Rather than hurt his career, his jail sentence seemed to add authenticity to his position as a dangerous rock star.

Years later in 1990, Berry owned a restaurant in Missouri called The Southern Air. He set up a video camera in the women’s restroom and recorded two hundred patrons using it unbeknownst to them. He was sued by fifty nine women and he ended up paying out over $1 million dollars in compensation to those affected. Investigators estimated that some of the girls in the videos were as young as six years old. In Berry’s restaurant, all employees had to change into their uniforms at work. According to investigators, Berry had mirrors set up so he could watch the female employees get changed.

What is even more worrying is that this kind of ‘amnesia’ when it comes to artists that create wonderful music is pretty much rife. Jimmy Page kidnapped and raped the then fourteen year old Lori Maddix, John Lennon admitted he beat women in his young years, Miles Davis admitted the same, Iggy Pop had sex with Sable Starr when she was thirteen. The list is virtually endless.

What do you think? Should we condemn people like Chuck Berry? Or continue to celebrate them as if they are beyond reproach?

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  • Samantha Thomas

    And Obammy sword swallowed Larry Sinclair…….

    • Who hasn’t?!?!

    • James Cumberland

      looking at your comments, it seems you’re incapable of not talking about how much you hate democrats.

      I’m not going to try to convince you that Sinclair was full of it… anyone who takes even a cursory glance at who this guy is would at the very least be highly skeptical… but people like you, who can’t even comment about a musician without making it somehow about Obama, are insane.

      • Samantha Thomas

        Bet you think Obammy “saved” the economy too, huh genius? The old magic wand! LOL!

  • Tony Smith

    If you reach the age of 90 without having done a few dubious things in that near century good luck to you …honestly, raking up something from the 1950’s (that he did time for) is ridiculous. All rock bands had/have dealings with underage groupies – you might as well condemn rock and roll in its entierity. The girls are willing and they throw themselves at rock stars ….or footballers..

    • There’s a bit of victim blaming going on there. And as for raking something up from the 1950’s, I would agree with you if there was no more evidence of wrong doing for the rest of Berry’s life. However, there is continued evidence throughout his life of criminal activity.

    • James Cumberland

      “All rock bands had/have dealings with underage groupies”

      This is just not true… At all…

  • Steven Hill

    Throughout history brilliant creative minds have been reprehensible human beings are you just finding this out? Everything has been reported about Chuck Berry and he paid the price for his Crimes and Sickness. What do you Want?

    • Brilliance is not an excuse for reprehensible behaviour.

      • Steven Hill

        No one is excusing Chuck’s behavior he paid a price for it like Jail Time! If you want to eliminate a genius because of Bad Behavior or even worse Murder and Mayhem live in Mediocrity which You deserve

        • I don’t understand what you mean.

          • Steven Hill

            You probably prefer a life of Mediocrity

          • It would be preferable to being a sexual predator.

          • What Steven is saying, I think, is that if we refuse to listen to the music of every artist that made a bad decision (as mentioned in the article this would eliminate Berry, Paige, Lennon, Iggy Pop- Bowie for the same reason though she wasn’t as young then but still underage-Jerry Lee Lewis married his cousin when she was 15- and tons more) it would leave your world one of dozens if not hundreds fewer great artists and albums to listen to. There are some lines crossed that seem worse than others, especially the sex crimes, but I don’t want to stop listening the Phil Spector produced records because they are so damn good and I live by his Wall of Sound techniques in my own recordings- and he’s a goddamn convicted murderer!! Is that less bad than a toilet cam? I’d argue no. Anyway, he’s saying you’d live a life of mediocrity (which doesn’t need to be capitalized…) by eliminating the works of The Beatles, Zeppelin, Stooges, Bowie, Berry…


    His crimes were reprehensible. No doubt about that. But celebrating his music and legacy does not require mentioning them. One can choose to mention them or not, but the latter doesn’t mean that one approves, or doesn’t care about the victims. Author implies it’s an either/or choice–either you mention the crimes and state your disapproval or you celebrate and send the message that the person celebrated is “beyond reproach.”

    • But are you condoning his actions by not mentioning them? If Chuck was a bank manager would his crimes be so easily forgotten?

      • Tony Smith

        Yes…bank managers get away with murder..and there’s nobody commenting on any of their wrong doings when they die aged 90…

  • Tony Smith

    ‘His crimes’ ! Any rock star at some stage in his career has taken up the offer of an underage girl who looks over the legal minimum age (remember that in the USA this is set at 15 in some states) I live in France where you can run for president even though being formally under investigation for potential criminal charges ..Chuck Berry got caught out a couple of times in his 90 year existence …he paid the price ..serving prison sentences in a US jail (especially if you are black) is not easy. look at your own life…are you absolutely squeaky clean yourself?

    • Obviously, what with being human, I am not absolutely squeaky clean. However, I’ve never set up a camera to record little girls peeing in public toilets.

  • Irene Berkery

    Perhaps what makes these rockstars so genius is because of the fact they are antisocial. It could be that energy comes from a darker place. However, that kind of behaviour cannot go unchecked, even for the creative greats. It is the behaviour that can’t be condoned; condemning the music would be a shame.

    I would never boycott listening to Led Zeppelin because they were sexually deviant…”dazed and confused” and “the rain song” are just too great to condemn.