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?