On December 23, 1959, Chuck Berry is arrested in St. Louis, Missouri, on charges relating to his transportation of a 14-year-old girl across state lines for allegedly “immoral purposes.”
“Never saw a man so changed,” is how the great Carl Perkins described the experience of touring England in 1964 alongside Chuck Berry. “He had been an easygoing guy before, the kinda guy who’d jam in dressing rooms, sit and swap licks and jokes. [But] in England he was cold, real distant and bitter.” The “before” to which Perkins referred was the four-year period from 1956 to 1959, when Berry established his reputation as one of rock and roll’s founding fathers, not only turning out such classic hits as “Maybellene” and “Johnny B. Goode,” but also establishing the very template that nearly every rock and roll guitarist after him would follow. What had changed Chuck Berry, in Perkins’ opinion, was partly the long, hard grind of years and years of one-night-only live performances, but, as Perkins also said, “I figure it was mostly jail.” Between 1960 and 1963, the man who helped invent rock and roll spent 20 months in federal prison following his conviction on charges of violating the Mann Act.
The Mann Act is the common name for a piece of federal legislation originally known as the United States White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910. Though intended as a tool for cracking down on organized prostitution, the vague language of the Mann Act regarding the transportation of women for “immoral purposes” rendered its provisions broadly unenforceable. It has been selectively applied in various high-profile cases over time, however—most famously in Berry’s and in that of the heavyweight boxing great Jack Johnson.
In Berry’s case, the Mann Act charges stemmed from what Berry contended was his offer of legitimate employment in his St. Louis nightclub to a girl he had met in a bar in Juarez, Mexico. Three weeks after being fired from Berry’s nightclub, 14-year-old Janice Norine Escalanti took a different story to the St. Louis police, and Berry was arrested two days later, on this day in 1959.
Berry’s defense was not found credible by the all-male, all-white jury at his first trial, and he was convicted on March 11, 1960, and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and a $5,000 fine. Although he would have his conviction vacated and a new trial ordered by a Federal Appeals Court in October 1960 due to disparaging racial comments made by the judge in his original trial, Berry would be convicted again on retrial in March 1961 and serve the better part of the next two years in prison.