Chuck Berry was released from prison in October 1963. His latest single “Come On” had been recorded during the trials that resulted from his December 1959 arrest. It failed to break the Top 100. Berry had spent the better part of the ’50’s pouring his soul into the foundation of Rock ‘N’ Roll, and all he ever really got for it was arrested.
Earlier in ’59, as the summer turned to fall, Chuck Berry and his band were billed in Mississippi. The show was a screaming success. Literally. Deciding to hang around for a while and sign autographs, Berry was approached by a young fan. Her excitement overcame her senses when she rushed to the guitarist. She threw her arms around him and planted a kiss right on the lips of Rock ‘N’ Roll himself. A knife was drawn. Chuck Berry was arrested for kissing a white woman, which in Mississippi counts as Disturbing the Peace. He was robbed by the police – at the behest of the club owner – and sent on his way.
He wasn’t as lucky later that year. Before a show in El Paso Berry and the boys went down to Juarez. As with many stories, that’s where the trouble starts.
Ever the raconteur, Berry struck up conversation with a 21 year old girl sitting at the table to his left. Janice was an Apache from Yuma runaway’d to Mexico. Berry made the only rational decision there was to make. He put her in a deerskin dress and had her lead guests to their tables at his club back in St. Louis.
The plan worked well for the first few weeks. But when Berry left for a string of shows, Janice stopped showing up for work. She had been making ends meet by selling herself. She was fired from the former profession, but continued to engage in the world’s oldest. She was arrested in mid-December, 1959.
That’s when Charles E. A. Berry received a visit from the St. Louis Police Department. He was charged with trafficking an under-aged girl across state-lines for “Immoral Purposes.” Janice was only 14. In his autobiography, Berry claims he never slept with Janice but the police report claims he did. Not that this detail is significant. According to the Mann Act a black man could be arrested for driving a woman to her husband’s house if it were across state lines.
Berry was in court from January 1960 until his incarceration in February 1962. The pace of his recordings suffered. Interest waned. The father of the teenage nation couldn’t score a hit. He was convicted by an all white male jury. He served 20 months in prison and suffered over $10,000 in fines.
Chuck Berry took his first breath of freedom in October, 1963. It was drawn from a changed world. Rock ‘N’ Roll had been usurped. The radio waves were being invaded by new, young, white, British bands. England’s newest hit-makers debuted in late summer, 1963. They were the Rolling Stones, and the single was “Come On”.
It broke the Top 20. Goes to show you never can tell.