Why Don't We Talk About Chuck Berry's Dark Past?
I asked Chuck Berry’s biographer what matters more in the long run: your achievements or your lows?
Chuck Berry died last week in his home at the age of 90. For many music industry veterans and rock and roll enthusiasts, his passing felt like the loss of a father figure. For many fans who knew about Berry’s history of predatory behavior toward women, it felt like a cascade of terrible questions to grapple with: How do you reconcile your hero’s crowning achievements as an artist with their lowest moments as a person? What happens when those low moments came about because of women, women who you’ll never meet? If you weren't there, if you don't know—and you'll never know—the full story, how do you decide what to believe?
It is indisputable that Berry is one of the founding fathers of rock and roll. He was the first total package rock star: a performer who wrote his own songs, told stories about teenage rebellion, interracial romances, and consumerism, and stunned audiences with his signature dance moves. Stylistically, he built the foundation for rock and roll by transforming elements of country and R&B into something entirely new. His innovative guitar-playing style, as Paste Magazine points out, took a cue from piano players at the time and brought new attention and appreciation to the string instrument. Keith Richards worshipped him. John Lennon was quoted as saying, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry.'"
Berry was also a complicated man who did messed up things. In 1961, he was convicted under the Mann Act for transporting a minor across state lines (she was a 14-year-old who met Berry in Texas and traveled with him working as a hat check girl), and would serve more than a year and a half in prison for it. Decades later, several women accused Berry of spying on them with video cameras in the bathroom of a restaurant he’d purchased in the 1980s. Berry denied any wrongdoing, saying he was trying to catch an employee in the act of stealing from the restaurant. When police searched his home, they found footage of women in his restaurant bathroom (including video of an underage girl) along with drugs; Berry avoided child abuse charges (which stemmed from the video of the minor) by pleading guilty to drug possession.
Before all that, Berry was recognized with a lifetime achievement award at the Grammys in 1984. He is consistently named one of the greatest, most influential musicians of all time. None of that, however, makes it easier to make sense of the murky moments in Berry’s past. Certainly, a person’s morality cannot be measured by tallying up his or her mistakes and accomplishments. And Berry is not the first great musician to have slept with a groupie or had trouble with the law—and he won’t be the last. The conversation about how to separate an artist’s work from the person who created it (or whether we should) has and will come up over and over again, as audiences grow more and more socially conscious. Today, we prefer to shop locally and buy ethically, and when it comes to music and art, we also want to believe that the artists we love and support reflect our values as consumers as well.
The problem is that artists aren’t like free-range chickens or ethically sourced jeans; to state the obvious, musicians are human beings, prone to error and often self-serving, and it would be a worthwhile endeavor (albeit one that may be difficult) to judge them separately as people and as artists. That is not to say that we should not talk about large parts of their backstories altogether; rock stars have been courting and preying on young women for ages—going so far as to write songs about the teenagers who fall in love with them (Berry did). Too often, musicians and fans alike wave these relationships away, calling these incidents part of a “bygone era” or simply “of that time.” They are neither.
The conversations in which we critically examine and engage with the full legacy of our cultural icons are only becoming more important, as we begin to seek new answers to these old questions. I called up Chuck Berry’s biographer, Bruce Perry, and posed some of these questions to him.
TrackRecord: What sort of people reached out to you [after Chuck Berry’s death]? And what did they want to talk about?
Bruce Perry: A little bit of everything, really. I first heard the news from a journalist at the BBC on Saturday. That was a general overview of Mr. Berry’s life and career. I talked to The Sun, which is a tabloid newspaper in London, on Sunday morning. They, of course, wanted to play up some of the more scandalous parts of Mr. Berry’s life. Recently I talked to a journalist in North Carolina about Chuck playing at a club, or well, a restaurant in the 1950s and how he got screwed out of his fee. I talked to Billboard Magazine, more about publishing and the business end of Chuck’s career. So it’s been all over the place.
TR: I personally already know about his past and I’m curious about why more people weren’t addressing it.
BP: I think—how can I put this? I think with anything scandalous, there’re always two sides to the story. I’m certainly not here to be Mr. Berry’s apologist. The Mann Act incident in 1959, he was very forthcoming about that in his autobiography. I think the incident there from what I can make out from my research—it was clear there some racist overtones involved in [Berry’s first] conviction [under the Mann Act]. The first judge kept pointing to the all-white jury, that Mr. Berry was black and that all of his associates were black. The inference was: This is a successful black entertainer in rock and roll—which in those days was forbidden territory—and there was some elements of racism there.
TR: He was very well-established in his career at that point.
BP: Absolutely. He was one of the first black artists, if not one of the first artist of his era to take charge of his publishing and to cut his own deals for publishing and recording contracts. He was also a very savvy investor. He invested in real estate, and knew how to keep his money when all his other contemporaries had gone out and spent their advances on cars and stuff. He’d done very well, and people knew that about him. I think there was some real—there’s a real case there for people going after him for his money.
TR: Would you also say then that Berry is a victim as well? Both racially and from people who wanted a piece of his material wealth?
BP: That’s my take on it.
TR: That being said, knowing his history, what can fans do when they’re trying to reconcile that knowledge of his past actions with the body of work that he’s created? How are they supposed to make sense of what he did or was accused of doing?
BP: You ask probably the most important question that any biographer or any fan of any artist is gonna ask: “How do you reconcile that?” I mean, I suppose... you sort of balance everything as best you can, don’t you? To me, the legacy is enormous. There is no way in the world that can look at popular music in the second half of the 20th century without at some point acknowledging the huge debt that is paid to Chuck Berry. As I’ve been through and through in all of these interviews, there would be no Beatles, no Rolling Stones, there would no Bob Dylan, there would be no Bruce Springsteen, all of those artists have in their own ways and in their own time have acknowledged their enormous debt to Chuck Berry. He changed the face of rock and roll. He became one of the first musicians to write and perform his own songs. At that point, most entertainers were just the front-piece or the front-person if you would like for songwriters that made their living writing songs, and Chuck came along and said, “No, I can do this and perform it as well.” He developed a whole style of guitar-work that just lived on, for long after he was a viable recording artist. So you have to weigh that against the most scandalous aspects. And I suppose, in that area of his life, you have to look at yourself and your own moral compass and say: “How do I respond to these things?”
We weren’t there. None of us were there when all of this went down. Mr. Berry was a very private man. He very seldom talked about his own personal life. I can tell you too from everybody that I interviewed in St. Louis, while I was working on the book, that everybody always referred to him as a most generous, loving, person. He was a family man. He was married for—gosh, I don’t know how long, 60 years, maybe? To one woman. And you don’t know what kind of arrangement they had; personally, he never spoke of that.
And then I think to myself: “Was he the first rock and roll musician to have sex with groupies and all that stuff?” I doubt it. [Laughs]
TR: He’s certainly not the last.
BP: Absolutely not. I look at my own moral compass, and do I judge him for that? The short answer to your question is that it’s complicated. It’s very complicated. As a biographer, you do your best to present the case as you can, as you understand it, and hopefully at some point, the reader is going to make the judgment based on their own attitudes towards morality and art.
TR: As his biographer, you have to maintain a sense of neutrality and remove your own personal bias, but how do you feel personally about what has happened and your own thoughts regarding his legacy as an artist?
BP: I prefer to concentrate on the artistic side of what he did. I don’t like to judge because quite frankly even with all the access I had with to all the court transcripts and the interviews that I did, I still wasn’t a part of that whole situation. I wasn’t a fly on the wall, so I can’t really, none of us can really comment on that. Ultimately, I try to focus on the important legacy with which he left us, which is the music.
I never got a chance to interview him. He refused to do that because he was such a private person, or was such a private person. If I make a judgment, it’s gonna be based on secondhand or thirdhand evidence, and I really don’t like I would like to be judged that way. I’m sure nobody else would like that either. That’s the problem of a biographer who deals with a subject that is either dead or uncooperative. You really can’t really definitively one way or the other what truly happened so you have to try and suspend judgement as best you can.
TR: Do you think his personal life will be remembered, or do you think it will just be his musical legacy? I know with some entertainers, they’ve been reduced to the more salacious aspects of their life—for example, Gary Glitter is haunted by charges of child pornography—but other artists seem to skate on by.
BP: I believe that as times change, views soften. How do I put this? I don’t want to exonerate people like Gary Glitter for what they’ve done. But at the same point, things change, times change, morals change. I think Chuck’s  conviction will also be a part of the way people remember him because it was so controversial for its time. But you have to remember the Mann Act was rarely used to convict people. It was used—if you ever read the history of it, it’s fascinating, people like J. Edgar Hoover used it as a big stick to beat people he didn’t like with it. Charlie Chaplin came up on Mann Act charges. Jack Johnson, the heavyweight boxer, you know, these were people Hoover had a grudge against. The Mann Act [was] so ambiguously worded that anybody going over a state line with a member of the opposite sex for whatever reason, whether it’s an innocent trip to another state, could have be convicted of the Mann Act. [Editor’s note: The Mann Act originally prohibited the transportation of “any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose,” but has since been amended to refer specifically to illegal sexual activities like child pornography or prostitution.]
I think [Berry’s 1961 conviction] will always be remembered. The other stuff I don’t know. It’s a blot. I wish he hadn’t done it, but at the same point, there are certain mitigating circumstances there too. I’m sure that right now because Chuck’s death is so recent there’s a lot of warm and fuzzies about [him]. I have a feeling that something similar to what happened to James Brown may well end up happening to Mr. Berry. I think once the estate comes up and all of the legal ramifications of his passing come up—let’s just say I think there’ll be dirty laundry being aired then. And I’m sure as time goes on we’ll find out more about him, but ultimately the judge has to be the individual and what they find appropriate and inappropriate.
TR: Do you feel with his passing his actions will be cast in a different light? I feel that with death come an attitude that doesn’t exonerate exactly, but gives artists a friendlier view.
BP: I think as time moves on and we view this in a more historical light, I think there will be some reexamination. There always is with any public figure. But honestly, we’ll view him for his legacy and not his personal conduct. It was so groundbreaking. I don’t think the new generation really understood, or will understand how significant for a black artist to break through the way that he did. There were black artists before him, as always but he really crossed over in the white mainstream, and that was a huge barrier that I think in that one single achievement alone, his legacy is assured.