CHUCK BERRY 1979: OUR FATHER WHO ART IN PRISON

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In 1979 when Chuck Berry, one of the founding fathers of rock & roll, was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to four months in prison in Lompoc, California, I was moved—provoked, actually—to write a song about him. My mission was twofold: a) to pay tribute to his indelible influence on music in general and mine in particular, and b) to protest what I, perhaps naively, perceived as an injustice. Not knowing the full scope of the case against him, I nevertheless concluded that someone–possibly chromatically motivated–was out to make an example of him. That was in no way excusing or defending the illegal actions to which he pleaded guilty.

“This tax thing that I was in was no bum rap,” he admitted in a 1983 Goldmine interview. “It was straight, true…”

However, as deep in the heart of taxes as the charges might have been, many others who similarly broke the law both before and after him, and often for a lot more than the $200,000 he denied Uncle Sam, were given the chance to pay their debts along with hefty penalties/fines/interest without serving any time. Years later, Willie Nelson, for instance, ran afoul of the law to the sour tune of more than $16,000,000 (that’s 80 times more than what Berry owed), yet he never spent a day behind bars. Crazy indeed. In addition, Berry received a run-on sentence of 1000 hours of community service. Whereas Nelson was On the Road Again, Berry had No Particular Place to Go. At least for four months.

 

The song I came up with, “Free Chuck Berry,” was purposely structured like one of his trademark tunes: a three-chorder featuring machine-gunned lyrics mixing humor with an issue, all propelled by guitar licks plucked straight from the Berry vine. A Chuck Berry song about Chuck Berry. It was a very crude home recording, but to my knowledge, no one–other than Elephant’s Memory with their “Chuck ‘n’ Bo,” which had gone largely unnoticed despite John Lennon’s production”–had written such an homage to the legend, let alone a plea for leniency, and I naturally hoped he would be amused by it.

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Unfortunately, red tape and Fed tape came between my tape and Chuck Berry. Prison officials sent my recording and letter, unopened, back to me marked “Unauthorized–Return to Sender.” The Sender was not happy.

After three calls to the joint and a round of pass-the-Chuck, I spoke to Berry’s cell-block leader and was informed that inmates, including the famous jailhouse rocker in question, were not permitted to receive any such packages containing bulk items. I guess it’s understandable; you never know what a convicted criminal might do with a cassette tape. And, admittedly, I did hope it would be considered a killer song.

“‘C’est la vie,’ say the old folks, which goes to show you never can tell”

(To hear the song, copy and paste): https://soundcloud.com/jim-george-101/free-chuck-berry-c-jim-george

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