Left my home in Norfolk, Virginia,
California on my mind,
Straddled that greyhound, rode him past Raleigh,
And on across Caroline.
So Chuck Berry, the poet laureate of rock and roll, gets to wondering one day that if a poor boy were to set out from Norfolk, Va., headed for Los Angeles, how would he get there?
It was the early 1960s, and Chuck had already hit it as big as a black rhythm-and-blues artist could at that time with such classics as Maybelline (1955), Roll Over Beethoven (1956), Rock and Roll Music (1957) and Johnny B. Goode (1958). But any notion of jumping in his red Cadillac and conducting his own research on the subject was, shall we say, complicated.
For Chuck, at the time, was stacking time in prison.
Stopped in Charlotte, by-passed Rock Hill,
We never were minute late,
We were 90 minutes out of Atlanta by sundown,
Rolling out of Georgia state.
Had something to do with this girl he had met in a Juarez bar called the Savoy, this Apache girl named Janice Norlene Escalanti, to whom Chuck took enough of a shine to carry back to St. Louis to work as a hat check girl in his nightclub, Club Bandstand.
Turns out Chuck had to fire Janice Norlene Escalanti only weeks into her employment at Club Bandstand for, among other things, being bad at checking hats. Also turns out she was only 14, and had been known to turn tricks for a buck or two.
We had motor trouble, it turned into a struggle,
Halfway across Alabam,
And the hound broke down and left us all stranded,
In downtown Birmingham.
Prosecuted under the Mann Act – passed in 1910 to make it illegal to transport any woman or girl across state lines for immoral purposes – his first conviction was overturned after the presiding judge repeatedly referred to the defendant as a “nigra.’’
But the authorities wanted the poor boy badly enough that they hauled him up before a second judge and jury, and this time Berry was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison.
He served 20 months in a federal prison in the Federal Medical Center Prison in Springfield, Missouri.
Right away I bought me a through train ticket,
Riding across Mississippi clean,
I was riding that Midnight Flyer out of Birmingham
Smoking into New Orleans
Berry would later deny, as vehemently as vehemently could be, that he didn’t do this time in question, before finally coming clean. Actually, it wasn’t Berry’s only brush with the law.
Though he came from a middle-class family in St. Louis – his father William Henry was a contractor and a Deacon at the neighborhood Antioch Baptist Church and his mother Martha Bell was a school principal – he broke bad enough at age 18 to serve the better part of three years at the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men at Algoa, Missouri for armed robbery and car-jacking.
He also, in 1979, was incarcerated three months for tax evasion and, 10 years later, just missed doing another stretch after authorities raided his estate to find marijuana, firearms and a cache of video tapes of underaged girls in sexual poses.
Somebody help me get out of Louisiana,
Help me get to Houston town,
There are people there who care a little about me
And they won’t let the poor boy down.
Berry, once he finally owned up to his prison past, maintained he did more at Springfield than just cool his heels for 20 months.
“I spent all my off-duty time studying business management, business law, accounting, typing, world history,’’ he wrote in his autobiography, titled, appropriately enough, Chuck Berry: The Autobiography.
So our man obviously knew where the prison library was located. And on that day he got to wondering how a poor boy leaving out of Norfolk might get to LA, he made his way to the library for the atlas — to plot his imaginary cross-country trek immortalized in the song Promised Land.
Sure as you’re born, they bought me a silk suit
Put luggage in my hands,
And I woke up high over Albuquerque,
On a jet to the Promised Land.
Prison, as they say, can change a man, and according to the Rock-a-billy legend Carl Perkins, the Chuck Berry who walked out of Federal Medical Center Prison in Springfield, Missouri was a different man from the one who walked in.
Which explains the hateful, chronically combative character to be seen in one of the great Rock biopics of all time, Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll. If you’ve never seen it, do yourself an immense favor and find it.
“Never saw a man so changed,’’ Perkins recalled. “He had been an easygoing guy before, the kinda guy who would jam in dressing rooms, and swap licks and jokes. In England (during a 1964 concert tour) he was cold, real distant and bitter. It wasn’t just jail. It was those years of one-nighters – grinding it out like that can kill a man. But I figure it was mostly jail.’’
Working on a T-bone steak a la carte
Flying to the Golden State
When the pilot came on and said in 13 minutes
He would have us at the terminal gate
There would have been rock and roll without Chuck Berry, but it wouldn’t be all it became. “If you tried to give rock and roll another name,’’ John Lennon once said. “you might call it Chuck Berry.’’
Lucky enough to be born in 1952, I grew up on Chuck Berry. You couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing his songs, though most of the time they were covered by white artists such as Buddy Holly, Johnny Rivers and the King himself, Elvis Presley.
Elvis, in fact, recorded Promised Land at Stax Records in Memphis in Dec. 1973, and it was the title cut on an album released in January 1975 on the occasion of the King’s 40th birthday.
Swing low chariot, come down easy,
Taxi to the terminal zone,
Cut your engines and cool your wings
And get me to the telephone.
I was lucky enough to see Chuck Berry live at UNC’s Jubilee in the spring of my freshman year of 1971, and I’ll never forget him duck-walking across the stage at Navy Field. But what I remember best about Promised Land was from attending Grateful Dead concerts during those golden years, when Pigpen was still alive and Garcia, like me, was still a skinny hippie.
Every time I saw them, they opened with Ace Weir singing lead on Promised Land.
There must be a statistic for everything in modern America, and sure enough a website devoted to the Grateful Dead reveals that the band performed the song 428 times in concert.
We can all be happy that the library at Federal Medical Center Prison in Springfield, Missouri stocked an atlas.
Los Angeles give me Norfolk, Virginia
Tidewater four 10 o nine.
Tell the folks back home this is The Promised Land calling
And the poor boy’s on the line.