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- Posted on Dec 11th 2009 5:00PM by James Sullivan
Though he still performs, it's been 30 years since the inaugural Rock and Roll Hall of Famer last put out a studio album. The coming months will mark the 20th anniversary of another chapter in his life, one he would just as soon forget.
In December 1989, Berry bought a restaurant called the Southern Air in Wentzville, Mo. Wentzville had been the guitarist's hometown since the 1950s, when he spent $8,000 on farmland that reminded him of a country club where his father once worked. Over the years, he'd built a compound known as Berry Park, which he envisioned as a small-scale Walt Disney World.
For Berry, buying the restaurant was symbolic of the demise of the Jim Crow South: He'd once had to buy meals out of the kitchen window. Now he was the owner.
Within months of opening, however, the Southern Air would not seem like such a fortuitous business decision. An employee named Vincent Huck, allegedly plotting against Berry, began talking to the US Drug Enforcement Agency, claiming that the singer was hiding large amounts of cocaine in his guitar cases.
Berry was no stranger to the authorities, having served time for armed robbery as a teenager. In the early '60s, he was convicted of transporting an underage girl across state lines for immoral purposes. Now, agents raided his property. Though they found no hard drugs, they did seize some pot, more than $100,000 in cash and a collection of pornographic videos.
Around this time, several nude photos of Berry and girlfriends were published in a skin mag under the headline 'Johnny B. Bad.' Huck, Berry's lawyers contended, had stolen the photos and sold them to the magazine. A few days after Berry filed a multi-million-dollar lawsuit, Huck's wife dropped a bomb on Berry, alleging she had been the victim of an invasion of privacy.
Hosana Huck claimed that Berry had been conducting a secret videotaping operation in the women's bathroom at the Southern Air. Within months, scores of customers joined a class-action lawsuit, claiming they too had been videotaped in various states of undress from a camera installed in the bathroom ceiling.
"It seems to be open season on Charles Berry," said Berry's lawyer, hinting that the case was publicity for a county prosecutor up for re-election. Not long after, Vincent Huck claimed he'd been assaulted by the lawyer in a barroom brawl.
Given that a few of the women on Berry's secret bathroom tapes turned out to be underage, prosecutors focused on a felony charge of child sexual abuse. Meanwhile, their drug-trafficking allegations fizzled -- Berry insisted he had never used cocaine -- and agents quietly returned the singer's money. By the end of 1990, the case had effectively fallen apart. All charges, with the exception of misdemeanor marijuana possession, were dropped.
But the damage was done. Chuck Berry's reputation, never spotless, had taken another nasty permanent stain. By then, the Southern Air was closed: The overhead was killing him.