Chuck Berry, Cash, and Taxes

Copyright Missouri History Museum, Some Rights Reserved

By Sam Brunson

In the aftermath of Chuck Berry’s death on March 18, I learned that I’m way more familiar with his music than I had realized. I’ll confess that I never spent a lot of time thinking about Chuck Berry, but his songs (it turns out) were an accidental soundtrack to my growing up. My dad had two or three oldies stations programmed into the radio, and Berry’s music was ubiquitous on their playlists. And many songs I’m partial to have turned out to be his. (I’m thinking particularly of Nina Simone’s cover of “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.”)

Still, I’m not a big enough fan to try to write about Berry on a tax blog. Or, rather, I wasn’t until last night, at the gym. As I listened to Sound Opinions, I learned that, like so many musicians, Berry had a run-in with the IRS.

Specifically, in 1979, he pleaded guilty to tax evasion for not paying $110,000 in taxes in 1973. (His unpaid 1973 tax bill would be more than $600,000 today.)

Two things about that: first, he admitted income of $375,000 that year;[fn1] he owed taxes at an effective rate of 29.3 percent.

Second, how did he get away with it? Multiple accounts report that he demanded cash from concert promoters before he’d go onstage.[fn2] There’s a lot of evidence that taxpayers who receive cash are much less likely to report it than taxpayers who receive payment by credit card, or even by check.

Of course, it may well be that receiving cash didn’t cause Berry to evade taxes; he may well have demanded cash in order to facilitate his tax evasion. Either way, though, his receipt of cash was a red flag; the IRS went after him and, days after performing for President Carter in the White House, he spent four months in federal prison.

Sadly, as far as I know, Berry didn’t write any tax-related songs, so I can’t add him to my tax canon. Still, it’s always worth posting a Chuck Berry song; I’m kind of partial to “Maybelline.”

On the other hand, given that we’re talking about tax evasion in 1973, it might be better to play this 1972 version of “C’est La Vie.”


[fn1] Was that gross income? adjusted gross income? taxable income? I have no idea. The New York Times article just says “income.”

[fn2] See, e.g., here (Berry “showed up at the gig with his Gibson, demanded cash from the promoter, and then played in front of whatever local musicians the promoter had put together.”) and here (“Berry continued to perform live, either side of another prison term in 1979 (four months for income tax evasion), famously demanding cash upfront, arriving at the last possible moment, using local backing groups with whom he declined to soundcheck, and often showing truculence on stage.”) and here (“Berry’s last studio album arrived in 1979, but he maintained a robust touring schedule, demanding a hefty fee upfront in cash.”).

One thought on “Chuck Berry, Cash, and Taxes

  1. I love chuck berry songs! I have a best of album and every song is great! I really know nothing about him outside of his music, I was actually pretty surprised to hear he had been still alive. I guess tax evasion is less detrimental to your health than other rock and roll behaviors…

    Liked by 1 person

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