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BARRY LEVINE: Rockers remembered for bad choices

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From left are Paul Stookey, Peter Yarrow, and Mary Travers. (Special photo)

Quickly … What do Peter Yarrow of folk group Peter, Paul and Mary fame and renowned rockers Chuck Berry, Jackie Wilson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles and the Platters have in common?

OK, the obvious is that they all enjoyed highly successful singing careers. Peter, Paul and Mary were one of the premier folk groups of all time. Berry, Wilson, Lewis, Charles and the Platters all gained early admittance into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum because of their accomplishments.

So what is the commonality among them?

They all made bad choices — very bad choices — in their personal lives.

Yarrow, 75, is scheduled to be honored May 21 by the LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts in Manhattan. Yarrow was the administration’s choice to receive the Hall of Fame Award, enraging parents and students. The gala is being billed as “Peace, Love and the Power of Song/Celebrating Peter Yarrow.”

So why the uproar?

Yarrow, who co-wrote the trio’s No. 2 hit “Puff the Magic Dragon” in 1963, was accused of engaging in a sex act with a 14-year-old in front of her 17-year-old sister in a Washington hotel in 1970. He pleaded guilty to “taking indecent liberties” with the minor and spent three months in jail. He was later pardoned in 1981 by President Carter.

After Yarrow’s honor leaked, 14 students said they refused to participate in the ceremony because of his indiscretion 44 years ago.

Peter, Paul & Mary had 14 Top 40 hits, including five in the Top 10. The group broke up following Yarrow’s guilty plea.

An early rock and roll pioneer, Lewis hit the national charts in 1957 with his No. 2 hit “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.” He followed that smash with such hits as “Great Balls of Fire,” “Breathless” and “High School Confidential.”

His career hit the skids in 1958 following his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Gale Brown, when he was 22-years old.

Nicknamed “Killer,” Lewis had little success following the scandal, and his popularity quickly faded. His live performance fees tumbled from $10,000 per night to $250.

Scandal struck the Platters, among the premier mixed-gender groups of the 1950s, in August 1959 when the band’s four black male members — Tony Williams, David Lynch, Herb Reed and Paul Robi — were arrested in a Cincinnati hotel room and accused of having sexual relations with four female minors, three of whom were white.

In the era’s racially-divided atmosphere, it was a career-damaging incident. Though the four Platters were acquitted of drug and prostitution charges, much of the public was outraged and key radio stations removed their songs from their playlists.

Following the incident, the band had only one more Top 10 hit, “Harbor Lights,” in 1960.

Before the incident, The Platters had four No. 1 hits: “The Great Pretender” in 1955, “My Prayer” in 1956, “Twilight Time” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” in 1958. The group had no other No. 1 hits after the Cincinnati incident.

Prior to the arrest, The Platters had 15 Top 40 hits. They had six afterwards.

Although Charles, Berry and Wilson each had multiple skirmishes with the law, those incidents did not have major negative impacts on their careers.

In November 1961, Charles was arrested on a narcotics charge in an Indiana hotel room where the police found heroin, marijuana and other items. At that point, Charles admitted that he had been a drug addict since the age of 16. The case was dismissed because of the manner in which the evidence was obtained.

Three years later, Charles was arrested for possession of marijuana and heroin. Following a stay at a California hospital, Charles received five years’ probation.

The Albany native charted 34 Top 40 songs, 11 of which made the Top 10. He had three No. 1 hits: “Georgia on My Mind” in 1960, “Hit the Road Jack” in 1961 and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” in 1962.

Nicknamed “Mr. Excitement” because of his on-stage performance that had an influence on James Brown and Michael Jackson, Wilson quit high school at age 15 in 1949, having already been sentenced twice to a juvenile detention center.

In 1960 in New Orleans, Wilson was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer when fans tried to climb onstage. He assaulted the policeman who had shoved one of the fans.

On February 1961 in New York, Wilson was injured in a shooting. One of his girlfriends, Juanita Jones, reportedly shot and wounded him in a jealous rage when he returned to his New York apartment with another woman, fashion model Harlean Harris, an ex-girlfriend of Sam Cooke. His management team allegedly formulated the story that Jones was an obsessed fan who had threatened to shoot herself, and that Wilson’s intervention resulted in him being shot.

Wilson had 25 Top 40 hits, six of which reached the Top 10. He never had a No. 1 hit.

Berry was 17 in 1943 when he was sentenced to two years in a reformatory for armed robbery.

In January 1962, Berry was sentenced to three years in prison for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines.

After his release in 1963, Berry had several more hits, including “Nadine,” “No Particular Place to Go” and “You Never Can Tell” in 1964. However, they did not have the same lasting impact of his 1950s classics. By the 1970s, he was more in demand to play his past hits.

Berry got in more trouble with the law in 1979 when he was sentenced to four months in jail for tax evasion.

He was again arrested in 1990 when illegal drugs were found in his home, but those charges were dropped.

Berry had 15 Top 40 hits, six off which landed in the Top 10. He had his only No. 1 hit in 1972 with “My Ding-A-Ling.”

Bad personal decisions are like hit records – they never are really forgotten.

Barry Levine writes entertainment stories for The Albany Herald. He can be reached at dot0001@yahoo.com.