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(Editor‚Äôs note: Last week, filmmaker and arts impresario Jay Craven began telling his story of the day and night he spent trying to get Chuck Berry to honor his contract and perform in the Northeast Kingdom. He continues his story this week, picking up with his breakthrough, wheedling Berry‚Äôs home phone number from his agent at the William Morris Agency, who had called the day before the scheduled Lyndonville show to announce that Berry would not attend.)
Chuck Berry‚Äôs irritated voice on the other end of the phone offered me no encouragement that the rock pioneer would drop everything to catch a plane for Vermont. But, tickets were selling fast and the scheduled concert at the Lyndonville Fairgrounds was at least eight hours away from Berry‚Äôs home in St. Louis. There wasn‚Äôt any time to waste.
‚ÄúWhat can I do for you?‚ÄĚ Berry said.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôve got a concert tonight,‚ÄĚ I said. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm just calling to see if we can find a way to get you here for it.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúWe did a show together last spring, Chuck. In Burlington. Everything went great (an exaggeration), people loved you (no exaggeration), and now I‚Äôve got a couple thousand fans expecting to see you tonight. Some have driven a hundred miles. I can‚Äôt cancel the show.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúThat‚Äôs not my problem,‚ÄĚ Berry said. ‚ÄúNobody told me this gig was at the end of the known earth,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt drive to small towns. I don‚Äôt fly to small airports. And I don‚Äôt travel in small planes. If the concert‚Äôs more than twenty minutes from a big airport, I don‚Äôt go.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúBut we paid you $25,000 a month ago. Why didn‚Äôt this come up then?‚ÄĚ I asked.
‚ÄúYou didn‚Äôt pay me $25,000,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúWilliam Morris Agency steals 10% ‚Äď every time.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúFair enough,‚ÄĚ I said. ‚ÄúHow do we make this work?‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúFor starters,‚ÄĚ he said, ‚Äúyou could come up with the money the agents made off with.‚ÄĚ
I saw an opening and quickly calculated what we would lose if we had to cancel the show ‚Äď $1000 for the opening act, $5000 for marketing, another $2000 for fairgrounds rental and sound equipment. Plus the loss of good will and credibility.
‚ÄúI‚Äôll pay you the additional $2500 agent‚Äôs commission if tonight‚Äôs show goes on as scheduled,‚ÄĚ I said.
‚ÄúHow would you expect to get me there ‚Äď if I agreed?‚ÄĚ said Berry. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs late.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúI‚Äôve got a plane ticket booked from St. Louis to Burlington,‚ÄĚ I replied. Actually, I didn‚Äôt have anything of the sort, but with time evaporating, I didn‚Äôt see any choice but to seize the moment.
‚ÄúWhat‚Äôs the flight number?‚ÄĚ he said.
I was making progress. ‚ÄúMy office has the information. I‚Äôll call you right back with it.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúYou do that,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúI‚Äôll think about it.‚ÄĚ Then he hung up the phone.
Nearby, the plumbing crew I spied earlier reading that day‚Äôs Burlington Free Press story on Chuck Berry‚Äôs scheduled Lyndonville concert were still parked outside the West Barnet Store, watching and listening. One wanted to know how it was going. He gave me a thumbs-up, then thumbs down. I stuck out my hand and wobbled it, indicating it was too early to tell.
I quickly called the airlines and discovered that there was only one potential flight from St. Louis to Burlington ‚Äď on US Airways. That is, unless I wanted to chance a small plane from Boston to Burlington. No way. Chuck was clear ‚Äď no small planes.
At US Air, a very understanding clerk took my information and started booking the flight, before he hit a snag. ‚ÄúI can get you to Pittsburgh but the flight from Pittsburgh to Burlington is fully booked,‚ÄĚ he said.
‚ÄúHmm,‚ÄĚ I replied. ‚ÄúCan you double check?
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs full. No question,‚ÄĚ he said.
‚ÄúCan you overbook the flight?‚ÄĚ I asked. ‚ÄúDon‚Äôt the airlines do that all the time? Somebody‚Äôs bound to not show up.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúLet me check,‚ÄĚ he said.
I waited for several minutes. The airline agent returned. ‚ÄúThis leg would require FAA approval to overbook the flight,‚ÄĚ he said.
‚ÄúWould you check with them?‚ÄĚ I said, not missing a beat. I told him that the ticket was for Chuck Berry and gave him a shorthand version of this difficult saga. He said he knew Berry‚Äôs music and would see what he could do.
I waited through another eternity of dead air on the phone. Then the air agent returned. ‚ÄúI can‚Äôt overbook this flight,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúI called the FAA in Washington. There‚Äôs a group of Japanese tourists on board to Burlington and we don‚Äôt expect the flight to open up. I‚Äôm really sorry.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúYou‚Äôve gone beyond the call of duty,‚ÄĚ I said, sensing that this last hope for the concert was now dead. ‚ÄúThank you.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúWait,‚ÄĚ the agent said. ‚ÄúEureka! A seat just opened up on the screen.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúBook it,‚ÄĚ I said. I gave him my credit card info and wrote down the details.
I then called Chuck Berry‚Äôs home. The friendly receptionist said she‚Äôd try to find him.
More dead air. Then Chuck Berry came on the phone again. ‚ÄúYeah,‚ÄĚ he said.
‚ÄúI have the flight number,‚ÄĚ I said.
‚ÄúI haven‚Äôt said I‚Äôm going,‚ÄĚ he replied.
‚ÄúWell, I‚Äôve got the ticket and the flight number. We need to make this happen,‚ÄĚ I said.
‚ÄúSo,‚ÄĚ Berry said, ‚ÄĚyou‚Äôve got a first-class airline ticket from St. Louis to Burlington.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúThey don‚Äôt have first class,‚ÄĚ I said.
He ignored that. ‚ÄúAnd you‚Äôll have $2500 in cash waiting for me when I arrive at the airport,‚ÄĚ he said.
‚ÄúSure,‚ÄĚ I said. ‚ÄúAnd, I‚Äôll be there to pick you up.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúNobody drives me,‚ÄĚ Berry said. ‚ÄúI‚Äôll need a Lincoln Town Car waiting for me,‚ÄĚ he said.
‚ÄúFine,‚ÄĚ I said.
‚ÄúYou just be there at the airport to pay me the cash and lead me to the venue,‚ÄĚ he said.
‚ÄúNo problem,‚ÄĚ I said.
‚ÄúAnd you do not object to the fact that I am tape recording this conversation, right?‚ÄĚ Berry asked.
‚ÄúFine,‚ÄĚ I said. ‚ÄúBut the St. Louis flight leaves in a half hour.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúDon‚Äôt worry,‚ÄĚ he said, ‚ÄúI drive fast.‚ÄĚ
TO BE CONTINUED
Jay Craven directs Kingdom County Productions, where he makes films and produces the Kingdom County Presents performing arts series. He will be presenting a performance by comedienne Paula Poundstone at the Haskell Opera House, 7pm, Sunday, Nov4. Tickets and information at the Catamount Arts Regional Box Office (748-2600 or CatamountArts.org).