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(Editorâ€™s 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 Berryâ€™s 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 Berryâ€™s 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 Berryâ€™s home in St. Louis. There wasnâ€™t any time to waste.
â€śWhat can I do for you?â€ť Berry said.
â€śWeâ€™ve got a concert tonight,â€ť I said. â€śIâ€™m just calling to see if we can find a way to get you here for it.â€ť
â€śWe did a show together last spring, Chuck. In Burlington. Everything went great (an exaggeration), people loved you (no exaggeration), and now Iâ€™ve got a couple thousand fans expecting to see you tonight. Some have driven a hundred miles. I canâ€™t cancel the show.â€ť
â€śThatâ€™s not my problem,â€ť Berry said. â€śNobody told me this gig was at the end of the known earth,â€ť he said. â€śI donâ€™t drive to small towns. I donâ€™t fly to small airports. And I donâ€™t travel in small planes. If the concertâ€™s more than twenty minutes from a big airport, I donâ€™t go.â€ť
â€śBut we paid you $25,000 a month ago. Why didnâ€™t this come up then?â€ť I asked.
â€śYou didnâ€™t pay me $25,000,â€ť he said. â€śWilliam Morris Agency steals 10% â€“ every time.â€ť
â€śFair enough,â€ť I said. â€śHow do we make this work?â€ť
â€śFor starters,â€ť he said, â€śyou could come up with the money the agents made off with.â€ť
I saw an opening and quickly calculated what we would lose if we had to cancel the show â€“ $1000 for the opening act, $5000 for marketing, another $2000 for fairgrounds rental and sound equipment. Plus the loss of good will and credibility.
â€śIâ€™ll pay you the additional $2500 agentâ€™s commission if tonightâ€™s show goes on as scheduled,â€ť I said.
â€śHow would you expect to get me there â€“ if I agreed?â€ť said Berry. â€śItâ€™s late.â€ť
â€śIâ€™ve got a plane ticket booked from St. Louis to Burlington,â€ť I replied. Actually, I didnâ€™t have anything of the sort, but with time evaporating, I didnâ€™t see any choice but to seize the moment.
â€śWhatâ€™s the flight number?â€ť he said.
I was making progress. â€śMy office has the information. Iâ€™ll call you right back with it.â€ť
â€śYou do that,â€ť he said. â€śIâ€™ll think about it.â€ť Then he hung up the phone.
Nearby, the plumbing crew I spied earlier reading that dayâ€™s Burlington Free Press story on Chuck Berryâ€™s 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 â€“ on US Airways. That is, unless I wanted to chance a small plane from Boston to Burlington. No way. Chuck was clear â€“ no small planes.
At US Air, a very understanding clerk took my information and started booking the flight, before he hit a snag. â€śI can get you to Pittsburgh but the flight from Pittsburgh to Burlington is fully booked,â€ť he said.
â€śHmm,â€ť I replied. â€śCan you double check?
â€śItâ€™s full. No question,â€ť he said.
â€śCan you overbook the flight?â€ť I asked. â€śDonâ€™t the airlines do that all the time? Somebodyâ€™s bound to not show up.â€ť
â€śLet me check,â€ť he said.
I waited for several minutes. The airline agent returned. â€śThis leg would require FAA approval to overbook the flight,â€ť he said.
â€śWould you check with them?â€ť 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 Berryâ€™s music and would see what he could do.
I waited through another eternity of dead air on the phone. Then the air agent returned. â€śI canâ€™t overbook this flight,â€ť he said. â€śI called the FAA in Washington. Thereâ€™s a group of Japanese tourists on board to Burlington and we donâ€™t expect the flight to open up. Iâ€™m really sorry.â€ť
â€śYouâ€™ve gone beyond the call of duty,â€ť I said, sensing that this last hope for the concert was now dead. â€śThank you.â€ť
â€śWait,â€ť the agent said. â€śEureka! A seat just opened up on the screen.â€ť
â€śBook it,â€ť I said. I gave him my credit card info and wrote down the details.
I then called Chuck Berryâ€™s home. The friendly receptionist said sheâ€™d try to find him.
More dead air. Then Chuck Berry came on the phone again. â€śYeah,â€ť he said.
â€śI have the flight number,â€ť I said.
â€śI havenâ€™t said Iâ€™m going,â€ť he replied.
â€śWell, Iâ€™ve got the ticket and the flight number. We need to make this happen,â€ť I said.
â€śSo,â€ť Berry said, â€ťyouâ€™ve got a first-class airline ticket from St. Louis to Burlington.â€ť
â€śThey donâ€™t have first class,â€ť I said.
He ignored that. â€śAnd youâ€™ll have $2500 in cash waiting for me when I arrive at the airport,â€ť he said.
â€śSure,â€ť I said. â€śAnd, Iâ€™ll be there to pick you up.â€ť
â€śNobody drives me,â€ť Berry said. â€śIâ€™ll need a Lincoln Town Car waiting for me,â€ť he said.
â€śFine,â€ť I said.
â€śYou just be there at the airport to pay me the cash and lead me to the venue,â€ť he said.
â€śNo problem,â€ť I said.
â€śAnd you do not object to the fact that I am tape recording this conversation, right?â€ť Berry asked.
â€śFine,â€ť I said. â€śBut the St. Louis flight leaves in a half hour.â€ť
â€śDonâ€™t worry,â€ť he said, â€śI drive fast.â€ť
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).