(Editorâs 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 Berryâs 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 Berryâs 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 Berryâs home in St. Louis. There wasnât any time to waste.
âWhat can I do for you?â Berry said.
âWeâve got a concert tonight,â I said. âIâm just calling to see if we can find a way to get you here for it.â
âWe did a show together last spring, Chuck. In Burlington. Everything went great (an exaggeration), people loved you (no exaggeration), and now Iâve got a couple thousand fans expecting to see you tonight. Some have driven a hundred miles. I canât cancel the show.â
âThatâs not my problem,â Berry said. âNobody told me this gig was at the end of the known earth,â he said. âI donât drive to small towns. I donât fly to small airports. And I donât travel in small planes. If the concertâs more than twenty minutes from a big airport, I donât go.â
âBut we paid you $25,000 a month ago. Why didnât this come up then?â I asked.
âYou didnât pay me $25,000,â he said. âWilliam Morris Agency steals 10% â every time.â
âFair enough,â I said. âHow do we make this work?â
âFor starters,â he said, âyou could come up with the money the agents made off with.â
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.
âIâll pay you the additional $2500 agentâs commission if tonightâs show goes on as scheduled,â I said.
âHow would you expect to get me there â if I agreed?â said Berry. âItâs late.â
âIâve got a plane ticket booked from St. Louis to Burlington,â I replied. Actually, I didnât have anything of the sort, but with time evaporating, I didnât see any choice but to seize the moment.
âWhatâs the flight number?â he said.
I was making progress. âMy office has the information. Iâll call you right back with it.â
âYou do that,â he said. âIâll think about it.â Then he hung up the phone.
Nearby, the plumbing crew I spied earlier reading that dayâs Burlington Free Press story on Chuck Berryâs 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. âI can get you to Pittsburgh but the flight from Pittsburgh to Burlington is fully booked,â he said.
âHmm,â I replied. âCan you double check?
âItâs full. No question,â he said.
âCan you overbook the flight?â I asked. âDonât the airlines do that all the time? Somebodyâs bound to not show up.â
âLet me check,â he said.
I waited for several minutes. The airline agent returned. âThis leg would require FAA approval to overbook the flight,â he said.
âWould you check with them?â 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 Berryâs music and would see what he could do.
I waited through another eternity of dead air on the phone. Then the air agent returned. âI canât overbook this flight,â he said. âI called the FAA in Washington. Thereâs a group of Japanese tourists on board to Burlington and we donât expect the flight to open up. Iâm really sorry.â
âYouâve gone beyond the call of duty,â I said, sensing that this last hope for the concert was now dead. âThank you.â
âWait,â the agent said. âEureka! A seat just opened up on the screen.â
âBook it,â I said. I gave him my credit card info and wrote down the details.
I then called Chuck Berryâs home. The friendly receptionist said sheâd try to find him.
More dead air. Then Chuck Berry came on the phone again. âYeah,â he said.
âI have the flight number,â I said.
âI havenât said Iâm going,â he replied.
âWell, Iâve got the ticket and the flight number. We need to make this happen,â I said.
âSo,â Berry said, âyouâve got a first-class airline ticket from St. Louis to Burlington.â
âThey donât have first class,â I said.
He ignored that. âAnd youâll have $2500 in cash waiting for me when I arrive at the airport,â he said.
âSure,â I said. âAnd, Iâll be there to pick you up.â
âNobody drives me,â Berry said. âIâll need a Lincoln Town Car waiting for me,â he said.
âFine,â I said.
âYou just be there at the airport to pay me the cash and lead me to the venue,â he said.
âNo problem,â I said.
âAnd you do not object to the fact that I am tape recording this conversation, right?â Berry asked.
âFine,â I said. âBut the St. Louis flight leaves in a half hour.â
âDonât worry,â he said, âI drive fast.â
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).