In a four-part series, Jay Craven recounts the concert that almost wasnâ€™t â€“ the famous Chuck Berry in the Northeast Kingdom.
I spent a recent evening at the Caledonia County Fair in Lyndonville and was reminded of a late summer concert I staged there, back when I ran Catamount Arts during the late '80s. The performer was Chuck Berry.
I was working at Catamount then and I vividly remember the very long day, which included an unscheduled stop for a hasty steak dinner at Ashleyâ€™s Restaurant at The Colonnade Motor Inn. This, despite the fact that the Chuck Berry concert was already in progress two miles away at the Fairgrounds.
The only problem was that the nearby concert lacked one crucial ingredient: Chuck Berry. A Connecticut blues band extended itâ€™s opening act to cover for the fact that Chuck Berry had not yet arrived at the Fairgrounds. Neither the band, the audience, nor the Catamount staff knew whether he would appear at all. And, before the era of cell phones, I had no way to let them know we were close by. It was not the most relaxed dinner Iâ€™ve ever had. More on that later.
Iâ€™d always wanted to see Chuck Berry play the Northeast Kingdom. The man pioneered a whole new wave of '50â€™s and '60â€™s pop music with songs like â€śRoll Over Beethoven,â€ť â€śMaybellene,â€ť and â€śMemphis, Tennessee.â€ť Indeed, John Lennon once said, "If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry."
But the concert almost didnâ€™t happen.Â
The afternoon before the show I received a call from Mr. Berryâ€™s agent at the William Morris Agency. He wanted me â€śnot to worryâ€ť but said that a â€śnew wrinkleâ€ť had developed.
It seems that the rock legend had looked at a map and balked when he saw how far Lyndonville was from any major town or airport. The agent said that Berry was refusing to travel to the Northeast Kingdom but that he was sure that Chuck would ultimately be persuaded to honor his pre-paid contract.
After a half-dozen frantic phone calls, repeated hourly until midnight, it became clear that the agent could not change Berryâ€™s mind. He apologized profusely and said that heâ€™d process a refund. He then wished me well and signed off.
I awoke on the next morning, the day of the scheduled concert. Iâ€™d never had to cancel a show so I was discouraged, to say the least. I imagined the losses weâ€™d have to endure for marketing, the opening act, and sound equipment. Refunds would be a nightmare. The stakes felt high.
But it was a glorious Vermont day â€” sunny but not too hot. Determined to put the crisis out of my mind, I caught a ride to Harveyâ€™s Lake with my son, Sascha, then six years old. At Harveyâ€™s, someone showed me that morningâ€™s Burlington Free Press, featuring a full front-page Living Section picture and story about Chuck Berryâ€™s Lyndonville show. Iâ€™d fought against the odds to get the coverage and I was told that it was unlikely to happen. But, at the last minute, the Free Press editor grabbed the spec piece from Peacham freelancer Sharyn Weiner.
In those days, a big Friday spread like this was guaranteed to sell tickets. And sure enough, with earlier sales a bit sluggish, the Catamount phone was suddenly ringing off the hook. Lyndonville was the place to be that Friday night in July.
The only problem was that it appeared that Chuck Berry would not be among those present.
When I saw the Free Press piece, I decided to call my office â€” to check in and make arrangements to cancel the show. I walked to the West Barnet store.
I hesitate to admit it, but this was the one and only time my driverâ€™s license had ever been suspended â€” for ten days due to a speeding ticket Iâ€™d gotten a month earlier in Newport, en route up I-91 to Paul Simonâ€™s Graceland Concert in Montreal. We were in a hurry to pick up the Graceland musicians Ladysmith Black Mambazo for another Catamount concert â€” but thatâ€™s another story.
Anyway, I walked from Harveyâ€™s Lake to the pay phone at the West Barnet store. Six year-old Sascha had experienced an earlier dust-up with Chuck Berry so he understood. He said heâ€™d stay behind with a friend Iâ€™d asked to keep an eye on him.
At the pay phone, I called the office and got the report of booming ticket sales. I then decided to call the William Morris Agency one more time â€” before I cancelled the concert. I got Chuck Berryâ€™s agent on the phone and told him Iâ€™d never seen this kind of unprofessional behavior. Actually, I had, but thatâ€™s also another story.
The agent said heâ€™d tried his best and failed to save the date. Out of the blue, I asked him to give me the rick legendâ€™s home phone number. The agent stammered.
â€śYouâ€™ve got to give me his phone number,â€ť I insisted. â€śYouâ€™ve given up on this. I havenâ€™t.â€ť
To my surprise, the agent gave me Chuck Berryâ€™s home telephone number. I took it, thanked him, and ended the call.
It was now 10 a.m. on the day of the scheduled 7:30 p.m. concert. Chuck Berry lived in St. Louis. Time was short.
As I started to dial Mr. Berryâ€™s phone number, I noticed three guys standing by the nearby van of a local plumbing contractor. Two of them were reading the Free Press story on Chuck Berry. They had clearly overheard my phone call and surmised that the concert was on shaky ground. They stood poised to watch my next move.
I called the phone number and a friendly female voice answered. â€śBerry Park,â€ť she said.
Is Mr. Berry there?â€ť I asked.
â€śWho should I say is calling?â€ť she asked.
I explained that Mr. Berry was due that evening in Vermontâ€™s Northeast Kingdom and that many people were looking forward to his concert.
â€śBut,â€ť I said, â€śit seems like Mr. Berry isnâ€™t planning to come to Vermont.â€ť
â€śPerhaps thereâ€™s a misunderstanding,â€ť I said. â€śIâ€™m calling now because Iâ€™m sure that if we discuss the situation, we can work it out.â€ť
â€śLet me see if heâ€™s here,â€ť the woman said.
I waited through what seemed like an eternity of dead air on the other end of the phone. The guys standing by the plumbing van were still watching and listening. Then a raspy voice came on the phone.
â€śWhat can I do for you?â€ť he said. It was Chuck Berry.
TO BE CONTINUED