(Editor’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 Berry’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 Berry’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 Berry’s home in St. Louis. There wasn’t any time to waste.
“What can I do for you?” Berry said.
“We’ve got a concert tonight,” I said. “I’m just calling to see if we can find a way to get you here for it.”
“We did a show together last spring, Chuck. In Burlington. Everything went great (an exaggeration), people loved you (no exaggeration), and now I’ve got a couple thousand fans expecting to see you tonight. Some have driven a hundred miles. I can’t cancel the show.”
“That’s not my problem,” Berry said. “Nobody told me this gig was at the end of the known earth,” he said. “I don’t drive to small towns. I don’t fly to small airports. And I don’t travel in small planes. If the concert’s more than twenty minutes from a big airport, I don’t go.”
“But we paid you $25,000 a month ago. Why didn’t this come up then?” I asked.
“You didn’t pay me $25,000,” he said. “William Morris Agency steals 10% – every time.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “How do we make this work?”
“For starters,” he said, “you could come up with the money the agents made off with.”
I saw an opening and quickly calculated what we would lose if we had to cancel the show – $1000 for the opening act, $5000 for marketing, another $2000 for fairgrounds rental and sound equipment. Plus the loss of good will and credibility.
“I’ll pay you the additional $2500 agent’s commission if tonight’s show goes on as scheduled,” I said.
“How would you expect to get me there – if I agreed?” said Berry. “It’s late.”
“I’ve got a plane ticket booked from St. Louis to Burlington,” I replied. Actually, I didn’t have anything of the sort, but with time evaporating, I didn’t see any choice but to seize the moment.
“What’s the flight number?” he said.
I was making progress. “My office has the information. I’ll call you right back with it.”
“You do that,” he said. “I’ll think about it.” Then he hung up the phone.
Nearby, the plumbing crew I spied earlier reading that day’s Burlington Free Press story on Chuck Berry’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 – on US Airways. That is, unless I wanted to chance a small plane from Boston to Burlington. No way. Chuck was clear – no small planes.
At US Air, a very understanding clerk took my information and started booking the flight, before he hit a snag. “I can get you to Pittsburgh but the flight from Pittsburgh to Burlington is fully booked,” he said.
“Hmm,” I replied. “Can you double check?
“It’s full. No question,” he said.
“Can you overbook the flight?” I asked. “Don’t the airlines do that all the time? Somebody’s bound to not show up.”
“Let me check,” he said.
I waited for several minutes. The airline agent returned. “This leg would require FAA approval to overbook the flight,” he said.
“Would you check with them?” 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’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. “I can’t overbook this flight,” he said. “I called the FAA in Washington. There’s a group of Japanese tourists on board to Burlington and we don’t expect the flight to open up. I’m really sorry.”
“You’ve gone beyond the call of duty,” I said, sensing that this last hope for the concert was now dead. “Thank you.”
“Wait,” the agent said. “Eureka! A seat just opened up on the screen.”
“Book it,” I said. I gave him my credit card info and wrote down the details.
I then called Chuck Berry’s home. The friendly receptionist said she’d try to find him.
More dead air. Then Chuck Berry came on the phone again. “Yeah,” he said.
“I have the flight number,” I said.
“I haven’t said I’m going,” he replied.
“Well, I’ve got the ticket and the flight number. We need to make this happen,” I said.
“So,” Berry said, ”you’ve got a first-class airline ticket from St. Louis to Burlington.”
“They don’t have first class,” I said.
He ignored that. “And you’ll have $2500 in cash waiting for me when I arrive at the airport,” he said.
“Sure,” I said. “And, I’ll be there to pick you up.”
“Nobody drives me,” Berry said. “I’ll need a Lincoln Town Car waiting for me,” he said.
“Fine,” I said.
“You just be there at the airport to pay me the cash and lead me to the venue,” he said.
“No problem,” I said.
“And you do not object to the fact that I am tape recording this conversation, right?” Berry asked.
“Fine,” I said. “But the St. Louis flight leaves in a half hour.”
“Don’t worry,” he said, “I drive fast.”
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).