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September 5, 2012

Director and screenwriter Jay Craven. Courtesy photo

In a four-part series, Jay Craven recounts the concert that almost wasn’t – 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 Ashley’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 it’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 I’ve ever had. More on that later.
I’d always wanted to see Chuck Berry play the Northeast Kingdom. The man pioneered a whole new wave of '50’s and '60’s pop music with songs like “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Maybellene,” and “Memphis, Tennessee.” 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 didn’t happen. 
The afternoon before the show I received a call from Mr. Berry’s agent at the William Morris Agency. He wanted me “not to worry” but said that a “new wrinkle” 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 Berry’s mind. He apologized profusely and said that he’d process a refund. He then wished me well and signed off.
I awoke on the next morning, the day of the scheduled concert. I’d never had to cancel a show so I was discouraged, to say the least. I imagined the losses we’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 — sunny but not too hot. Determined to put the crisis out of my mind, I caught a ride to Harvey’s Lake with my son, Sascha, then six years old. At Harvey’s, someone showed me that morning’s Burlington Free Press, featuring a full front-page Living Section picture and story about Chuck Berry’s Lyndonville show. I’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 — 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 driver’s license had ever been suspended — for ten days due to a speeding ticket I’d gotten a month earlier in Newport, en route up I-91 to Paul Simon’s Graceland Concert in Montreal. We were in a hurry to pick up the Graceland musicians Ladysmith Black Mambazo for another Catamount concert — but that’s another story.
Anyway, I walked from Harvey’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 he’d stay behind with a friend I’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 — before I cancelled the concert. I got Chuck Berry’s agent on the phone and told him I’d never seen this kind of unprofessional behavior. Actually, I had, but that’s also another story.
The agent said he’d tried his best and failed to save the date. Out of the blue, I asked him to give me the rick legend’s home phone number. The agent stammered.
“You’ve got to give me his phone number,” I insisted. “You’ve given up on this. I haven’t.”
To my surprise, the agent gave me Chuck Berry’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. Berry’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. “Berry Park,” she said.
Is Mr. Berry there?” I asked.
“Who should I say is calling?” she asked.
I explained that Mr. Berry was due that evening in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom and that many people were looking forward to his concert.
“But,” I said, “it seems like Mr. Berry isn’t planning to come to Vermont.”
“Perhaps there’s a misunderstanding,” I said. “I’m calling now because I’m sure that if we discuss the situation, we can work it out.”
“Let me see if he’s here,” 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.
“What can I do for you?” he said. It was Chuck Berry.


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