Editor’s note: Filmmaker and arts impresario Jay Craven has been 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, where he left off — getting Berry to the Burlington airport and headed to Lyndonville.
Time was wasting and Chuck Berry arrived late at the Burlington airport. There was virtually no chance that we’d make it to the Lyndonville fairgrounds in time for the start of the scheduled concert. There was an opening act — but the timeline was very tight.
At the airport, dozens of people watched me count out $2500 in a fistful of twenties and fifties — to satisfy the rock star’s demand, that morning, for an additional payment to actually get him headed in our direction.
Yes, he’d been paid $25,000 in advance, to perform the Lyndonville show, but once he realized that it was a two-hour drive from the nearest airport, he balked.
But at least he was now standing in Vermont. Or driving, more precisely, in the rented Lincoln Town Car he was down I-89, well in excess of the speed limit.
Berry honked his horn, flashed his lights, and pulled up alongside my old Saab. “Let’s go!” he said.
I accelerated to 70, but Berry wanted me to go faster. He cruised up fast behind me. Honk! I accelerated to about 75 mph. I squinted for any sign of state troopers.
Berry still wasn’t happy. He pulled up hard, bumping my car. I pushed the gas, but Berry made another run at me. I was soon traveling 90 mph, pursued by Chuck Berry. He passed me and gave a long hoot. I was sure we’d both get pulled over and thrown into jail. There would be no concert.
At the Montpelier exit, I pulled over and explained that we’d have to slow down for the two-lane highway to St. Johnsbury. Berry just laughed and took off at breakneck speed. I traveled the speed limit. But, as I rounded the bend in Plainfield, Berry laid in wait. He caught sight of me and pulled up close behind. Again, he honked and leaned out his window. “Let’s go!” he said. Then he roared out of sight.
I picked Berry up again in West Danville and motioned for him to follow. He did. It was a rough ride, but we made good time to the Lyndonville exit. It was 8:30. I calculated that the opening act was just playing their last song. If we hurried, we could make it, after all.
Then, Berry zipped past me and turned into Ashley’s Restaurant, which used to sit next to the Colonnade Motor Inn. He bounded from his car and toward the restaurant. “Chuck, we need to get to the concert. We’re late,” I said. “We have some food over there.”
“I intend to get a good steak,” he said. “I can’t go on without a Vermont steak dinner.”
I figured it would take an hour to order and eat. But Berry was already through the front door. I followed him in and explained our predicament to an understanding waitress. She promised to do her best — and did. We were eating ten minutes later. The steak was rare.
Over our meal, I was tense but Berry relaxed and talked about his work. “Some people say I’m a pain in the ass,” he said.
“Really?” I said.
“Yeah, (Rolling Stones guitarist) Keith Richards flew all these musicians to St. Louis to stage a tribute concert for me,” Berry said. “He brought in everyone – you know, Clapton, Robert Cray, Linda Ronstadt.”
“But Richards expected me to show up whenever he wanted to call a rehearsal. But he didn’t want to pay,” Berry said. “Did, you see the movie?”
“I did,” I said. “Hail Hail Rock n’ Roll.”
“Good,” Berry said. “You know Keith Richards said he never thought he’d meet anybody who would screw him over worse than Mick Jagger. Till he met me.”
Berry laughed, almost out of control. He clearly relished the idea.
“Little Lennon. He was there. You know him? John Lennon’s kid?”
“Julian Lennon. I’ve heard his music,” I said.
“Not me,” Berry said. “But I knew his old man. At least he had the guts to admit when he stole from me. You know that song “Come Together?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Lennon stole it from me,” Berry said. “But he settled right off the bat. Then he recorded my stuff on his rock n’ roll album. You heard it?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“You ever hear the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA?” Berry asked. “Same thing. Check the credits. They had to pay me and put my name on it.”
Over dinner, Berry added to the litany of injustices he felt he’d experienced during his long career, from unscrupulous club owners to the jail time he’d served for offenses ranging from tax evasion to his interest in teen-aged girls.
“We’ve got to eat fast, Chuck,” I said.
“Pretty good steak,” he said.
We finished dinner in a half hour. But, it was now 9:10 p.m. and Chuck Berry was supposed to take the stage at 8:45. I paid our bill and thanked the waitress. Berry left an additional tip.
As we crested the small hill leading to the Fairgrounds gate, I saw that nothing was happening on stage, but people were still in the stands. Berry flashed his lights and honked. Some people cheered. Some booed.
Berry quickly sized up the local band we’d hired to back him up. One guy complained that there had been no rehearsal. Berry just looked at him. “If you don’t know how to play your Chuck Berry,” he said, “then you ain’t no rock n’ roll star. Get on the stage or get off it.”
Berry played an electrifying set that included the classics that made him the most influential figure in rock n’ roll – “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and a scorching rendition of “Johnny B. Goode” where he invited the audience to dance on-stage, hoping to incite a riot.
After the show, Berry posed for pictures, then got into his Lincoln for the ride back to Burlington. At the St. J. intersection of I-91 and Rt. 2, he passed me.
“Here we go again,” I said to myself. But he stopped, jumped out of his car, and ran over to my car window.
“I know the way,” he said.
“You sure?” I said.
“Yeah.” Berry looked down the road. “This was fun,” he said. “Really good. Glad you got me here.”
“Me, too,” I said.
“I had no intention of coming,” he said. “You’re not a concert producer, man. You’re a scientist.”
I had no idea what he meant, but I took it as a compliment. He slapped me a high five and took off. Exhausted, I drove home.
A week later, a piece in the Burlington Free Press caught my eye. It described a stranger who’d drifted into Vinnie’s Hot Spot, a funky bar on the Williston Road. It was 2 a.m. and only a few patrons lingered. But the stranger was Chuck Berry and he took the stage play a rousing set to the small crowd. His Vermont excursion was now complete.
Jay Craven directs Kingdom County Productions, where he makes films and produces the Kingdom County Presents performing arts series. He will be presenting performances by the comedienne Paula Poundstone at the Haskell Opera House (7:30pm, Friday, November 2)and country music star Clint Black (7pm, Wed. Nov. 28th) at St. Johnsbury Academy’s Fuller Hall. Tickets and information at the Catamount Arts Regional Box Office (748-2600 or CatamountArts.org).