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Craven: Chuck Berry's Vermont Gig

Chuck Berry’s passing reminds me of a summer night in 1987 when the rock n’ roll legend played a concert I produced in Lyndonville.

But the show almost didn’t happen.

The afternoon before, his agent called to say that Mr. Berry had “taken a look at the map” and declared he’d never travel to a spot as remote as the Northeast Kingdom.

I reminded the agent that we’d already advanced twenty-five thousand dollars. He said that Mr. Berry could be difficult - and apologized.

The next morning, discouraged, I took my then 5 year-old son Sascha to Harvey’s Lake, and from the pay phone at the West Barnet Store I called to ask the agent to make one last try. When he refused, I asked for Mr. Berry’s home phone number. To my surprise, he gave it to me.

It took two recorded calls, the promise of a $2500 bonus and a Lincoln Town Car, plus a plea to the Federal Aviation Administration to overbook US Air flights from St. Louis to Burlington, to get Chuck Berry to Vermont that day - in time for us to be just a half hour late to the concert.

On I-89, Berry urged me to drive faster by honking, wildly waving his arms and even nudging the back of my ’82 Saab. Alarmed that we might collide and miss the concert altogether, I just tried to stay out of his way.

As we rolled down the Lyndonville I-91 exit ramp, we were already twenty minutes late for the start of his set – but Berry got out of his car and strode to my window.

“What I need now,” he said. Is a steak dinner.”

So over a hasty meal at Ashley Gray’s restaurant, Chuck Berry and I talked about Keith Richards, John Lennon, Elvis Presley, and the Beach Boys while 2000 people waited at the fairgrounds in the dark, not knowing whether or not the show would go on.

It did, of course – eighty minutes late. But when Chuck Berry amped up his guitar for Johhny B. Goode, nobody cared what it took to get him there. Even I didn’t care.

And very late that Friday night a handful of stunned Vermonters were unexpectedly treated to a blazing round of guitar licks for free at Vinny’s Hot Spot in Burlington. Three guesses who it was that stopped by and took the stage.