New Horizons: Mike Vernon (Part One)
Part one of our Mike Vernon celebration
Without producer and label boss Mike Vernon, the history of British blues would look very different. In the first part of a feature charting his career, he opens his photo archive and takes us back to the start of Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and David Bowie...
British blues would be far poorer without Mike Vernon. As both a major-label producer and founder of Blue Horizon, the country’s leading blues label of the 60s, he helped shape the careers of such luminaries as Eric Clapton, John Mayall, Ten Years After, Savoy Brown and Chicken Shack, though perhaps his most crucial alliance was with Fleetwood Mac, led by the inimitable Peter Green. Under Vernon’s tutelage, the band graduated from blues boom heroes to million- selling superstars.
In his recent memoir Play On: Now, Then And Fleetwood Mac, Mick Fleetwood says Vernon “deserves tremendous kudos for his guidance, not only in our career, but for many others in the English blues scene too. He did more than anyone knows to further the music and nurture the artists.” Factor in the producer’s involvement with Graham Bond, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, Duster Bennett, Rory Gallagher, Paul Kossoff and Mick Taylor and you start to appreciate where Fleetwood is coming from.
Vernon would be assured legendary status were it only for the above. But, over a working life that’s endured for over 50 years, he’s also recorded David Bowie, Focus, Bloodstone, Dr Feelgood and a whole host of American figures. These range from the relatively obscure (Johnny Shines, Curtis Jones, Mississippi Joe Callicott) to the semi-mythical (Champion Jack Dupree, Freddie King, Otis Spann, Hubert Sumlin, Willie Dixon).
The 70s saw Vernon issue a couple of solo albums under his own name, as well as form a part of two successful, highly contrasting bands: The Olympic Runners and Rocky Sharpe & The Replays. He went on to produce yet more artists and start up other labels – Code Blue among them – before giving it all up and moving to Spain at the turn of the millennium. It would be another 10 years before he was coaxed out of retirement.
Vernon’s return to work was fairly low-key, producing albums for British blues prodigies Oli Brown and Dani Wilde. But both experiences left him eager for more, to the point where he now has several projects in the air. The most recent is Just A Little Bit, which finds him fronting his own band, The Mighty Combo, and revisiting the music that first fired his imagination. Given the fact he began as a singer with The Mojo Men, you can’t escape the feeling that Vernon is squaring a very large circle.
“I suppose you could put it that way,” he says, down the line from his home in Andalucía. “The original plan was to do about six tracks, but somehow it grew and grew until it was like a runaway train. I couldn’t stop it. It ended up being my own personal homage to all the great singers, songwriters and labels of the 40s and 50s that got me into the blues in the first place. It’s been getting some very good reactions. In the early days I was frightened to death whenever I got up on stage, though now I’m completely the opposite. Fifty-plus years of being in the music industry knocks all that out of you.”
This last sentence is accompanied by a chuckle, but there’s enough dryness in there to suggest that Vernon is only half-joking.
Over the next two-and-a-half hours, which slip by like a solo from Peter Green or Freddie King, Vernon takes The Blues on a journey through his past. And, by correlation, that of the British blues scene itself. He’s well prepared too, he explains, having dug out a personal discography that’s as near as damn it to comprehensive. Yet despite the benefit of this epic chronology, it transpires that there are still gaps in the details, mostly due to the sheer volume of sessions that Vernon has been involved in.