New Horizons: Mike Vernon (Part Two)
Part two of our in-depth feature on producer and British blues pioneer Mike Vernon
Everything was happening for Fleetwood Mac in 1968. Not only did they have two hit albums (their eponymous debut plus follow-up Mr. Wonderful) and a brace of Top 40 singles (Black Magic Woman and Need Your Love So Bad), but they also welcomed a new guitarist into the fold. Danny Kirwan was still only 18 when he joined the band in August, having introduced himself to Mike Vernon while playing with South London trio Boilerhouse. The producer recommended him to Peter Green.
Vernon had been particularly taken with both Kirwan’s unusual vibrato style (likening him to Tulsa heavyweight Lowell Fulson) and innate sense of melody. The first thing he recorded with his new bandmates, in October ’68, was a gorgeous, languid instrumental that Green had been honing for some time: Albatross. “I thought we were going to have a struggle there,” Vernon recalls. “When we planned to record that song as a possible single, we didn’t know how it was going to sound. Peter and Mick [Fleetwood] had worked out the format for the song, then we went into the studio and it gradually developed over the day into this magical piece of music. It had everything, but I kept thinking, ‘How are we going to sell this? Who’s going to play this on the radio?’ It was so soporific.”
The execs at CBS had their reservations too, says Vernon, but they loved Albatross just as much as he did. “I told them that we needed to go with our gut feeling and maybe we’d get a lucky break. And that’s exactly what happened. It got played on some radio station and subsequently got tagged right at the end of Top Of The Pops, during the credits. That was it. To everyone’s amazement, we started selling 60,000 copies a day.”
The song began its climb up the singles chart as Fleetwood Mac embarked on a 30-date tour of the US. Vernon initiated a historic blues summit during their time in Chicago in early January ’69, after supporting BB King at the Regal Theatre. It didn’t quite go to plan though.
“I had this bee in my bonnet about the fact that Fleetwood Mac were going to America and were due to work in Chicago,” explains Vernon. “So I thought it was a golden opportunity to get them into the Ter-Mar studio, which was then home to Chess Records, and organise a jam session. The idea was to involve some of the well-known musicians around Chicago, cook up some stuff, have a party and relax.