New Horizons: Mike Vernon (Part Two)

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.

“Everyone seemed to think it was a good idea except for John McVie, and Peter Green, who was sitting on the fence. I think they all thought the studio was going to be ramshackle and the real deal – the place where all those old blues records were made – but of course it was much bigger and more professionally run than they expected. And I think that was a let-down for them. It was also the middle of winter and Chicago was bloody cold.”

Undaunted, Vernon hooked up with blues great Willie Dixon and set about recruiting his dream team of sessioneers. “I gave him a list of the people I wanted to use, like Freddie Below and Odie Payne on drums. Willie told me that neither of those guys would be available, but he could get SP Leary. Then I had a whole list of guitar players and none of them were available either, except for Buddy Guy. He would’ve been great, but I didn’t realise that Buddy at that time was having an enormous battle with the Chess brothers about his contract, which meant he was very reluctant to add any kind of weight to the sessions. He just ended up playing second guitar and a few scrabbly little solos.

“So it was down to Peter, Jeremy [Spencer] and Danny to do all the guitar work, which turned out fine. But had we been able to get some of the people on my list – people like Otis Rush or Magic Sam – it would’ve been a more interesting record and we would’ve got more interest from the band.”

In the end, Vernon was left with Guy, Leary, Dixon, Otis Spann, Elmore James’ sax player JT Brown, guitarist David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards and harmonica player Walter ‘Shakey’ Horton. The latter, Vernon says, was okay at first but “then he began to drink and started to get overbearing and a pain in the arse. By far the best of the stuff came at the very end of the sessions, when Fleetwood Mac played Homework and Watch Out. They were the two outstanding tracks, where the band absolutely let loose. I don’t know what the hell happened. It was almost like they said: ‘Right, we’ve got 20 minutes and we’re going to do it now.’ They just played like they hadn’t the whole time they were there.”

By far the best of the stuff came at the very end of the sessions, when Fleetwood Mac absolutely let loose. I don’t know what the hell happened

The fruits of Vernon’s hard labour on the project were released later that year as a double album, Fleetwood Mac In Chicago.

Downtime was at a premium in America. Just five days after the Chess sessions, Vernon was in New York, overseeing the recording of Otis Spann’s The Biggest Thing Since Colossus. Spann’s backing band comprised Green, Kirwan and McVie, with SP Leary on drums. While in the Big Apple, Vernon and the Mac also started work on Man Of The World, Green’s proposed follow-up to Albatross.

These should’ve been celebratory days. Albatross was on its way to the top of the charts back home, where it would elbow Marmalade’s Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da from the No.1 spot. Instead, both Green and Blue Horizon were on the brink of a crisis. Man Of The World was a baleful slow-blues which detailed the hidden sorrows of someone for whom material gains were no substitute for a meaningful life. Some of the lyrics – ‘There’s no one I’d rather be/But I just wish that I’d never been born’ – suggested that Green was far from contented.

It was the beginning of a tortuous time in his private life, eventually leading to schizophrenia and psychiatric wards.

“It was so apparent that the song was all about himself,” remembers Vernon, “which is what the blues is all about, I suppose. It was a realisation that he was not a happy person at all, and it was difficult to associate myself with it in terms of why he felt that way when he made such wonderful music. If you get inside the lyrics too much it becomes too depressing and very sad, though musically it’s still very beautiful. This was the thing about Peter. In that song he was able to create something totally unique. It was an extraordinary composition.”

Vernon returned to London to finish the recording with the band, only to discover that Blue Horizon had neglected to pick up Fleetwood Mac’s renewal option. What happened next was very difficult to take. “We were unceremoniously told by the band’s management that we’d allowed the contract option to run out,” Vernon recalls. “And that therefore the band were no longer with Blue Horizon and were going somewhere else instead. We could’ve put Man Of The World out as a single, but of course it didn’t happen. They went off and did a deal with Immediate after all the work I did on that record. It was a very unpleasant experience and as for the party concerned, [Clifford Davis, Fleetwood Mac’s then-manager] I’ll never forgive him for treating us that way. It wasn’t necessary.

“We could’ve come up with the kind of deal that they wanted,” continues Vernon, “but I think the underlying problem with the relationship between band, management and CBS – and therefore with Blue Horizon – was that the records were released in America on Epic, the subsidiary label. Epic failed to put any effort at all into promoting Fleetwood Mac. And Clifford very much resented that, because he felt that America was the market they were going to break big time. Therefore he took advantage of the fact that we missed this option.

“I suppose you can’t blame him, but as a label we had a really good working relationship with the band, and that was all destroyed. I just walked away, I was very unhappy. Of course I got over it, but I will never forgive Clifford Davis.”

Shaken by the loss of Fleetwood Mac, Vernon nevertheless pressed on with Blue Horizon. He was now onto his third album with the Stan Webb-fronted Chicken Shack (whose ranks had, until recently, included future Mac member Christine Perfect) and he had the likes of Duster Bennett, Gordon Smith and Texan pianist Curtis Jones on the roster. Plus, of course, he was still operating as an independent producer for Decca.

Paul Kossoff seemed like a lost soul, and was quite heavily into drugs, but I got him on record because I liked his style

But the experience with Davis kept gnawing away at him. Vernon’s solution, albeit in a roundabout way, was to record an album of his own. Bring It Back Home, a bunch of original songs dotted with covers of Jimmy Reed, Doctor Ross and Willie Lofton, duly landed in 1971. Rather than fulfilling a long- held ambition, Vernon says that a solo career “was something that I kind of fell into. The Fleetwood Mac situation had upset me and John Mayall had left Decca for Polydor, which was when I ceased to be involved with them any more as an independent. Suddenly I’d lost all my big name acts, so I started songwriting again. Bring It Back Home was made more out of anger and frustration than anything else. I tried to make it a good record in terms of the musicality, but really I wasn’t a good enough singer.”

Despite Vernon’s self-admonishment, there are some engaging moments on the album. Tenor saxophonist Dick Parry, soon to find fame on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, blows on a couple of tracks. Free’s Paul Kossoff is lead guitarist on My Say Blues and the great Rory Gallagher adds licks to the very fine Come Back Baby.

For Vernon, this represented an interesting contrast. “I never got to know Rory that well. I desperately wanted to record Taste, but somebody else nabbed them before I got there. I really admired him as a musician – I thought he was an extraordinary player and a fabulous singer. He had everything. On the other hand, Paul Kossoff seemed like a lost soul. I don’t think he had a very good relationship with his father [actor David Kossoff] and was quite heavily into drugs, which was not my thing and never was. But I got him on the record because I liked his style. He had an interesting, slow vibrato, which was quite unusual.”

The other noteworthy event of 1971 was Vernon’s introduction to an astonishingly capable band of Dutch prog-rockers. It was to be the start of a creative relationship that yielded some of the biggest-selling records of his career. Sire boss Seymour Stein, also a Blue Horizon partner in the US, had made a deal to release the next album by Focus, an Amsterdam quartet who melded rock and classical music into a dizzyingly diverse whole. “He called me and said, ‘I’d like you to go to Holland and see this band called Focus. They have an amazing flautist who’s also a great organist and an outstanding guitar player. I went to see them play in a small venue somewhere in the north of Holland and was completely and utterly floored. I’d never seen anything like it in my life. There was a really big buzz around them and we organised it for them to go into Sound Techniques, the studio in Chelsea, where we did Moving Waves over a period of about two weeks. I was really excited by the whole project. After we’d recorded Hocus Pocus, I knew this band was going to be really big. But it happened so quickly, like greased lightning. Every record we put out went gold almost immediately.”

Vernon’s liaison with Focus bridged the band’s most successful work, from Moving Waves through to 1974’s Hamburger Concerto. It could’ve lasted longer, he maintains, if only guitarist Jan Akkerman and flautist/organ player Thijs van Leer had gotten along.

“Each of them was jealous of the other. I think that was the biggest problem. Jan was jealous of Thijs’ ability to write music and arrangements, and Thijs was jealous of Jan’s ability to create something special without knowing how he did it. Jan didn’t read music at all, it was all in his head, whereas Thijs used to create on a piece of paper. But that’s what also gave them the chemistry on stage. Thijs would do these extraordinary flute solos while playing the organ at the same time, then Jan would rip hell out of his guitar and completely destroy what he’d just done. Thijs would respond by doing the same thing on the organ. It was like ‘anything you can do, I can do better’.”

Not long after wrapping up Hamburger Concerto, Vernon finally got the chance to record with one of his favourite American bluesmen. He’d first met Freddie King in 1969 when touring the UK with Chicken Shack, but now RSO wanted him to produce a new studio album. Vernon was then a member of the Olympic Runners, along with pianist Pete Wingfield, guitarist Joe Jammer and various alumni from jazz-funk outfit Gonzalez.

The band had more or less come about by accident. Initially put together by Vernon as session musicians for an album by Chicago blues player Jimmy Dickens, they laid down a funk number while waiting for Dickens’ delayed plane to land. Subsequently, Put The Music Where Your Mouth Is was a surprise hit on the American R&B chart. Before the decade was out, the Olympic Runners would also score three Top 40 successes in Britain, the last of which was the theme for the Joan Collins flick The Bitch.

Watching Freddie King in the studio, playing guitar and singing, while doing virtually every vocal live, was extraordinary

“RSO were aware of what I’d been doing with the Olympic Runners and told me they wanted a more commercial, funkier, black record with Freddie,” says Vernon. “Something that would get airplay on some of the rock and R&B stations in America. And I wasn’t going to argue with that. So I decided to use more or less the entire personnel of Gonzalez. They were all very much into blues and R&B, but could also play funk and soul stuff. Freddie loved the idea and really wanted to do stuff like My Credit Didn’t Go Through and I Got The Same Old Blues.”

The upshot was 1974’s Burglar, one of the best albums of a career that had begun nearly 20 years earlier. “Watching Freddie in the studio, playing guitar and singing at the same time, doing virtually every vocal live, was extraordinary. He was a real professional, one in a million in terms of voice.”

Vernon reprised his producer’s role with King the following year on the less impressive Larger Than Life – part-studio, part-live – the final album before King’s death in 1976.

In the midst of all this activity, Blue Horizon had gone. No longer able to sustain itself, the label wound up in 1972 as the blues boom became an increasingly distant echo. Its output over the last five years had bordered on the prodigious – around 60 singles and in excess of 100 albums. Vernon, however, was busy moving on.

A year after Blue Horizon’s demise, he’d had a huge Billboard hit as producer of Bloodstone’s funkified Natural High and was already onto his second solo LP. Moment Of Madness, issued on Sire, coincided with Vernon’s involvement with the Olympic Runners. Unlike Bring It Back Home, the album consisted entirely of original songs, co-written with ex-Flirtations singer Viola Billups. “She was best known under the name Pearly Gates,” says Vernon, “and I was dating her at the time. I made this record as an inspirational thing. I’d been so disappointed with the way the whole thing went down with the first album so I just decided to make a new one. Plus I had my own studio by then, because my brother and I had invested the money from Blue Horizon in property in Chipping Norton, in Oxfordshire, and built our own set-up. I had a string of sessions that ran throughout 1973 and which were basically built around the Olympic Runners, with Pete Wingfield on piano and Joe Jammer on guitar.” Others who cropped up on the sessions included drummer Mitch Mitchell and the Ten Years After rhythm section of Leo Lyons and Ric Lee.

The Olympic Runners jogged on until 1979, when fate conspired to turn Vernon into a live performer. Brought in as producer/engineer for Rocky Sharpe And The Replays, a retro combo who drew from doo-wop and 50s rock’n’roll, he set about shaping their cover of The Edsels’ Rama Lama Ding Dong. “They didn’t have a bass baritone singer, so Pete Wingfield stepped in and did it. Of course, nobody expected the record to be a hit [it made the UK Top 20]. I phoned Pete and said: ‘The record’s in the charts, which means we’ll probably have to do Top Of The Pops. Are you available?’ Pete, who didn’t want to be seen as a bit-part performer, replied: ‘I’m available to play the piano but I don’t want to sing.’ Everyone was agog.

“So there was a frantic search to find someone to fill his shoes and they eventually found this guy from Australia, Dickie Hart. Then when we came to record the follow-up, Imagination, I had a really hard time getting him to sing the parts the way I felt they should be. He sang them like a robot; there was no groove. I told him: ‘You obviously can’t hear what I need, so I’m going to go out there and sing it. You can then take it away and we’ll regroup later.’ But when I came back into the control room, Rocky looked at me: ‘Let’s get rid of this guy Dickie Hart, because you just sang it perfectly.’ And I finally found myself as part of Rocky Sharpe & The Replays, using the pseudonym Eric Rondo. I had an enormous amount of fun with that band.”

Vernon remained with them until1 983, enjoying another major hit with a version of Ernie Maresca’s Shout! Shout! (Knock Yourself Out).

Vernon went on to make records with Andrew Roachford, Level 42, Steve Gibbons, Dana Gillespie, Chris Farlowe and Roger Chapman, to name but a few, over the next decade and a half. As chief of Code Blue (one of three blues- oriented labels he founded in the 90s), he even produced A Man Amongst Men, the final album from Bo Diddley. But at the age of 55, having worked continuously for nearly 40 years, Vernon gave it all up and settled in the Spanish mountains.

He had no plans to return. Ten years elapsed until, in 2010, he received a call from Thomas Ruf, head of German blues label Ruf Records. He wanted to know if Vernon might be up for producing an album by Oli Brown, a bright young hope from Norfolk. “My wife, Natalie, thought it would probably be a bad move if I went back,” Vernon explains. “But I really felt like I wanted to do it, that this kid was really happening. So eventually we agreed to disagree. And I’m very glad I did the album [2010’s Heads I Win Tails You Lose], because it turned out very well and pushed him forward big time.”

Within two months, Vernon had also made another record, Shine, this time with young Wiltshire blueswoman Dani Wilde. Both albums showcased what he’s always done best: seize the live aspect of an artist while adding a modicum of studio trickery. He also found time to produce an in-concert set for Louisiana veteran Lazy Lester, an old Blue Horizon acquaintance.

The circumstances surrounding Vernon’s return to solo work were more painful. “My wife had been fighting lung cancer for about three and a half years and passed away in March 2014. We’d been together for just over 15 years and our marriage had brought us to Spain. After she died I began to spend more time in Antequera, where there’s a studio and club run by local blues fans, who also host the Antequera Blues Festival every July. That took me to the club more regularly and I got up and sang a few times at jam sessions. Then they asked me if I wanted to do a show at the festival, which was a fairly big deal. Finally I decided to record some stuff and got in touch with Mike Hellier at Movinmusic, one of the major agents for British and American blues artists. I’ve known Mike for a long time, he loved the record and we discussed putting a band together.”

Vernon’s live shows in support of Just A Little Bit – backed by The Mighty Combo, whose six-piece line-up includes Hellier on drums, guitarist Paul Garner and Geraint Watkins on piano – have been very well-received. Plans are afoot to play a series of blues clubs in England in February and March, with larger dates around the UK and Europe in June. If all goes swimmingly, Vernon and the band will begin work on a follow-up album at the end of 2016.

As if that wasn’t enough to be getting on with, his most immediate concern is explosive American blues singer Sari Schorr. Vernon met her at an awards bash in Memphis earlier this year, when she sidled over to introduce herself and ask if he’d produce her new album. “It turned out she’d just finished a year-long tour with Joe Louis Walker as his Tina Turner-type singer,” Vernon recalls. “She looked exactly like the way I remember Martha Veléz did in 1972: jet-black hair parted in the middle and very exotic-looking. We got on like a house on fire, but it was only when I heard the demos that I realised what I was dealing with – she’s the most extraordinary singer, a big-voiced blues rocker.”

Perhaps more than any of Vernon’s other recent projects, the Sari Schorr album serves as a sharp reminder of his past. Aforementioned US singer Veléz, whom he produced for Blue Horizon back in 1969, is due to make a guest appearance. And more importantly, Vernon has rediscovered his enthusiasm for nurturing vital new talent.

“For the first time since the days of Blue Horizon, I broke my golden rule never to invest my own money in a project,” he says. “Sari did actually make an album in the early 90s, but her record company had their doors closed on them and it never came out. She then turned to being a songwriter. So this will be her debut album proper.”

Basic tracking was done in Spain, with Vernon bringing in members of top local combo Q & The Moonstones. Oli Brown has overdubbed some guitar too. “Guitarist Innes Sibun is putting together a band for Sari and the plan is for her to come and work in Europe next year. I’m really excited about the project – it’s sounding wonderful.”

And with praise like that coming from the man who broke the Bluesbreakers, Focus and Fleetwood Mac, who are we to argue?

Just A Little Bit is out now via Cambayá/Brand New Music

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.