Interview with Mike Vernon

The term ‘legendary’ is often over used. However, when you have a career spanning five decades and worked with everyone from Fleetwood Mac, David Bowie and Eric Clapton through to Laurence Jones and Sari Schorr, it is safe to say that producer Mike Vernon deserves the tag as much as anybody.

Best known as founder of the blues record label Blue Horizon in 1966, having started out at Decca Records in 1963, Vernon became the ‘go to’ blues producer. Once worldwide distribution rights had been agreed with CBS, Rory Gallagher, Peter Green, Paul Kossoff and whole host of other blues legends soon chose to utilise his skills. He himself, however, did not come from a particularly musical background.

“My grandfather used play either trombone or souzaphone in a brass band, I’m not sure which, and I don’t think counts much really. My dad, though, had a wartime friend called Charlie who we’d visit on a regular basis. Charlie collected 78s and in amongst them were recordings of Louis Jordan, The Mills Brothers and The Ink Spots. At the tender age of seven or eight what happened was that I became introduced to music that meant nothing to me other than for the fact that I loved the sound of it.

“I was also quite lucky that my father was the manager of an electrical store situated in the foyer of the Davis Theatre in Croydon. It was the second largest cinema in the country at the time, where the likes of Johnny Ray would perform and invariably cause a riot.

“This was also the time of Bill Hayley and Alma Cogan and a long list of others who made my ears jump off the sides of my head. We also had music playing all the time in the house.  So although not from a particularly musical family as such, it would be wrong to say that I wasn’t brought up around music. It was there all the time and although much of what I was listening to was being classed as Rock ‘n’ Roll, it actually wasn’t. It was Rhythm ‘n’ Blues. That’s when I discovered the difference. There wasn’t really anything in common between the original version of Shake, Rattle and Roll by Joe Turner and that of Bill Hayley’s. I preferred Joe’s version.”

Mike Vernon started out at Decca in 1963, when a certain boy band from Liverpool were sweeping all before them. Yet Beatlemania was something Mike didn’t really get caught up in. After all, London was experiencing its own musical revolution: The Blues Explosion.

“The Beatles had no effect on what I was doing whatsoever because, by then, I’d become very much a part of what was happening in London. My scene was very much southern and central London and I could go and see all these great bands perform live for next to nothing, every night. The likes of John Mayall and The Bluesbreakers and The Spencer Davies Rhythm & Blues Quartet were already making their mark and, of course, The Yardbirds. They were terrifically exciting times.

“In London we also got the added bonus of seeing more of the touring American artists of the day. These guys wouldn’t only play the large concert halls as they did in other cities, but also small clubs and bars. Their accessibility was greater here. It was terrific and the atmosphere most nights was just alive. The great thing was that I got to experience all of this at a very young age.”

An experience, after months of trying, that turned out to be music’s gain and arts loss. “My one year tenure at Croydon Arts College can be best summed up as being a bit of a waste of time. I only went because I couldn’t get a job in the music industry. I’d applied to all six major record companies and all six turned me down. Then Decca got in touch and asked me for an interview. I got the job on November 12th1962, and still have the letter offering me the position framed and on my office wall.”

With the ‘dream job’ finally secured, however, it wasn’t quite as glamorous as Mike had envisaged. “I became a gopher: I’d go for this, or go for that. An errand boy, I suppose. Taking letters and parcels here, there and everywhere; I made tea or fetched sandwiches;  learned to type using all ten digits, which I can still do and quite quickly … blindfolded if necessary.

“Most importantly I learned about the music industry and how it functions; how and where records are made and who is in control of what; copyright laws and artwork; all the peripherals that make the music industry tick. I learned all this and more at Decca. It was all totally invaluable and I tried not to waste a moment of it.”

As well as sharpening his talent at Decca, Mike also played in bands across London. “I didn’t play anything particularly well,” he laughs, “but I did try to play a bit of guitar. The problem is I have very small hands and, therefore, very small fingers. Stretching for anything more adventurous than a seventh chord is a bit beyond my capabilities. And it hurts too and I soon decided it wasn’t for me.

“I switched to harmonica which offered slightly better results, but mainly I was a singer. I’d been in the church choir at around eleven or twelve and later in a band called The Mojo Men, which Neil Slaven was also a part of. The thing is I didn’t really enjoy performing. In fact I wasn’t that good at it.”

Vernon’s influence on British music was growing with his newly formed Blue Horizon label gaining distribution rights from CBS and Polydor. In a period of about four years from 1967, he was responsible for producing around sixty hit singles and more than a hundred albums; all this at a time when blues records were none too readily available in Britain.

“I thought I’d done a pretty good job with all the bands I’d worked with. Then, coincidentally, almost month by month, they all walked away to work with someone else. I didn’t have The Bluesbreakers any more or Fleetwood Mac or Ten Years After or just about anyone and I got to thinking I’d said something to offend them. Of course that wasn’t the case. It’s just the nature of the industry. The business took them away.”

Mike Vernon deserves all of the credit that comes his way for raising the profile of blues music in the UK, but has not confined himself to blues or blues-rock recordings.  In 1967 he was the producer for David Bowie’s self-titled debut album on Decca. He also produced Dutch progressive rock stars Focus and in the mid-’70s, Vernon worked with American soul band Bloodstone.

Over the coming decades, he maintained an incredibly successful profile as a producer with the likes of Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Level 42.

Then in 2000 he announced his ‘retirement’ from the industry.  “By 1998 I was absolutely burned out and had had enough; I simply couldn’t face the thought of going into a recording studio again. This coincided with my meeting Natalie. I’d recently divorced and we’d struck up a friendship which grew from there. Neither of us wanted to carry on living in England, so we moved to Spain and set up a comfortable home. Having been out there for around ten years, I was then tracked down by Golly Gallagher of GFI.

“He phoned and asked if I’d be interested in producing Oli Brown who he thought was the most exciting young guitar player of all time, so I checked him out. Natalie wasn’t very keen on my going back to it but realized I was having something like withdrawal symptoms. She also realized I wanted to give it a go again, even if only to produce a couple more records: to get it out of my system so-to-speak. In the space of the next twelve months I produced three albums and the fire had been relit.

“I see now why I retired and it was fun while it lasted. I’m just glad it didn’t last any longer than it did. I’m not very good at doing very little. I love doing things with my hands. Where I live now in Spain, I’m always outside getting ridiculously brown.  I love painting, building furniture or walls. I’m currently working on a cobbled patio and some stair casing. It’s taken about seven years to get where I’m at but that’s okay. I’m not the quickest, but I am quite particular and methodical and just love doing it. I never get bored. I’m also a big Crystal Palace fan and have been coming up to 62 years now, so you can see I don’t do a lot of relaxing!”

Mike’s wife Natalie – herself a successful interior designer – sadly passed away from lung cancer in 2014; a diagnosis of which changed Mike’s priorities. “I completely dropped out of the music industry again when she got the news that it was already at Stage 4. We both wanted to make as much of the time we had left together as possible. I also wanted to make her life as bearable as possible. Around about a year before Natalie passed away, though, Golly got in touch again and asked if I’d produce Laurence Jones’s upcoming album: his then third album.

“I said I probably would be but that unfortunately, due to what was happening at home, I simply wasn’t in any position to do so. Of course he understood and said he’d check in again later. He did, around eighteen months after Natalie had passed away. This time it was to produce Laurence’s latest album, Take Me High. Even after eighteen months I still wasn’t sure I wanted to do it, but nevertheless asked him to send me some demos. It was then he suggested that I chat with Laurence over the phone.

“We had a long conversation and he was very charming and pleasant. Above all he was just so enthusiastic about wanting to work with me. I asked him to send me the demos and by the fourth song I knew. They were so strong and his playing had improved immeasurably from what I had remembered. When we got together and started rehearsing I thought if we get this right, we can make the album sound like a live show minus the audience. It turned out that it was exactly what he wanted too.

“I think Take Me High, has a massive sound: something that’s big, fat and juicy. When we were recording the vocals, I told him to imagine there were a thousand girls watching him and screaming: openly told him to ‘give it some wellie’. He didn’t realize we could do that and I kind of liked that element of naiveté and his reverence for the studio.

“It’s given him confidence, I think. The discussions we had about how to approach different songs has given him that assurance to take him to the level he deserves to be at. He has a very distinctive voice. One which doesn’t need touching at all in the studio, which is very unusual.  He just needed to be told that he could use it. That he needed the same attack attitude with his singing that he has when he’s playing the guitar. He’s totally got it now, I think, and the success of Take Me High is the proof.”

Recording wasn’t all plain sailing though. Laurence suffers from Crohn’s Disease: a chronic inflammatory ailment of the intestines resulting in acute abdominal pain. “He did have some pretty bad days with it in the studio. He was in a lot of pain and discomfort sometimes and it was understandably very hard to get him to concentrate. He’s fighting a very nasty disease and it must be really tough at times.”

Someone else Mike has worked with recently is Sari Schorr, whose debut album A Force of Nature has recently been released to much acclaim and anticipation. “I was asked recently what my favourite productions were and I had to say that amongst my top five would have to be A Force of Nature. It might actually the best album I have ever made in terms of production and creating something unique. It came from almost nothing more really than Sari as an artist and the quality of her songs.

“I believe in her so strongly as a singer and love the way she approaches her work and songwriting. They’re all very different but each one contains a positivity and power that’s breathtaking. It’s the balance and mood she creates that’s astonishing. She is without doubt one of the most awesome singers I have ever heard in my life and what I’d really like to be able to do is help raise her profile to match that of Beth Hart’s.”

The music industry has changed beyond all recognition since Mike Vernon began his career in 1963. Would he like to be starting out today? “If I’m allowed to be 20 again, then definitely,” he laughs. “Other than that, to be honest, I don’t think I would want to be starting out as a producer. I’m lucky inasmuch as I’m not having to go out looking for work, but I don’t think producers are too much in demand any more. People do it themselves now. Of the old school, there are very, very few of us around.

“I don’t have too much of an issue with shows like X Factor though either. We all carp on about the crap it produces, but in reality it also comes up with some very real talent.  Often it is the ones who don’t win who move forward and build on what they’ve achieved on TV. Some extraordinarily good singers have come out of shows like that and you have to remember that you just cannot stop music evolving.

“It is with us every moment of every day in one form or another; some good, some bad, some great, some terrible. It’s subjective but the fact remains that there isn’t anybody in this world who doesn’t listen to some form of music every moment of their lives. Music is everywhere.  It’s what makes the heart pound and the blood flow. It’s uncontrollable. When you have something like that, you can’t possibly have any control over what people do with it or how they market it.”

“That said, because music is in the air around us, people also think that they should access recorded music for free. Why should they? Someone has to make it first. Then someone has to invest time and money to make it whole. That’s the biggest issue today, I think. That there are far too many ways to get access to recorded music for free, which is definitely not right.”

So what’s next? “The second Sari Schorr album!  We’ll probably start work towards the end of next year. She’s already working on songs but I’ve not heard any of them yet. Laurence asked at the end of recording Take Me High if I’d like to work on the next record. I don’t think any of us envisaged the success it’s been if we’re being honest, but it’s great that it has been.  We’ll see. In the meantime, I have a cobbled patio and a stair case to finish building.”

About Chris High