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Mike Vernon: Recording Blues Players

Opinion | Music Production (Production Lines)
Published June 1994

You can't beat a live player — at least as far Mike Vernon, blues producer and head of the Code Blue record label, is concerned...

People keep telling me that there's a 'blues boom' happening — I've heard this before. I've been in this business long enough to remember the last blues 'boom' and I know perfectly well that blues music will never go away because everything that we now call pop music has its roots in blues.

The reality is that there has always been an outlet for blues — it's just that occasionally the media decides that it warrants more coverage and more airplay. I think a lot of this latest revival is because over the last four or five years there has been a resurgence in live music. There are many more venues now — certainly in this country and particularly in London — and some of those are playing blues seven nights a week. There is airplay coverage too, because of Jazz FM, which is extremely popular in London, and which, I understand, is going to start spreading its wings further afield. It's a tremendous boost for the music.

I started as a blues producer and since then I have worked with many other types of music, but the truth is that I never gave up producing blues records. I've continued to do it for fun and with some I've been lucky and made money. But I've always maintained my involvement.

Producing blues is totally different in terms of production techniques to producing any other type of music. The first thing you have to do — and this is absolutely imperative — is to let the performer get the performance out. This is far more important when making a blues record because you can't keep doing take after take. A great many blues musicians have no perception at all about what goes on in a studio, They just think they walk into a studio, plug in and play and that's it. Everything else they see as my job. When Gus Dudgeon and I were working at Decca and we recorded with Muddy Waters and Otis Spann, we used to throw microphones up as quickly as we could get them on the instruments, press the record button and let them get on with it. Then we would sort it out afterwards.

We have two artists signed to Code Blue: Jay Owens, who writes his own songs, and Sherman Robertson, who gives a great performance but isn't a songwriter — yet. I think the songwriting element is what matters now, especially if blues is to survive through the 1990's. We have to understand that the traditions of the music are dying with the artists, because so much of the Black American way of life that inspired early blues music is no longer relevant. The modern alternative is Rap, which has often been described as today's blues. I don't know if I agree, but it is true that Rap is now Black America's statement of the times.

It would be foolish to expect to keep the traditions of blues music alive in the same format. There are traditional artists out there who are still performing and they are wonderful, but it would be unfair to expect them to step outside their own traditions. I find some of them a little uncomfortable to listen to and I'm also extremely suspicious of some, too. I can give an example — the recent recording of John Lee Hooker's 'The Healer' with Carlos Santana: I have listened very, very carefully to that track and although I can't prove this — and may be entirely wrong — I have this feeling that the timing of his vocals are so on the money that I think they have been sampled and placed in the right slot. I would be very happy if this was disputed but I have my suspicions. I have never had the pleasure of working with John Lee Hooker but I have in excess of two dozen of his albums and his timing is not that good — and he is prone to rambling and changing lines and putting in phrases that don't make sense lyrically or rhythmically, so I'm suspicious, because the timing on that track is too accurate.

Of course, it's possible that Roy Rogers, who produced the track, was sitting at his shoulder and tapping him to tell him when to sing the lines, because that is something that I've had to do with some artists who have been unable to sing lines in the correct meter and the correct place. I did it recently with George 'Wild Child' Butler because we were working with songs he wasn't familiar with. There are no two ways about it — to get the best results from any blues artist you have to rehearse the song until they know it inside out. Even Sherman didn't know the songs as well as he wanted to know them when we cut the first album. He now performs them live and they are better live than they are on the record. I won't fall into that trap again.

Our aim with Code Blue is to diversify as much as possible within the 'goal posts' of the blues format. We are not setting aside the possibility of signing a traditional artist but we are looking more towards R&B and contemporary Soul with a blues edge. We are also about to sign a British act who are very young and much more on the Rock edge. From a commercial, saleable point of view this is the kind of thing that can get the music noticed.

My intention is to have a pool of five or six acts to work with so that we can be as diverse as possible within the genre. Getting airplay for blues music is difficult unless the song is good enough to sell itself, but as far as I'm concerned blues music has always been the music I wanted to work with. If the music doesn't speak, if the band don't swing, then the whole thing is a bloody waste of time. I don't mind computers and I've used them often enough on other projects to feel comfortable with what they can offer to a project, but they are not the be‑all and end‑all. You can't beat working with live musicians — I'm sure there are people out there who will call me a dinosaur, but I don't see it that way.

Mike Vernon's production credits include Roachford, Level 42, Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, and Bloodstone.