The British blues boom that started around 1963 and ran for the rest of the decade was initially a cultish, non-mainstream movement largely fed by merchant seaman bringing blues records back from American to the great industrial ports of the UK, Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow and London. Blues guys like John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson would come to the Uk and tour with a pick up band such as The Yardbirds, Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated or whatever band John Mayall had at the time. It was a roots-up movement that by 1967 had attracted many devotees but there was still no UK label dedicated to releasing blues records to a wider British audience.
Step forward Mike Vernon.
Vernon was a veteran producer with a passion for the blues. Well-connected in the industry, he set up Blue Horizon in 1966 after running a small, and I do mean small, mail order label called Purdah. Purdah released just four singles, one by John Mayall and one by Eric Clapton, which later showed up on Decca’s Blues World Of Eric Clapton album.
The first releases on Blue Horizon were licensed blues songs from USA by artists Vernon admired but it was signing Fleetwood Mac – then known as Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac – and hooking up to a CBS distribution deal in 1967 that brought Vernon massive success.
He then began recording blues people such as Champion Jack Dupree, backed with the cream of the British blues scene such as Rory Gallagher, Peter Green, Paul Kossoff and Aynsley Dunbar.
Blue Horizon became the most successful blues label in Britain as the Fleetwood Mac singles charted as did Chicken Shack’s I’d Rather Go Blind sung by Christine Perfect, who would leave the band two years later, marry John McVie and join The Mac.
Arguably the finest album of this period on the label was Chicken Shack’s Forty Blue Fingers Freshley Packed and Ready To Serve. A killer blues album featuring one of the great unsung heroes of the era, Stan Webb on guitar, it reached 12 on the album charts – a sign of the popularity of blues rock at the time. Its follow up O.K. Ken did even better, peaking at 9.
While other labels such as Liberty had heavier blues bands like Aynsley Dunbar’s Retaliation, Blue Horizon kept more pure blues acts on their roster.
Blue Horizon became a hub around which both British and black American artists revolved. People like Otis’s Spann & Rush would record with members of Fleetwood Mac, and most of these sessions are now available. The sheer volume of bluesmen who came through the Blue Horizon doors is quite amazing. Long forgotten people like Johhny Shines, Gordon Smith and Top Topham all made records that barely sold at all but with Fleetwood Mac shifting big units and riding high in both singles and album charts, it didn’t really matter financially. It really was all about the music. They also took care to create iconic and quirky sleeve art for the records.
Clearly, it couldn’t last. The label was so tied to the blues boom that when that bubble burst, and Fleetwood Mac moved on, the end was always going to come sooner than later.
Interestingly, Dutch progressive band Focus provided the final album release in 1971 with Moving Waves, a superb double album. The last release was a single by obscure band Fugi late in ’71.
The Blue Horizon names lives on as part of the massive Sony BMG conglommorate and there has been an extensive CD release programme of Blue Horizon sessions and a triple CD set gives you the complete story from start to finish. It’s a good place to discover the delights of bands like Jellybread and Bacon Fat along with blues men such as Mississippi Joe Callicott and Roosevelt Holts.
The Blue Horizon label was initially a bright blue, later changed to red and by that final Focus album was white but it is the bright blue one with the boxed circular logo that is the iconic image of that British blues era.
All the records, even the Fleetwood Mac stuff that sold in big numbers, are relatively valuable and always worth picking up if you see it cheap anywhere.
Vernon is a really important man in the history of British blues and rock who was driven by a passion for the music and even after the end of Blue Horizon continued to work with blues based musicians in various roles.
For an indepth interview with him, go to the excellent Blues Matters website.