Neil Slaven Tribute

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Mike Vernon’s Tribute

If we were to turn back the hands of time to the late 1950s Neil might have introduced himself, to a gathering such as this, with a sprightly “Hello everybody!” – utilising, of course, Peter Sellers’ Goon Show ‘Bluebottle’ voice. Both Neil and I attended Purley County Grammar School where we were to share our love of The Goons and rhythm & blues music.

I was already tuned in to the likes of Fats Domino, Little Richard and Chuck Berry but it was Neil who opened up my ears to Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley.

The summer of 1960 saw Ewart Nevals – a nom de plume Neil used on many occasions – and ‘yours truly’ departing secondary education. Neil found a job working for Carlo Krahmer at Esquire Records and I entering Croydon Art College. My time at art college was short-lived though as I was given, in November 1962, the opportunity to join the staff in the Artist & Repertoire Department at the Decca Record Company Ltd. Neil departed Esquire Records a year or two later and moved to the Progress/Artwork Department at Decca on Albert Embankment. Planned as such you might ask? Probably, as we were together again! In truth we had never been separated.

I was a regular visitor to his home in Caterham and he to mine – down the road in Kenley. Neil had decided to learn how to play the guitar and we even made an attempt to form our own R&B band – The Mojo Men. We became regular visitors to all the major (and not so major) London blues and jazz clubs to catch visiting U.S. Blues artists – Little Walter, Memphis Slim, T-Bone Walker, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Rufus Thomas and Champion Jack Dupree to name but a few. It was usually our aim to see their shows and then introduce ourselves and ask if we could interview them for future magazine publication.

Thankfully, we rarely got a rebuff. Those were busy times but we always cleared our diaries so as to be able to make regular trips to the Sussex Coast to visit Simon Napier, John Broven and Mike Leadbitter – the formidable trio of blues aficionados who had been successfully publishing the first UK blues fanzine entitled Blues Unlimited. As Neil remarked quite often – “Off to Bexhill on Toast” – for our continuing blues education.

In 1964 Neil, myself and my brother Richard launched our own Blues fanzine – R&B Monthly – which would eventually spawn the Blue Horizon label. The magazine ran for two years – the final edition distributed in February 1966. By then I was working for Decca as a fully-fledged record producer whilst my best friend was firmly ensconced in the aforementioned Progress Department.

Later that year I produced the now infamous album known as the “Beano” album, featuring Eric Clapton with John Mayall’s Blues Breakers. Neil was present in the West Hampstead studio when that album was recorded and, consequently, wrote the sleeve notes for that particular release – the first of many as he was to became the ‘go to’ journalist for many such releases throughout his career. I suppose it could be said that he was the conduit at Decca for the producers who worked for that company – especially when they needed to deal with photography, artwork and the written words that appeared on a lot of Decca`s album releases. I would add that he was very good at the job – very organised, very thorough and very informative.

The formation of Blue Horizon Records would see my departure as a salaried employee at Decca. An Independent Production Agreement with my former employer was signed which enabled me to bring acts to Decca of a non-blues character but also allowed me to continue with strictly blues artists that were signed to Blue Horizon.

At that time I didn`t give much thought as to how this new arrangement might affect the relationship that Neil and I had built up over the years. It occurred to me that maybe he was saddened that his position in relation to Blue Horizon had somehow been shifted sideways. I should add that the name Blue Horizon was Neil´s idea. Thankfully he didn´t walk away never to be seen again! We continued to meet up on a regular basis but spent less time in the studio together. He did make the occasional visit to a Fleetwood Mac session and most importantly flew with me to New York and Chicago for the “Fleetwood Mac Live in Chicago” 1969 sessions – his presence proved to be invaluable.

Once back in Blighty, Neil was soon to be offered his first bona fide production job – The Keef Hartley Band for Decca’s Deram label. I was so pleased that that opportunity had been afforded him – an important moment in his career for certain. The demise of the Blue Horizon label early in 1972, followed by the opening of the Chipping Norton Recording Studio that same year, definitely pushed Neil and I apart. Not instantly but slowly. He found himself very busy at Decca and I was very busy in Oxfordshire. Then I flew out to California to work with the soul/funk outfit Bloodstone – newly signed by London Records.

Ships in the night and all that stuff. We talked occasionally but face to face meetings were few and far between. In later years we did meet up and those get togethers were very enjoyable. His time with Decca as a producer had been short unfortunately as the company was taken over by MCA in 1973. Neil`s expertise as a liner notes scribe stood him in good stead. He had become very much in demand for reviewing label product for a number of top shelf magazines. He also set his mind to writing a book about Frank Zappa entitled “Electric Don Quixote” to considerable acclaim. And then there was silence… for many years!

Thankfully we did re-group in the 1990s and indeed, once settled in Spain he visited on two occasions. At that time he seemed very relaxed and I believe he enjoyed the new scenery – a visit to Granada and Alhambra being the highlight. We spent a lot of time on the terrace with a drink or three gazing at the mountains of Malaga Norte reminiscing about the old days.

It was a pleasure to see him so relaxed – enjoyable times indeed. We continued to stay in touch but sad to say, there came a time when he would not respond to my emails nor to my phone calls. The last time I spoke with Neil would have been about two years or so ago. I suggested that he should come and visit again: see the new house, kick back and enjoy the hot tub, home cooking, large G&Ts and so on. He liked the idea… but it was not to be.

I think about him a lot… and I miss him!