Nashville Cats: Salute to Norbert Putnam

November 14, 2009
In discussing the difference between working as a bassist in Nashville and in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Norbert Putnam compared the studio methods of Music Row producer Owen Bradley and that of Muscle Shoals studio owner Rick Hall.  

"Owen didn't leave any detail unturned," Putnam recalled. "He would record a song once and have everyone come into the control room and listen. We'd all go into that little tiny control room in the Quonset Hut. He'd turn it up a little too loud, and he'd walk around and whisper in everyone's ear as the song played."

Bradley would whisper specific instructions, telling musicians what changes he wanted, down to each bar of music. "We'd go out with Bradley's corrections, and in a few minutes, we'd be done," he said. Back at Alabama's Fame Studios, where Putnam started his career, producer Rick Hall would simply say, "It needs to be different," without giving any ideas on how to make it different. The result, Putnam said, was that in Nashville the song would be done in two or three takes; in Muscle Shoals, it often took thirty or forty.

A widely admired musician and record producer, as well as co-owner of two  important Middle Tennessee recording studios, Putnam was honored as part of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's ongoing Nashville Cats series, which pays tribute to veteran instrumentalists who have proven integral to the city's role as a music center. Interviewed by series host Bill Lloyd, Putnam traced his eclectic career from his early days recording soul and pop music in Muscle Shoals through his role as a Nashville bassist and producer known for his work in rock and folk-pop circles.

"Norbert was among the first group of musicians in Muscle Shoals to become known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, with David Briggs and Jerry Carrigan," said Lloyd, who emphasized Putnam's role in helping diversify the music made in Music City USA. "They moved to Nashville in 1965 and made an indelible impact on how records sounded coming out of Tennessee."

Putnam's family originally settled in Alabama near the Tennessee border, where his grandfather was a farmer and bootleg whiskey maker. His father played acoustic bass in a family string band. "I never planned on being a musician," Putnam said, noting that several neighborhood friends started playing instruments before he did. "But someone remembered my dad had this acoustic bass, so I was drafted to be the bass player."

Before long, Putnam found himself in a small band that included Briggs, Carrigan, and Dan Penn-all of whom would go on to greater success. It started when a local entrepreneur, Rick Hall, built the beginnings of a recording studio and wanted to record a local singer, Arthur Alexander. Hall hired Briggs, Carrigan, Penn, and Putnam to provide Alexander's instrumental support. "It took us a day and a half to do three songs with Arthur," Putnam said.

Alexander's first single, "You Better Move On" and "A Shot of Rhythm and Blues," both drew national airplay and brought attention to Muscle Shoals. Before long, Hall expanded and built Fame Studios, a leading recording center in the 1960s and 1970s. Lloyd played a sampling of the early hits Putnam played on, including Alexander's "You Better Move On," Jimmy Hughes's "Steal Away," and Tommy Roe's "Everybody."

Recalling those days, Putnam said, "Rick Hall was absolutely the worst producer in the world. I mean, we loved him to death because he did train us. He was this guy trying to make records with eighteen- and nineteen-year-old kids. He'd come out and say, 'I don't like that.' We'd say, 'What do you think it should be?' And he'd say, 'It needs to be different.' We'd ask, 'Could you just give us a clue?' All he'd say was, 'It needs to be different.' We'd do forty or fifty takes before we'd get something he liked."

Putnam also played with several Muscle Shoals musicians as an opening act for a Beatles concert in Washington, D.C., the English rockers' first show in the United States. After backing Tommy Roe, one of several warm-up acts, Putnam and Briggs stood against the stage to watch the Beatles perform. "After the second or third song, Briggs turned around and said, 'These guys are pretty good,'" Putnam said with a laugh.

Nashville producers began bringing work to Muscle Shoals to tap into the R&B feel the young players instilled in the arrangements. "I think some of them really hated staying in Muscle Shoals," Putnam said. "They hated the Holiday Inn, and they weren't that crazy about the food. But they liked the way we played. They kept saying, 'You know, they have a real union in Nashville. Do you know how much money Bobby Moore gets every three hours?' The union was a big draw for us. But we weren't sure we'd get work. When we got up here, though, a bunch of people jumped in and helped us."

Jerry Bradley, the son of leading Nashville producer Owen Bradley, helped Putnam, Briggs, and Carrigan unload their furniture when they moved to Nashville. "When Owen couldn't get Bob (Moore) or Junior (Huskey), he'd put me in there," Putnam said. Other producers followed suit. "Fred Foster started hiring us, and we worked with Mickey Newbury and some other Acuff-Rose writers."

Owen Bradley also gave Putnam a stack of records featuring the main Nashville studio players, who came to be known as the "A-team," with instructions to pay close attention to Moore's bass work. Bradley also hired Putnam to play bass in a jazz trio he led. His brother, Harold Bradley-an A-team guitarist-took time to instruct Putnam in the studio on how to play the bass so that it fit in better with the vocalist.

Among the first records Putnam played on in Nashville were the Newbeats' pop hit, "Bread and Butter," and Robert Knight's "Everlasting Love," a pop standard written by Nashville guitarist Mac Gayden and Buzz Cason. Putnam worked with a few country stars, including Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Dottie West. But Putnam earned his biggest credits playing on albums by non-country artists including Bobby Goldsboro, Henry Mancini, Neon Philharmonic, Ray Stevens, the Vogues, and Tony Joe White.

Putnam also played bass on several Elvis Presley recordings, but the story he told was of being booked by the King of Rock & Roll for what turned out to be a mock recording session. Priscilla Presley, Elvis's wife, kept asking to come watch him make a record, Putnam said. So Putnam and Briggs were booked, but Presley had no intention of doing anything serious. "So David and I walk down the halls and go through the door, and there's Elvis Presley, with a big smile on his face, and he has his hands on his guitar, and there's Priscilla," Putnam said.

Presley introduced his wife to Briggs and Putnam, calling them both the greatest players on their instruments in the world. The two musicians went into the studio and pretended to overdub on a session that was already finished. "Elvis came to us and said, 'You know, I love that woman very much, but I would never bring her to a real session. So here's what we're going to do. When she comes into the room, I'm going to tell you I have a great idea for that bass solo.'"

Presley did just that, and Putnam followed his instructions. As Putnam sat down to play the part, "Elvis Presley stands up in front of me, raises his hands in the air, and conducts me all the way through the part." After Putnam finished, Presley repeated the action with Briggs. Then the singer left to take his wife to dinner, and Briggs and Putnam were paid for a week's worth of sessions for making the brief appearance.

Putnam also recalled how Area Code 615, the famed band of Nashville session players, first formed. Michael Nesmith of the Monkees had hired a group of Nashville players to work with him on a solo album. When Nesmith was delayed from arriving at the studio, the band filled the time by playing a version of the Beatles' "Lady Madonna." The melding of banjo, fiddle, and steel guitar with piano, bass, and drums created a fresh sound. "It was country rock," Putnam said.

A month later, producer Elliot Mazer brought Linda Ronstadt to Nashville to record her album Silk Purse (another session featuring Putnam on bass). Mazer suggested the session musicians form a band, because Polydor Records was signing bands for big money at the time. One of the musicians-Putnam couldn't recall who-suggested they do something modeled on the "Lady Madonna" take from the previous month. When Mazer "came back with a big check" even though the musicians weren't officially a band, they huddled together and spent five days in Wayne Moss's studio, Cinderella Sound, and came out with a record.

"We didn't think anybody would hear the record, but it turns out everyone loved it," Putnam said. "We got a call from Bill Graham who wanted us to play the Fillmore East and West. We heard the Beatles have it, and the Stones have it, Led Zeppelin has it. The BBC was using one of the tracks for the theme of their show, The Old Grey Whistle Test. We had to do something, so we went out and played the Fillmore West."

In 1971, Putnam and his Muscles Shoals friend Briggs started a publishing company, Danor Music. They bought a house on Grand Avenue, near Nashville's Music Row, and put in a small studio to record songwriting demos. But Mazer saw the building and said if they put in better equipment, he would record albums there. "So we put in some very good equipment, and we got lucky," Putnam said, explaining the start of Quadrafonic Studios, one of Nashville's most storied studios. It still exists today in the same location, but under different ownership.

Among the first sessions recorded at Quad, as it came to be known, were those for Joan Baez's 1971 album, Blessed Are ..., produced by Putnam after Kris Kristofferson suggested him to Baez. The album featured the hit single "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," and led to Putnam's becoming a leading folk-pop producer. Another big album recorded at Quad in its early years was Neil Young's Harvest, one of the best-selling albums of 1972.

Putnam's success with Baez led Clive Davis of Columbia Records to ask him to become his primary producer, working with young artists rising up in the emerging folk-pop and singer-songwriter movement. Putnam at first protested, saying he preferred to work with R&B artists rather than with acoustic musicians. But Davis prevailed, and soon Putnam was producing the first album by a young Illinois artist, Dan Fogelberg, who went on to great success. Putnam later produced two of Fogelberg's most popular works, Netherlands and Phoenix.

Putnam also produced top albums for Eric Andersen, J.J. Cale, Dave Loggins, and New Riders of the Purple Sage. In 1977, he began producing Jimmy Buffett, starting with the album Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes. It included the hit "Margaritaville" and made Buffett a million-selling artist for the first time. Putnam would work with Buffett for the next six years, during his most successful period for album sales.

After selling Quad, Putnam built The Bennett House recording studio in Franklin, Tennessee, and helped form Georgetown Mastering in Nashville with Denny Purcell. These days, Putnam lives in Jackson, Tennessee, with his wife, Sheryl. He runs a publishing company, Sophie & George Music, with Randy Moore.   

Several former Nashville Cats honorees were in attendance, including drummer Jerry Carrigan, harmonica player Charlie McCoy, bassist Bob Moore, and guitarists Wayne Moss and Reggie Young. Other famous musicians in the audience included keyboardist David Briggs, guitarist Mac Gayden, studio guitarist and producer Steve Gibson, former Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Ed King, and songwriter-producer Dan Penn.

At the end, Putnam said, "This is a great honor, to be mentioned in the same breath as Bob Moore and all these guys that have been honored in this program."

-Michael McCall

The educational programs of the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum are funded in part by grants from the Tennessee Art Commission and the Metropolitan Nashville Arts Commission, through an agreement with the Tennessee Art Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts.