In Tune Music Lessons with Norbert Putnam By Sandi Butler Hughes; photographs courtesy of Norbert Putnam
t is not often when a memoir is penned that the reader finishes the book and is grateful for time spent within the pages, exploring the writer’s life. But such is the case with Music Lessons, A Musical Memoir, Volume 1, written by Norbert Putnam, a bass player, studio musician, music producer, and storyteller extraordinaire.
The stories Norbert regales in his memoir are a roll call of the who’s who in music history beginning in the mid-1960s. The subject matter and time period may be why his story resonates. Chances are, the songs and the artists have been a part of your own personal playlist during your life, and Norbert’s tales make you appreciate the music even more. From Elvis to Dan Fogelberg, The Monkeys to Michael Jackson, Dolly Parton to Joan Baez, they are all covered in this memoir. A native of Florence, Alabama, Norbert began fulfilling his calling to be a musician, much to his father’s dismay, in the summer of 1957. He was 15 years old and playing bass in a band when his dad shared a dark secret from his past: he too had been a musician as a young man. He told his son about playing in the bars on Beale Street, complete with gambling, wild women, and drinking. To a spirited boy from Florence, it sounded grand, and from that moment on, he devoted his life to making music! Music Lessons is organized into three parts: “The Early Years,” “The New Nashville Cat,” and “Record Producer,” and rather than chapters, his recollections are entitled “Lessons,” totalling 34 in this first volume. (A Volume Two is coming soon.) In “The Early Years,” Norbert recalls when he first heard about a new band called “The Beatles.” He wasn’t particularly impressed. In February, 1964, he was asked to be in the backup band for the opening acts for the Beatles first American tour. Despite his reservations about their music, the money was good, so Norbert, along with the entire Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section went to Washington, DC, to perform. It was his first time to ride on an airplane. The show was at a large basketball gymnasium, and the stage was a boxing platform. The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section backed opening performers Tommy Roe, The Righteous Brothers, and four other acts while the disinterested crowd passed the time until the Beatles finally took the stage. Norbert decided to hang around for their show to shoot some film footage with his Kodak Brownie 8mm movie camera, positioning himself on the floor, inches from the British lads. A photograph captured at that historic performance includes the back of Norbert’s head, camera in hand. In 1965, Norbert made the move to Nashville. With abundant work for studio musicians, he was working at least twelve hour days, playing for artists from Bobby Goldsboro to Henry Mancini. After a few years, along with childhood friend David Briggs, Norbert decided to strike out on his own. They bought property on Music Row in Nashville and opened Quadrafonic Studio. This led to working with talents such as Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson, and Dan Fogelberg. Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville,” a summer standard for Millennials and Baby Boomers alike, is the work of Norbert and Quadrafonic. 52 / August 2017
By the early 1970s, Norbert was producing full-time, having given up the grueling schedule of a studio musician. But his renowned reputation as one of the best in Nashville led to a summons from Elvis Presley, and Norbert returned to the studio, playing bass on recordings during the last seven years of the King’s life. “He was the greatest artist I ever worked with,” Norbert said, “and the greatest guy. Elvis treated us like we were the stars,” he said. “And he was the greatest guy to work for. He never once came over to me to say, ‘Can you play something else on the bass, Norbert? I don’t really like that.’ I did 120 tracks with him, and he never asked me to change a note.”
What is Norbert’s favorite Elvis song? “I remember one night in the middle of a session, Elvis looked over and said, ‘Have y’all heard that new Simon and Garfunkel song ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water?’ It was number one at the time. We said, ‘Yeah, we love that record.’ And Elvis said that he would love to show Garfunkel how to sing that!,” Norbert laughs at the memory. “Twenty minutes later, we’re playing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water.’ And Garfunkel is great, but if you compare that vocal, Elvis took it to another level.” The songs and artists Norbert writes about in Music Lessons are brought to life not only by his anecdotes but by technology. At the end of many of the Lessons (chapters), a QR code is included. Do yourself a favor, if you don’t have a QR reader, download the free app before reading. It really enriches the experience to scan the code and hear the song, once you know the behind-the-scene stories including Elvis’ studio cut (not the live version) of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Joan Baez’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and so many others detailed in his memoir. What is the lesson in Music Lessons? “It’s when you stumble and fall that you find the gold. David (Briggs) and I wanted to be songwriters, and so we built that little studio, Quadrafonic. We never became songwriters, but it became the most popular studio of that era. It’s good to have a plan for your life, but be ready to take a leftturn or a right-turn, because the turn you take may be better than anything you could have imagined. That’s sort of how my life went - I don’t think anything worked out exactly the way I wanted it to - but the surprise was always better.” It is also no surprise that music was indeed his destiny. Norbert Putnam may have dropped out of college, but he learned the lessons of a lifetime in the recording studio rather than the classroom...and created music that affected the soundtrack of American music history. Music Lessons, A Musical Memoir, Volume 1, is available on Amazon and at norbertputnam.com (where signed copies are also available). Norbert is included in a special exhibition, Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, on display through December 31, 2017. He will be performing in Memphis with the Band of Legends as part of Elvis Week on August 14th at the new Soundstage at the Graceland complex. For ticket information, visit graceland.com.