Norbert Putnam shares a lifetime of learning in his new musical memoir, Music Lessons, Vol. 1
One of the magical moments recalled in platinumplated producer-bassist Norbert Putnam’s new book, Music Lessons, Vol. 1: A Musical Memoir, took place at East Nashville’s Woodland Sound Studios in 1970.
“I played on hundreds of sessions at Woodland; I was at Woodland as often as I was at RCA or Columbia,” Putnam says, speaking by phone from his home in Florence, Ala. This particular date was for Linda Ronstadt, who had just wrapped up sessions with producer Elliot Mazer at Cinderella Sound in Madison for her album, Silk Purse.
“Elliot had hired me to arrange, write charts, and lead the band on Linda’s record,” he recalls. Although the album was considered finished, Mazer and Putnam both knew it didn’t have an obvious hit. So when songwriter Gary White sent a demo of “Long, Long Time” to Ronstadt, who in turn played it for Mazer, the producer asked Putnam to arrange a last-minute session on a Saturday morning at Woodland — not an easy task among Nashville’s session players who liked to relax on the weekends. He struck out with the musicians who had worked on the album, but was able to book guitarist Pete Wade, violinist Buddy Spicher, and pedal steel guitarist Weldon Myrick, who used an effect on his instrument to make it sound like a cello. With Putnam playing bass and harpsichord, as well as scoring the string arrangements, the session was a success, resulting in Ronstadt’s first Top 40 hit.
Music Lessons, Vol. 1 is full of such stories from Putnam’s celebrated career as a session ace and hit record producer, stories that involve the likes of The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Chet Atkins, Ray Charles, Dan Fogelberg, Jimmy Buffett, Joan Baez, Michael Jackson, and Ronstadt. The title was inspired by the fact Putnam dropped out of college his freshman year to become a professional musician — he was one of the players who made up the first Muscle Shoals rhythm section in the early ’60s — and begin his musical education.
Despite his amazing professional journey, Putnam never really imagined himself writing a book, much less receiving invitations to appear at book festivals, such as Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago, to talk about it. As he tells it in the introduction to his memoir:
I do not consider myself a writer. As a matter of fact, I’ve hardly written a legible letter in the past thirty years. I will admit, however, after a glass or two of good Bordeaux, I can recite with great gusto some old long-lost music story.
The seeds for Putnam’s book were sewn two decades ago on the South Carolina coast when his wife, Sheryl, after hearing another entertaining story from her husband, suggested he begin putting them in writing. “That was when we lived in Hilton Head, over 20 years ago, and it was the first time I was among normal people, OK,” he says and laughs. “I mean it was the first time I was away from the music community is what I really should say,” he quickly adds, then laughs again.
“We were invited to dinner parties with business people. There would be CEOs, local guys in real estate, a few lawyers — the funny thing was I would always be the only musician there. They would never ask me to play, but invariably at the end of a dinner party, someone would say, ‘Norbert, did you ever work with so-and-so,’ and the crazy thing was, I usually had. I would recite some six- or seven- minute story, and they would say, ‘Norbert, do you realize what an amazing life you’ve had?’ And I guess to these business people, it really was something.
“So that was the genesis of it,” he continues. “One night going home, Sheryl said, ‘You know, that was a great story. You need to start writing this down.’ ”
The book is divided into three sections. “The first part is Muscle Shoals, Ala., and how I began, and how Muscle Shoals began,” Putnam explains. “Then after we played The Beatles concert in ’64, [drummer Jerry] Carrigan, [keyboardist David] Briggs, and I were lured to Nashville by people like Felton Jarvis, who hated coming to Muscle Shoals to work because of the amenities; but he loved the rhythm section. So, at the encouragement of Felton and Ray Stevens, who was a great arranger at that time, and Bob Beckham, who ran Combine [Music], we made the move to Nashville, and almost immediately, we were successful.
“So, the second part of the book is Nashville studio musician, and that part is a little slim,” he says. “I talk about my favorite people, like Linda Ronstadt, Ray Charles — and Presley’s in that section.
“And the last section is record producer, which happened to me at the age of 28. When I tell people I retired as a bass player when I was 28 years old, they look at me like I’m crazy. But the truth of it was after that, I only played for Elvis Presley and Dan Fogelberg, and occasionally something for Briggs.”
While Putnam writes about more than 30 different artists in his book, three are the subject of multiple chapters, artists he had long associations with: Presley, to whom he devotes four chapters, and Fogelberg and Buffett, who get two each. Although he didn’t begin working with Presley until 1970, Putnam would end up playing on more of The King’s recordings than any other bassist. He produced Fogelberg’s debut album and worked with him for a decade, contributing either production or bass or both to his first seven records, and becoming lifelong friends in the process. He became Jimmy Buffett’s producer because the man who had helmed Buffet’s three previous albums didn’t want to record with Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band. Putnam checked out The Coral Reefers in concert and decided he could work with them, a decision that led to him producing six albums on Buffett and his band.
One of the more touching moments in the book is Putnam’s recollection of receiving the news of Presley’s death while on vacation with his family in Hawaii. Another special moment is when he spent time with George Harrison over the Christmas holidays in the mid-’70s. Other highlights include the stories behind the making of a number of iconic singles and albums, such as Joan Baez’s biggest hit, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” Jimmy Buffett’s signature recording, “Margaritaville,” New Riders Of The Purple Sage’s classic album, Panama Red, and Dave Loggins’ soft rock staple, “Please Come To Boston.”
“I’ve started volume two,” Putnam confides as the phone call draws to a close. “In the second volume, I’m writing about Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, The Pointer Sisters, Jerry Jeff Walker, Peter Sellers. I’ve got about 10 chapters roughed out.
“I’m hopeful it will be interesting to people.” Putnam pauses, then adds with a laugh, “I know it was for me.”