For Ol’ Times Sake: An Interview with Norbert Putnam About Elvis

Elvis Presley
Elvis at Stax: Deluxe Edition
Sony Legacy

What do Tony Joe White, Jimmy Buffett, Joan Baez, Ray Charles, Henry Mancini, Dan Fogelberg, and Elvis Presley have in common with each other, other than all being consummate musicians?

The answer is obviously the subject of this article, but how they are all connected to this man is a world of wonder for the historically-minded music aficionado, mainly me. When the opportunity arose to speak with Norbert Putnam, I jumped at the chance. Very rarely does a window like this open to discuss music with the masters, because honestly, interviews are proverbially pimped to scribes like us to promote newer, younger artists … those who have a tendency to brood professionally, emulate authenticity, and basically make an ass of themselves on a regular basis. Even with the parameters set to interview Putnam about the new Elvis Presley release (and having only 20 minutes to do so), I knew beforehand this conversation would take a left turn or two … I was going to make sure of it. How can I not bring up JJ Cale, Tony Joe White, or any other legend Putnam has worked with? How can we not discuss “Polk Salad Annie” and “After Midnight” in the same conversation as “Promised Land”? To me, it’s just impossible.

Generally speaking, if you find some common thread between individuals in a grouping of people within three degrees of separation, it’s justifiable. Putnam is just one degree … a pivotal figure in the history of music itself, whether he admits to it or not. Just his work in one week’s time in December of 1973 makes him a strong candidate for coolest mofo bottom-end bringer of the century. It could have been work done with any of the aforementioned musicians that bestows upon him this newly-invented honor (and as you’ll find out in greater detail shortly, he was working with Dan Fogelberg at the time), but since it just happened to be with Elvis, and the work done with said Elvis just happened to be accomplished at the regaled Stax Studios in Presley’s hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. So, OK … we’ll talk about Elvis.

It’s been 40 years since Elvis Presley recorded at Stax records in Memphis, and to celebrate this milestone, Sony Legacy gives us incredible insight into the ‘isms’ of Presley in the studio. Elvis at Stax is now a deluxe three-disc set, finally getting the honor of a comprehensive release with alternate takes galore, and plenty of an element that I always look forward to hearing when box sets like this come out … studio chatter. Nothing conveys the mood of the sessions like it, and besides what you have heard for the last 40 years from these remarkable recordings, this light dialogue between the tracks puts you right there with him like a fly on the wall, and that’s as close as most of us will ever get to knowing what “the King” was like off-stage.

Most of us. Then there’s Norbert Putnam … a southern gentleman whose memories of life, music, and his time with the King of Rock ‘n Roll are most worthy of inclusion in the liner notes accompanying the three-disc treasure chest. I’m happy to say that what you’ll read here takes the “being there” experience felt throughout the Stax set to a whole other level. After all, Putnam’s career began because of Elvis, so to speak. And what a career he’s had.

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Putnam: Elvis Presley was very near and dear to me. I’ll just go ahead and tell you I became a musician because of Elvis Presley. My father had intentions for me of getting an MBA degree and joining him at the insurance company. But, when I was 15 years old, some kids in my neighborhood … I say that because we went to different schools. Danny Cross and a couple of guys were putting together a band to play the Sun records stuff over in Memphis. Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, right, and one of them remembered my father owned an upright acoustic bass.

My dad had played in some country music bands when he was a young man, and almost made it to the big time in Nashville. He accompanied a guy named Autry Inman, another Muscle Shoals guy … by the way, we were in Muscle Shoals, Alabama … and watch for the movie Muscle Shoals that’s coming out. I played on the first hit records there … but Autry Inman was about to move to Nashville and take the band, and he asked my dad to move, and he said “I have a family. I can’t go with you.” So my dad dropped out of the band, and another young bassist from Muscle Shoals named Buddy Killen replaces my father. He goes on to create the largest publishing company in Nashville, Tree Music. Anyway, I became a musician because my dad had an acoustic bass, and because three kids at school could manage to learn those three-chord Scotty and Bill songs. So, without Elvis, I would probably be a very rich insurance executive!” [laughs]

With Elvis being at the root of what made you a musician, how did you feel about actually playing with Elvis?

I have to tell you I approached playing with Elvis with a bit of trepidation. I had gone into the studios in Muscle Shoals at the age of 19, and we made those first hit records with Arthur Alexander, the Tams, and Tommy Roe, and by the time I get to Elvis it was ten years later, and I’m 28 years old. I had moved to Nashville five years prior, and sorta became Nashville’s top rock/soul bassist. I also did a lot of pop music, because I played acoustic. I recorded with Henry Mancini, Al Hirt, and 60-piece orchestras, but I also did Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie”, JJ Cale’s “After Midnight”, and recorded with most of the folkies that came down. Ian and Sylvia, Joan Baez, y’know, all of those guys.

But, I was retiring from bass-playing. I had just produced “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” for Joan Baez, and it sold a million-and-a-half copies, So my phone is ringing off the hook, because Clive Davis had just given me a young Dan Fogelberg, and all of these West-coast and New York labels want Norbert Putnam to produce for them! And Felton Jarvis said “Well, look. I need you to keep playing, because Elvis loves your playing.” So, I agreed that I would always come and play for Elvis, and that’s what got me to Memphis in December of 1973. I was in California working on a record with Dan Fogelberg, and Felton said “Could you take the week off and come down here? We need you, because we need to get a lot of tracks done.” So, I met with Dan, and said “I’ve had a summons from the King to go to Memphis next week. I can’t work.” Dan said “Well … it’s a summons from the King. You could be beheaded if you don’t go!” [laughs] So, I went to Memphis. That’s what brought me there.

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If the future provides us with a real bass player’s hall of fame, Norbert Putnam should be in it next to Carol Kaye, Carl Radle, Leland Sklar, and Donald Dunn, to name a few. They are all the cream of the crop when it comes to session bassists, and they’ve all been an active part of what we as appreciators see as timeless in hindsight. It needs to be noted there is an International Guitar Player’s Hall of Fame allegedly located in Cooperstown, New York that has a bass “section” on their internet list of inductees, but I am of the inclination that guitar and bass guitar are definitely two different instruments that require two different modes of thought and execution.

Putnam’s contributions to timeless music number in the several hundreds, leading me to reason for his inclusion in the folds of the bass elite alongside Charles Mingus and James Jamerson, and that’s because he instinctively knew what hat he had to wear in any given situation, gracefully maneuvering through the interactions between head and hands.

Putnam: My job as a studio bassist was to walk in the room and say hello to this young man named Tony Joe White, who just came up from Louisiana. I’d grab a legal pad, and Tony Joe would play “Polk Salad Annie”. While he’s playing it, I’m charting out all of the changes, so I don’t have to memorize all of the song. I’d have a number chart as a roadmap through all of the changes, so I’m not likely to make a mistake. Then I would put that down and listen to the time of his voice, listen to the feel of the whole thing, and at that point I would try to decide what sort of bass player I needed to be for the next three hours to make his music work. I think this is something all the studio guys knew and revered, because this was really the difference between the guys who worked the trenches in the studios, and never went on the road.

When you went on the road with a band, you got to rehearse those songs from day one on in, rehearse the show, and all you had to do every night was just repeat that. I had to change hats every three hours. Most of the days as a studio guy I would do a session from ten in the morning til one in the afternoon, have a one hour break, grab a sandwich, load up my basses … and by the way I had to carry an acoustic bass in my station wagon, with a bow and rosin that had to be kept cool in the summer, plus my Ampeg B-15, and my Fender Precision.

On a lot of sessions, I played both basses. I’d play acoustic bass on ballads, and stuff like “Five O’Clock World” from the Vogues, Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey”, “Little Green Apples” — that was all acoustic bass. But then I’d play Fender with Tony Joe, and then JJ Cale would come down from OKlahoma, y’know, and he had great stuff. He was a fun guy … y’know we could spend the whole interview talking about Tony Joe and JJ … and, oh god Jerry Jeff Walker would come up … I have to tell you being a studio guy was a lot of fun because it was always challenging. I could go from Tony Joe White to Henry Mancini and his orchestra. It was just a great challenge to be able to play all these styles well. I had to be that guy.

When I worked with Mancini, he wrote every note I played. I was not to ad-lib a single eighth note. As I started to play Henry’s charts, I never wanted to ad-lib. His charts were perfect. Mancini could write for the acoustic bass. Very few arrangers would make an attempt to write a bass part, because so much of it had to do with the key you were in as to what octave you could jump, so for most of my career if I was on a date and everything was written up, most of the times the arranger would write one bar for the bass part and say “Hey Put. That’s sorta what I’m hearing. If you wanna apply that to the chart, great. If not, invent something better,” and he’d walk off and we’d do the song.

When it came time to do the Stax sessions in December ’73, was everything charted for you?

No. No charts. With Elvis, it was like a free-for-all. Felton Jarvis would come out and say “OK guys, we gotta get to work. We’ve been here for three hours, Elvis has been telling great stories, all laughing and having a good time, but RCA is paying for this. We’ve got to give them something.” I’d look up at the clock and it’d be ten in the evening! Felton would say “Elvis, let’s do that song you and I like called such ‘n such, and Elvis would say “OK Felton, play it for the guys.” And the music would come out over the sound system in the studio. Every man in the band, and this is what I loved about this group of players, we could all write a chart as fast as we could hear it. And sure enough, the drummer would indicate certain drum fills he had heard on the recording, I’m taking down the bass line and all the changes, just in case Elvis wants something similar to that bass part.

I played on 122 recordings with Elvis between 1970 and 1977 and in all the years I’ve played for Presley, he never once came over to me and said “Hey Put, could you do something like this on the bass line.” He never once did that, and I don’t recall him doing it to any other players, because the man was so centered on his vocal once he began, he was going to deliver that vocal with tremendous emotion on the first take, and try to get it if he could on the first take. We were scrambling to follow his emotion up and down, and we played to what Elvis was feeling. Lucky for us, a lot of nights it took him three-four-five takes to get it, which allowed us time to really fine tune the track. So, it was loose, for the most part.

Is there anything that you feel is still missing from the Elvis at Stax box set … anything that could see the light of day in the future, like unfinished tracks or more insight into the process?

Well, occasionally we would do a song, and he would struggle with it. I remember while we were at Stax that week, David Briggs and I had a small publishing company called Danor Music, for David and Norbert, and Elvis had two of our songs that he wanted to do. One was called “Honky Tonk Angel” (Conway Twitty), and then we had a song called “We Had It All” that Dobie Gray had recorded a year or so before. It was a beautiful ballad … well, the singer is talking to, obviously, a woman he had a relationship with that crashed. And he’s looking back and he’s saying, y’know ‘you and me, we had it all.’

That week, Elvis, in the middle of the week one night, late at night said “Let’s do ‘We Had It All”‘. Then, Felton Jarvis started to play Dobie’s version in the studio. Now Neil, it’s not like Elvis to ditch a song, but Elvis never finished that vocal. I think the song was a little too close to what had just happened with Elvis and the breakup with Priscilla. Normally, Felton would play a song like that once or twice for Elvis, and Elvis was a quick study. But this song, we listened to it one time, two times, three times, six times, and finally he said “let’s just do it”, and it wasn’t his usual enthusiasm. Of course, David and I were over there counting our money, because our little publishing company with a Presley cut? That was a big deal, Neil, as you can imagine, right? Well, we started on it, and Elvis was struggling. It’s very late at night, it must’ve been about two or three o’clock in the morning. We did a take, and he said “let’s do another one” … didn’t even play it back, which was very unusual for Elvis Presley. We did another take, and suddenly in the middle of the take, Elvis Presley takes the microphone … and he was using a handheld mic like he would use on stage. He had to move around in front of the band when he was recording. I never worked with any other singer who did that.

He had like a 40-foot cable on his mic, and then the mic was foam, and the foam would keep him from making noise. He takes the microphone right in the middle of “We Had It All” and slams it down and says “Felton. You can forget that one. I’m outta here,” and he storms out of the building. David and I were in shock. First, I thought it was a joke. I bet he’s playing a joke on both of us. We finally realized he wasn’t joking. The rest of the Memphis Mafia packed up all their stuff, and they were gone.

Aftwerwards, Felton came over and said to me “Hey Put, I think it was the lyrical content of the song. The more he sang, the more emotional he became, and he finally just gave up.” I think the next day we tried it again to no avail. After a couple of run-throughs, the song was dropped. But other tracks that week, the King got into. He decided to do “Promised Land”, the old Chuck Berry song, and all of us knew Chuck Berry’s material. That was a great track. He fell into it, and then he became the rock ‘n roll King again. He was totally fearless when it came time to do that vocal. It was almost like, if we were covering a song like “Promised Land”. I think Elvis thought to himself “Listen to this, Chuck Berry. This is how you shoulda done it. This is how I’m gonna do it. And band members, I’m gonna get it on the first take, so you better be ready.”

I’ll let you in on a little secret. On the nights when Elvis got it on the first take, and we still had some work to do, we devised this little scheme. We couldn’t go over to him and say “Hey King, would you do another one for us?” That makes it sound like we don’t have it together. Let’s say it looks like Elvis is gonna take the first take, and we still gotta few things to work out. As he’s playing back, I would go stand next to the King. Halfway through playback, I would elbow him in the ribs. “What is it Put?” “Hey King, do you think you could do one more for me? I got this idea for the chorus, and I think it would really help out the track.” He’d immediately stop playback, and say “Hey guys”, he’d say. “Hold on, hold on. Put here needs another one. Let’s give him one more shot.”

We would do the next take, and in the middle of the next playback, David Briggs would go up to him and say “Hey King. I got this idea on the piano for this part. Can we do another?” and he would always do that for us. Well, sometimes he would say “It’s fine the way it is, Put. Let’s move on,” and I’d be dead, right? But, I can’t express this enough to you: he had tremendous respect and admiration for those of us who could quickly play great, because that level of skill allowed him to be Elvis Presley. We could get on a high and roll with it. And that’s the reason we could do 35 sides in the first week, and 18 in the second. I think it was good therapy for Elvis that particular week, but losing Priscilla was the major turning point.

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I need to thank Norbert Putnam for touching on the subject of Priscilla, and the divorce that had occurred that year. Most interviewers and journalists that have delved into this period of Presley’s career focus on it. I, too, had questions scripted, but there’s so much that has been written about this turning point in Presley’s career, that I didn’t even want to go there with him. Besides, Putnam has so much insight into all music during this period. Here’s a man that has fulfilled his dreams career-wise. He’s played with the best, including JJ Cale, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Tony Joe White, and of course, Elvis Presley. Along with his hefty session career, he’s produced music that will live forever, including Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” and the New Riders of the Purple Sage’s “Panama Red”. I’ve only met a handful of musicians that can make that claim, and only one who can say they’ve played with two of their idols. Those idols happen to be two of the masters.

“In my career, there were two people I really wanted to have a chance to play for. That was Elvis and Ray Charles. I only got to work with Ray one time. He came in to do Hee-Haw in Nashville, and Charlie McCourt called me up and said “They want to put together a more progressive rhythm section for Ray, because he may do some of his classics.” So they chose me and Kenny Buttrey. Ray on piano, of course. He came in and did two duets with Buck Owens … of course, we knocked that out in one take, and suddenly the producer came around, said “Good job rhythm section, that was great. You can all go home.” Ray was sitting at the piano, and said “Hey. You boys know any of my songs?” and we said “Ray, we know all of your songs!” Ray put his hands on the piano board, and said “Betcha don’t know this one.” and went into one of his classics. So, we started playing, and Ray said “That’s pretty good for a bunch of white boys. You are white, aren’t ya?” and we laughed and said “How can you tell?” We ran through six or seven of Rays songs, and I looked up at the booth, and they were rolling tape! Over the next ten years or so, whenever Hee-Haw needed something to fill time, they would use one of those songs.”

Playing for Elvis Presley is the lifetime accomplishment Putnam is proudest of. In the life of a man who has done so much for music, whose legacy of performances that will last forever could program a cluster of radio stations, Elvis was the pinnacle, and Elvis at Stax is the best starting point to explore Putnam’s career further. Currently, he is finishing up an autobiography titled Music Lessons and is also working on a star-studded tribute to Dan Fogelberg featuring the southern harmonies of the Zac Brown Band among others.

He’s as busy as he’s ever been, and there’s no signs of that ending. I’m thankful for my 20-minute-turned-an-hour moment with Norbert Putnam. He is a gracious man with his time and his stories, and as evidenced on Elvis at Stax and countless other recordings, Putnam’s bass work is extremely worthy of reverence. So are his production skills. He’s embracing modern technology to the fullest, and has much to insight to offer to the new breed of musicians coming up in the digital music matrix. There’s a lot to be learned about the lost art of stereo production from just listening to Fogelberg’s “To The Morning”, Jimmy Buffett’s “Son of a Son of a Sailor”, and all of Eric Andersen’s Blue River.

I, myself, have benefited from a Putnam bass lesson or two unbeknownst to him. I learned more about subtlety from Tony Joe White’s “Homemade Ice Cream” and Linda Ronstadt’s “Long, Long Time” than I did from Paul Chambers bass work on Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green” … and that’s saying something. There are literally thousands of examples any musician can learn from in Putnam’s portfolio, and if there ever is a bonafide bass-player’s hall of fame in the future, the center of the Putnam wall ought to showcase the photo of him in the studio with the serenely napping Joan Baez, diligently working on his first million seller as a producer.

And yeah, he played bass on that, too.