Norbert Putnam Reflects On The King

By: Elvis Australia
September 16, 2011

Elvis Presley strolled into RCA Studio B in Nashville on the evening of June 4, 1970, his attire accentuated by a black cape and matching cane. 'I was wondering', he said to his musicians, a smile creasing his lips', if you folks would like to make some phonograph records tonight?' The room erupted in cheers.

That was Norbert Putnam's first glimpse of Elvis, who grew up in a shotgun shack in Tupelo and became known worldwide as the king of rock and roll. Putnam, 28 at the time, had built a reputation as a one of Nashville's top studio bass players. He laid down classic lines on such hits as Dave Loggins' Please Come to Boston and Joan Baez's The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. But working with Elvis ... that was different.

Norbert Putnam

'I was pretty worried', says Putnam, a former resident of Grenada who taught music for two years at Delta State. 'I would always say a prayer before any session ... but that night I just said', Dear Lord, guide my fingers.' With anybody else I played with, I wanted them to leave saying 'This Putnam guy is the greatest bass player I've ever seen'. With Elvis, I just didn't want to screw up'.

Putnam's road to working with Elvis went through Muscle Shoals, Ala., where he was the studio musician for Tommy Roe, who was produced by Felton Jarvis in the early 1960s.

'When Chet Atkins became head of RCA's Nashville division, he brought in Felton Jarvis and gave him about six acts - one of them being Elvis. Felton respected my work and called me up. Elvis' musicians were getting up in age, and Felton was looking for some younger guys. But I was the last one into the group. The others had worked with him a few times before, so that's why I was so nervous that night. I really felt like I had to prove myself'. Over the next seven years, Putnam would record 122 songs with Elvis. And the man who went on to help launch the careers of Jimmy Buffett and Dan Fogelberg as their producer still says it was one of the most special times of his legendary career. 'You know what a great singer is?' Putnam says. 'It is someone who can deliver mundane lines with such tremendous emotion, it gives you chill bumps ... makes you feel things he or she didn't even say. Two people I worked with could do that - Elvis and Ray Charles. I think Little Richard could do that, and James Brown. But there weren't many. Elvis could do it every time he picked up a microphone'.

His introduction to Elvis was short.

'Elvis, this is Norbert Putnam', Jarvis said. 'He's going to be playing bass tonight. He played on Tony Joe White's 'Polk Salad Annie'. Elvis nodded and smiled. 'Aw, yeah, I loved that', he said. 'Glad to have you'.

'He worked differently than any musician I've ever been around', says Putnam, who lives in Jackson, Tenn., with his wife of 21 years, Sheryl. 'Felton would reserve two blocks of studio time - 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., and 10 p.m. to 1 p.m. Well, Elvis never got started until 10 o'clock, and we always went overtime'.

That first evening, they recorded I've Lost You, followed by seven more songs. They finished at 4 a.m.

'Over five days, we recorded 35 songs', Putnam says. 'That's knocking them out pretty good. But Elvis was really easy to work with. I can't remember one time that he came over and said', You need to play it like this' and then proceed to tell me what to play. In fact, that first night during one of the playbacks he walked over, put his arm around me and said', Great bass playing.' He wanted you at ease. He wanted you to have fun'.

The toughest part about recording with Elvis, he says, was that 'more times than not, he nailed it the first take ... which meant the rhythm section was screwed, because we didn't always get it perfect the first take. Now, we had great players - James Burton on guitar, David Briggs on piano.

But it's rare that everybody gets everything perfect on the first take.

'So we developed this subtle system to get Elvis to do another take. David or I would walk up beside him while we were listening to it back, nudge him in the ribs and say', Elvis, I know you killed it, but would you mind doing just one more time for me? I really think I can do it better.' And every single time he would say', OK, Put's got an idea he wants to try. We're gonna do one more take.' He was never put out by that'.

Putnam says a recording session was 'like an athletic event for Elvis'. He explains: 'He created so much adrenaline in the room. He would use a hand-held microphone so he could move around. He would sort of conduct us with his body. And he was totally courageous. He believed in himself so much. When that red light came on, he held nothing back. He went for it, which made you want to go for it, too. We fed off his energy'.

And, yes, he was eccentric. 'About 1 a.m., a valet would bring him a complete change of clothes', Putnam remembers. 'There were nights he did karate demonstrations for us that were absolutely amazing to watch'.

Putnam also witnessed Elvis' gradual downfall.

'I think the breakup with (wife) Priscilla (in 1972) was the devastating blow to Elvis', he says. 'Besides his mother, I think Priscilla was the only woman he ever truly loved.

In June 1977, Putnam received a phone call from Jarvis. 'He asked if I could come over and dub a bass track on Unchained Melody, which Elvis had played on a piano alone one night. I was into producing at that time, but I agreed to do it. Two months later, Putnam was vacationing with his children in Hawaii when he learned of Elvis' death, which was ruled a heart attack. 'I was in a convenience store, and there was a hippie-type guy in line in front of me', he says. He asked the cashier, 'Did you hear the news? Elvis checked out today'. I couldn't believe it'. Elvis' premature passing gnawed at Putnam for years. Putnam doesn't flaunt his working relationship with Elvis. Sheryl didn't know Putnam played bass extensively for Elvis until she read about it. 'Norbert is a humble person', she says', and I'm still astounded by his impact and contributions to the history of music'.

Paul Liem, who played drums for Elvis, Whitney Houston, Lionel Richie and Neil Diamond, among others, calls Putnam 'a genius' and 'one of the greats in the eyes of all the top performers and musicians in our business'.

But for all his other accomplishments, recording with everyone from Roy Orbison to The Monkees, Putnam will always be linked to the final seven years of Elvis' life. 'Elvis loved to make people laugh', he says', and he loved making great music. He could make everyone around him better. That certainly was the case with me'.

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