FEW MEN IN THE HISTORY OF POPULAR MUSIC have had a career comparable to bassist-producer Norbert Putnam. While still a teen, Putnam made history as part of the original Muscle Shoals rhythm section, playing bass on hits by a slew of Top 40 artists, including Arthur Alexander, Tommy Roe and The Tams.

By the mid-’60s, he and the other members of the Muscle Shoals rhythm section — keyboardist David Briggs and drummer Jerry Carrigan — had made the move to Nashville. The bassist quickly became part of a loose group of younger musicians who were first call for the growing number of rock, folk and R&B recordings being made in Music City.

Putnam was the bassist in Area Code 615, the session super group formed by eight of these younger Nashville cats. The Code released two groundbreaking albums in 1969 and 1970 that strongly influenced the burgeoning country rock and Southern rock sub-genres. In 1970, Putnam and Briggs opened Quadrafonic Studio, which would become a recording destination for a variety of well-known artists, from Neil Young and Joe Walsh to Dan Fogelberg and Michael Jackson.                                        

Putnam made the jump from sideman to producer when Kris Kristofferson backed out as producer ona record with Joan Baez in Nashville and suggested him as a replacement. The result was the  platinum album Blessed Are…, and the Top 10 single, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” which went all the way to No. 3 during a 13-week run on the Billboard Hot 100.

He has played bass on 121 songs with Elvis Presley and you can hear Elvis mention him in the song ”Merry Christmas, Baby” May 1971. Elvis shouts ”Wake up, Putt!” during the recording of the song: ”That happened about 4 o’clock in the morning and I’d been up since 8 o’clock the previous day. And it was a long blues, and you have to realize that blues is the most boring music in the world for a bass player. It’s just the same thing over and over and over again. So I was really tired and my eyes were closing and he said, ”Wake up, Putt!” (laughs). I was sitting on a stool with my feet propped up and my eyes shut and I was almost nodding off. But I didn’t miss a note!

Impressed by the unexpected success he had with Baez, Columbia Records chief Clive Davis tapped Putnam as his go-to guy for the folk rock artists on the label’s roster. The first artist he sent the producer’s way was Dan Fogelberg, which led to more platinum success. In fact, every artist who went platinum under Putnam’s direction had never even had a gold record before.

Over the next decade or so, Putnam brought his magic touch to recordings by Jimmy Buffett, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Donovan, Pousette Dart Band, Eric Anderson, Buffy Sainte-Marie, The Flying Burrito Brothers and John Hiatt.

In the early ‘80s, Putnam retired from the music business to spend some time as a “normal person” for the first time in his life. Putnam, who has since come out of retirement, recently published ”Music Lessons volume one” a musical memoir of his life in the world of music.

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