Norbert Putnam

Distinguished Visiting Lecturer in Recording Industry

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.  In addition, that original rhythm section was chosen to open the first concert by The Beatles in Washington, D.C., in 1964.  By the mid-sixties, 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, which strongly influenced the burgeoning country rock and Southern rock subgenres. In 1970, the same year Putnam began to record with Elvis Presley, he 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 hit sideman to hit producer on a record with Joan Baez, “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.  Impressed with 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. He produced Jimmy Buffett’s breakthrough album, Changes In Latitude, Changes In Attitudes, which included “Margaritaville,” one of the most successful singles ever released in America.  Although he had become an in-demand producer, there was one recording artist Putnam continued to work with as a sideman — the man who changed his life, Elvis Presley, with whom he worked until the King’s death in 1977.  Over the next decade or so, Putnam brought his magic touch to recordings by 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 eighties, Putnam retired from the music business to spend some time as a “normal person” after nearly a quarter of a century as a proessional musican and producer. Recently, he came out of retirement to produce a Dan Fogelberg tribute album and is touring with old friends James Burton and Ron Tutt in the Elvis TCB band.  He recently released a memoir, Music Lessons.

—Norbert Putnam bio courtesy of Daryl Sanders