Gary James' Interview With Superstar Session Musician
Norbert Putnam played bass in a group that has come to be known as The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. He played on records with Elvis, The Monkees, Linda Ronstadt, Joe South, Tommy Roe, The Manhattan Transfer, Henry Mancini and the list just goes on and on. He opened for The Beatles at their first concert in Washington, D.C.
The stories this guy has to tell! And you're about to hear them!
Q - How is it that you became part of The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section? Is this something that you just fell into? Did you get a lucky break along the way? How did this group of guys get together?
A - Well, we all grew up down there.
Q - That helps.
A - Muscle Shoals is an area of Northwest Alabama. Fifty years ago they called the area the Muscle Shoals area because the Tennessee River, before they built all the power dams in the '20s, it was shallow enough down there at certain times of the year for wagons to cross the Tennessee River in the Shoals area. One of the first industries they had there were the button making industry. They would harvest the mussel shells and make buttons out of it. It started out as mussel shoals and then after they built all the power dams they changed it to muscle. It became a powerful area. But it was made up of three little towns, Florence on the North border, Sheffield and Tuscumbia on the South border, and they were all just across the river from each other. I was born in Florence and grew up down there, played in bands in high school, R&B bands. I started at the local university, which is now University Of North Alabama. They changed the name since then. I was nineteen years old and a local entrepreneur by the name of Rick Hall decided he would build a primitive recording studio in an area that was designated to be Muscle Shoals City. And now it actually is Muscle Shoals City. He chose players from different local bands to be the back-up rhythm section. I was lucky enough to be chosen. I assume he chose these people carefully. Maybe I was the best bass player in Muscle Shoals at the age of nineteen. He chose David Briggs for keyboards, Jerry Carrigan for drums and a great guitarist named Terry Thompson. We were the four men that made up the original Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. None of us had really made records. We played on demos in some really primitive studios. But Rick took us into his little room over Muscle Shoals City, an old abandoned warehouse building and he produced three sides on the bellhops in the Sheffield Hotel. The bellhop's name was Arthur Alexander. He was the cornerstone, the catalyst of the Muscle Shoals break-out. His record, which was one of those three song was called "You Better Move On". Rick Hall's manages to get a deal with Dot Records and four months later it's in the Top 20 in America. Dot Records had one major star and his name was Pat Boone and he was almost as big as Elvis for awhile. So, the whole thing began right there and then with Rick Hall, who produces Arthur.
Q - How enjoyable was it, or is it to be a studio musician? Sure you get to play on hit records, but doesn't it all get to be like assembly line work after awhile?
A - Well, it's a little of both, OK? In the beginning it was frightening. We were a bunch of young kids who never invented original parts before. We all played in cover bands. I didn't start to play 'til I was fifteen and I learned everything I knew by imitating a bass part on somebody's record. So, we get into the studio and Rick Hall says "Well, that sounds like a Drifters' thing. What else can you do?" I would switch to some other record I copied and they were all copies of copies, if you know what I'm saying. (laughs) It took us awhile to think outside the box and start to invent parts. But we started to get very good at it. People started to come down and we made hits. One of the producers came from Nashville, a guy named Felton Jarvis. He brought Tom Furrell. Tommy is a big star in Europe. After four years in Muscle Shoals, we leave and move to Nashville and now we're really facing some competition. Nashville had an older group of players that were absolutely stellar. These guys, you played them your song once and they go "Sure. We can do that" and the whole band plays it back flawlessly. And it's a great arrangement. (laughs) So, after I get to Nashville and we kick it up a few notches, it really becomes like an athletic event. I'm booked on a session from ten to one in the morning and with this artist we will do three or four songs and take two ten-minute breaks in the middle portions of three hours. Each record label and producer would choose all the players for that session. So, I'm no longer playing every day with Jerry Carrigan and David Briggs. I'm being mixed in with this huge cadre of Nashville of which there were probably about fifty to sixty players, that made eighty to ninety percent of the music that came out of Nashville. So, my job was to get a slot in there and by the second year, I guess I was in the top three most called bassists in Nashville. I brought a fout thing from Alabama that they liked that I used on Tony Joe White's "Polk Salad Annie". That was recorded in Nashville but it sounds like a Muscle Shoals record. And of course I could play acoustic bass well enough to do Henry Mancini when he would come down. I could do the Big Band thing. It was challenging. It was fun. In those days Nashville produced a really wide swath of music. Mancini would come in from California. Al Hirt would come in from New Orleans. This wasn't Country music by any stretch of the imagination. Tony Joe White from Louisiana, J.J. Cale from Oklahoma City would come here. I got most of the Pop / Rock work in Nashville. I got to tell you it was pretty darn exciting. I could have a day when I might have Tony Joe White from ten to one, and two to five it could be a really straight Country date with Loretta Lynn and then from six to nine or ten to one it could be Elvis Presley. Well, that'll keep your heart racing, OK? Plus I went to Nashville. I was twenty-three years old and by the time I'm twenty-seven or twenty-eight, oh my God, I've been in the studio for ten years and I've played almost every kind of music and I'm looking for some other mountains to climb.
Q - Did you read music?
A - Oh, yes. Mancini wrote out every note I played on his records. One of the first guys to come down to Muscle Shoals was a fellow named Harold Ray Ragsdale. Harold Ray Ragsdale was an excellent arranger. He wrote, I don't know, three or four sessions a week in Nashville. He comes down to work with Felton Jarvis and hands me a bass part. I couldn't read it and he handed the drummer a drum part and Jerry Carrigan couldn't read it. (laughs) And he handed David Briggs a keyboard part and David said "I can't read this." He said "Well, get up. I'll play the piano, sing the bass part and the drum part, OK? This guy sits down at the piano and plays the piano part while he sings the bass part and he's mouthing the drum parts. He later became a recording artist and a really funny guy. He changed his name to Ray Stevens. But he was a very well educated music major from Georgia Tech. So, Ray said "Look, you guys are great, but you're gonna have to learn to read these parts. So I went out and bought Bob Haggert's Bass Method and started working on that in my spare time. I also bought a book on orchestrating and arranging. By the time I get to Nashville four years later, I can not only read the bass part, I can write strings and brass. I guess today you'd call that a career opportunity.
Q - What's the name of this group you were in that opened for The Beatles in 1964 in Washington, D.C.?
A - Well, we were simply known as The Rhythm Section From Muscle Shoals. We didn't make records under our name. Tommy Roe had played Europe and a young band from Germany opened for him. They didn't have a record deal. Tommy came back and said "You need to sign these guys, Felton Jarvis!" "What's their name?" "They call themselves The Beatles." He had a very primitive demo tape of McCartney playing rhythm guitar and singing out of tune. Felton wasn't impressed. We made a Tommy Roe record. Tommy would come by every year and make a record with us in Muscle Shoals. Tommy comes back, I guess it must've been '63, and said "Felton, that band I told you about, they got signed. They're on E.M.I. Their first record is just coming out. It's a smash in England and they're coming here in two months to do The Ed Sullivan Show." We were all shocked. "Oh, they were wondering if you guys would be the back-up band for the opening acts." We said "Well, how do they know about us?" "Through all the stuff you did with me and The Tams." They loved Arthur Alexander, The Beatles did. And so, that's how we got chosen. We were simply The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. We backed up George Harrison years later after we became friends. I said "George, we weren't that excited about you guys because you were doing those C minor, F, G, Isley Brothers covers like "I Want To Hold Your Hand". We're flying to Washington, sitting in an airplane, having a whiskey sour, saying "tonight we will be accompanying The Righteous Brothers. (laughs) George said "I wish I'd been playing with The Righteous Brothers too." (laughs)
Q - Did you have to go through Brian Epstein (Beatles' manager) or G.A.C. (General Artists Corp. The Beatles' booking agency) to get that gig?
A - Oh, no. Tommy had just come back from Europe. They said "Hey Tommy, see if those guys would be the back-up band." "I'll see them next month. I'm in the studio with them."
Q - Did you get to meet The Beatles after the concert?
A - No. We had a midnight flight back to Nashville and then we had to driven to Muscle Shoals. We had a ten o'clock session the next morning in Muscle Shoals. Rick Hall was a slave driver. He only let us off for one day. (laughs)
Q - As I recall, The Beatles had to take a train to Washington, D.C. because there was a snowstorm.
A - That's right. I actually have some eight millimeter film that David Briggs and I shot of our trip up and landing in the middle of a snowstorm in Washington that day. If you look at The Beatles Anthology, there's a few clips from the Washington thing. They filmed it in black and white that night. You'll see a few glimpses of color. It only lasts for a frame or two and that was taken from the film I shot, which had no sync or no sound. (laughs)
Q - Did the opening acts get the screams The Beatles did?
A - No. It was a very interesting crowd. I would say the average age was about fifteen or sixteen year old kids. I saw very few adults and the kids were screaming their heads off because they'd seen The Beatles on the Sullivan show and I think they sort of felt like they needed to scream their heads off. They were selling them jelly beans and Coca-Cola, so they all had a sugar rush going. That was the concert where the kids started pelting The Beatles with jelly beans. They (the audience) had no reverence for these great American acts. We thought they were just a bunch of jerks. They applauded, "OK, but get off. Let's get The Beatles on." It was a bizarre scene. There's one thing I'll mention to you that I've never seen really much about. We were up there playing with our American Fender amplifiers. I had a Fender bass and fourteen inch speakers and a bass reflex cabinet on the back of it, which probably doubled its output. Terry Thompson was playing through a Fender Twin. David Briggs played a Wurlitzer electric piano and that was the only keyboard. Jerry Carrigan was playing drums. There was no amplification of The Rhythm Section. Only the voices of the singers were in the PA. The Beatles come out with these Super Vox amplifiers. The sound level that came off the stage was about double the sound level we had just played at. It was an order of magnitude of at least three or four times, and it was exciting! They were the first really loud Rock band. I think that really helped.
Q - Did Tommy Roe show a picture of The Beatles to Felton Jarvis when he played that tape?
A - No. He didn't have anything except this tape. It was obviously made in a hotel room with a cheap recorder and a cheap mic. It was McCartney playing guitar. I talked to George about this later. We're all standing around. We're a bunch of studio jerks and we're making hit records and we think we're gods or something. (laughs) The first thing we notice is McCartney starts to play and the B string on his guitar is a little flat. We all look around and go "Well, he can't tune his guitar." That' strike one. He hasn't even started singing yet. McCartney starts singing this trite song and it might have been "I Want To Hold Your Hand". It was just a very trite song. The lyric was trite. The chord progression was common place. And on the chorus these two other guys fall in and it's three part harmony and of course that's John and George. When all three of 'em hit it, it was so out of tune that Rick Hall stopped the tape machine. He said something like "Tommy, I don't know you've been smoking, but these guys can't play or sing. We have a record to make. Let's get into it." And that was the end of it. (laughs) It was the worst demo you've ever heard. I think if you were to hear that now you would say I can see what you're talkin' about. That was pretty damn bad. Let me tell you, George Martin took those boys to school. I think George Martin kicked them up three or four notches pretty fast. He must've been the first guy to point out to them, you're flat, you're sharp, you need to be here!
Q - The raw talent had to have been there for The Beatles to get signed.
A - I want to tell you, it wasn't exhibited on that tape. There wasn't anything about it that stood out as exceptional. Isn't that something?
Q - That's some story. I've always found it strange that when American artists who toured with The Beatles in England prior to 1964, didn't make much of their appearance; the Beatle haircuts, the collarless jackets, the Cuban high heel boots. Nobody was dressing like that! Nobody thought this is going to be the next big thing in Rock 'n' Roll. To me, that's strange.
A - Tommy (Roe) thought they were gonna be huge. I remember Tommy in that first conversation, we're all standing around the control room while he's talking to Felton Jarvis. Tommy said, "Felton, these guys opened for me in Germany and the crowd went berserk. The crowd was going crazy. I could hardly follow them onstage." Tommy was huge over there. He had five or six bit hits in a row there. They had no hits. They were a cover band. Tommy said, "They've got something." Tommy didn't say "I think they're great writers, great players, great singers. They've got something." I think Tommy might have been the only one to know that.
Q - You say of Elvis that he reminded you of a "sixteen year old kid. Studio musicians could always order anything they wanted to eat, but Elvis always ordered the same thing, a cheeseburger, fries and a Coke. He had no knowledge about cuisine." Maybe he just liked cheeseburgers, fries and a Coke.
A - I think he probably thought that was a meal he could safely order anywhere. I'm sure he sampled all the other foods, but he was a Southern boy who probably grew up eating in a very simple kitchen. His family weren't impoverished, but they had very little money to spend. I'm sure they never ate out. One of his favorite sandwiches was peanut butter and bananas on bread. He never really got outside of his cocoon after he became a star.
Q - He couldn't do it. Imagine Elvis sitting down in a restaurant? It would've been bedlam.
A - He couldn't go around sampling great restaurants. Women especially, it was a very primitive, primal thing that they responded to when they saw Elvis. I don't think they had any idea what was going on. They knew he was beautiful to look at, but that animal magnetism, they all wanted to sleep with him. It's like the women in Las Vegas who would leave their husbands at the table and try to get backstage. I'm certain these were women who would never consider that with any other man. He had this bizarre magnetism and he was a beautiful guy I gotta tell you. The first time he walked into Studio B at RCA, I looked at him and I thought "Damn!" He was actually more beautiful in person than he was on the screen, I thought. But he was a simple Southern boy who liked cars, cheeseburgers, Cokes and pretty girls. If you're hanging out with Elvis, that's what you talk about.
Q - This may be a rather impossible question to answer, but if he were not famous, would you have looked twice at him? Did he have an aura about him?
A - Well, yes. It was obvious that something was going on with him. It wasn't happening with the rest of us. But when he would pick up the mic and start to sing, oh my God, now you've got chill bumps every time. I never got used to the fact that, that timbre of voice that Presley had was so moving. It moved me. It moved everybody. It was like, c'mon, get on the train, we're leaving the station. I didn't experience that with many other artists. Less than five I would say. I recorded with young Linda Ronstadt when she was about eighteen or nineteen years old. The first time she went over to the mic, I got those chill bumps. My God that kid could sing! (laughs) She never had a lesson. Elvis never had a lesson. You know, all of the great ones invented it themselves. You've got to invent it yourself. Yeah, the King, he had it going on I gotta tell you. But there were times; I sat with him one night at Stax in Memphis and this was later on, near the end of his life. I only played with him from 1970 'til he died in 1977. But I must've worked on eighty or ninety songs with Presley in those years. We're sitting one night, having lunch at midnight in Stax Studios and we talked about some family things and he said "Put, how did you get started in this business? What does your family think about you being a musician?" Elvis looked up about one o'clock and sees the clock and says "Hey Put, c'mon, it's time for me to go be Elvis." His voice changed when he became Elvis. His voice got deeper and more masculine. But I had realized then that he had pretty much fabricated the whole thing. And it was the most beautiful fabrication ever done. He stole bits and pieces from classic singers. There was a wonderful guy in the '50s named Roy Hamilton. Are you familiar with Roy Hamilton?
Q - I don't believe I am.
A - Roy Hamilton was a Black guy who had a great record called "Hold On Tight, Don't Let Go". And his voice, he had this low baritone. That was the voice Elvis used when he got down really low. It wasn't a good enough imitation for anyone to say he stole it, but I picked it up pretty fast. (laughs) So, he would grab something from Roy Hamilton. He would grab something from Little Richard up in a high scream. And I think in the later years he took a few things from Dean Martin. So, Elvis could make all of these different sounds with his voice and he would employ four or five different sounds in a three minute song, which made him so interesting as a singer, I think.
Q - I bet you had never heard any other singer say what Elvis said, "It's time to go be Elvis now."
A - No. (laughs) And that's when I realized he had worked all this out. They guy had auburn hair. It was sort of light brown with streaks of red in it, naturally. He sees Marlon Brando in The Wild Bunch and he starts to dye his hair jet black for the rest of his life. He was always taking bits and pieces and putting it together to make up Elvis Presley.
Q - You've also said that by 1965, Elvis was no longer interested in making good records. Why would that be? Did he get tired of singing? Did he tire of the process of recording?
A - I think he always loved singing. But I think that doing all of those B-grade movies with bad songs took a toll on him. But at the same time he was being told by Colonel Tom Parker that "you can't stop doing this because it's too profitable. Music is changing. You may not be able to have hits again. The Beatles had arrived in '64. Music is changing. I don't know if you'll ever be able to do it. So let's keep making these movies." You realize this all conjecture on my part. I really don't know. But I can tell you, he obviously went through a very dry period there when he just made boring records, until he met Chips Moman in Memphis in '68 or '69. Chip sort of forces him to take a harder look at the songs he's doing and the way he's doing 'em. Of course he leaves Memphis with "Suspicious Minds" and three or four other hits. That's when I meet the guy, right after that. He doesn't want to go back to Chips Moman's factory because Chips really beat him up, making him do over and over. I can tell you, when he came to Nashville, he was pretty energetic. He's just had all that success with "Suspicious Minds". We went in the studio at RCA one week and I don't know if I played the first week or not, but I think we did thirty-six sides in five nights with Elvis Presley. The Nashville Rhythm Section, which was James Burton on guitar, Charlie McCoy, David Briggs, Jerry Carrigan or Gabe Hutrey, the two greatest drummers in Nashville and myself and Chip Young I think, made up the rhythm section. At this point you realize they could play a demo, scratch it out on a legal pad and we'd say "Elvis, what key do want to do this in?" And he's say "I don't know. What key was that?" And we'd say "that was the key of F. Let's try it in F." This band would play it flawlessly from start to finish. They're all reading the part, but creating it at the same time. He loved that. With Elvis, we could get a master take sometimes in the first, second or third try.
Q - Tell me more about the recording of thirty-six sides in five nights.
A - RCA released it as "The Marathon Sessions". Get this, it was the middle of Summer, I think it was June or July, and when I came in on Monday there was a huge Christmas tree. Felton Jarvis says "We're doing a Christmas album." Oh, OK. We did a Gospel album and then we did an album of Country classics. It was a beautiful Country record. I think we got thirty-six or thirty-seven sides.
Q - Did you ever have any time to rehearse the material?
A - Oh, there was no rehearsal.
Q - I don't know how you could've gotten that material down so fast.
A - We had learned to create instantly. There was never a rehearsal for records. Once they handed out the parts, the band played it once or twice and tried to get it and everybody went on to the next song. Studio musicians have to be incredible sight readers, incredible creators and they have to do this without ever making a mistake. They have to play their solos and parts flawlessly because in those days we were recording on three track equipment. If I play a bad note on bass, the whole band stops and we have to back up. We can do a work part and cut in, but it spoils the mood of the singer. And so, it was better not to make a mistake. If you wanted to be a first call musician, you needed to be able to listen to that song, write a chart out as it's playing and then put your chart up there and play a great part backing the artist on the first take. If you could do that, you could be a studio guy. If you couldn't do that, you're on the road forever with somebody. (laughs) You get to rehearse when you're on the road.
Q - Did you ever work with Sinatra?
A - No. I would have given anything to work with Frank. I was a great admirer of Sinatra, especially of the bands he put together. You know Frank probably did a better job of making records than almost anyone other than George Martin and The Beatles. Frank spent so much time getting the right band, the right arrangers and picking the right songs. Elvis comes back from Germany after his service and he goes down to Miami and appears on Sinatra's television show. I read somewhere that when Frank met Elvis he said something to the effect "Elvis you have a great career ahead of you. I only have one thing to say to you, you need to have great writers to write the songs, to have a hit. So get yourself a stable of great, great writers." Frank had gone out and gotten Jimmy Van Heusen. Van Heusen only wrote for Frank I think for the last fifteen years of his life. But he always wrote classics for Frank. Elvis didn't really do that. He kind of left it up to Colonel Tom and the people around him. I believe the big reason Elvis Presley stopped having hits is because good songwriters like Leiber and Stoller couldn't get their songs to Elvis anymore. Colonel Tom would take all the publishing. Leiber and Stoller stopped. "We won't write for him any more." And let me tell you, it stopped coming. Elvis didn't pay enough attention to that part of it, I think.
Q - What do you think of the rumors going around that Elvis is alive?
A - Well, you know what he said to (Felton) Jarvis a month or two before he died. Nelson (Riddle) told me they were walking out back in the garden in back of Graceland one day and Elvis just told him, "I am just so tired." And Felton said "Why don't you go away for a week and rest?" He said "No. No. I'm so tired of being Elvis." So maybe he ran away! (laughs) I would love that. It would be one hell of a story if Elvis came out at the age of seventy-five.
Q - What are you doing these days?
A - I've basically been retired the last twenty years. I've been restoring old Victorian Antebellum houses and then this last year a young band from Atlanta called Ocean Street called me up and I'm about half way through a record with Ocean Street and I have a digital studio in my basement and my good friend Dan Fogelberg died of prostate cancer. His widow and I talked six months ago and I went to do something for the prostate foundation. We joined in with Irving Azhoff, who managed Dan, and we have a deal with Sony / Legacy to do a Fogelberg tribute album and I'm producing that. I've got Donna Summer, Don Henley, Alison Krause. The Zoe Brown Band is doing "Leader Of The Band", which was one of Dan's big hits. So we got a bunch of famous acts doing Fogelberg songs. I'm producing that in January and February (2011). I'm also putting together a band called A Band Of Legends and we're spelling it Uhband Of Legends, a band of legends. We're after dinner at a golf tournament on Wednesday. We'll come on and play for twenty minutes, then come down and tell our favorite stories about our favorite superstars we worked with, take questions from the audience. Then go back, play a grand finale and go home. People love to hear it from someone who was there. So I've got three projects going on. (laughs)