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IT WAS THE SUMMER OF 1957, and 15-year-old Norbert Putnam was hunkered down with his father behind their garage in Florence, Alabama. Norbert had started playing bass in a local band and his father was dead set against it so he had pulled his young son aside to reveal a dark secret from his past - he had once played “that damned old bass” in the Beale Street bars of Memphis. He recalled the shootings, gambling, wild women, reefer heads, dirty hotel rooms, lack of pay . . . all recited with tremendous gusto, in an effort to frighten young Norbert. He wanted to convince him to pursue the path to college and a “normal, happy life.” The young man tried to remain still in an effort to withhold his excitement as visions of Memphis and music danced in his head. In spite of his father's intentions, at that moment an opposite decision was made. Norbert Putnam vowed, then and there, to devoted his life to the pursuit of music.
Fast forward almost 50 years, and Norbert Putnam, after a sterling career, is still immersed in the business of music. He resides, once again, in Florence, Alabama with his lovely wife of 27 years, Sheryl, and their beautiful and devoted poodles, Sophie and Gracie.
With the release this year of his first memoir, “Music Lessons” he looks back on a career unrivaled in its diversity. As a studio musician, he was one of the original Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section players, helping creating the famous “Muscle Shoals sound” and putting this small Alabama town on the map with the 1962 Arthur Alexander hit, “You Better Move On.” Backing up Tommy Roe, The Righteous Brothers and four other American acts, they opened for The Beatles when the lads played their first American concert on February 11, 1964 in Washington, DC. After moving to Nashville in 1965 Norbert played bass on over 9,000 tracks with the likes of Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Henry Mancini, Al Hirt, Linda Ronstadt, JJ Cale, Tony Joe White, The Monkees, and many others.
He began his production career in 1970 and over the next 15 years produced more than 70 albums including multiplatinum productions for Jimmy Buffet, Joan Baez, and Dan Fogelberg.
He, along with old pal David Briggs, also built the famous Quadrafonic Studios and developed Danor Music destined to become one of Nashville’s most successful music publishing firms. In 1980 Putnam and Briggs ended their partnership and Putnam developed the 1875 Bennett House Studio in beautiful Franklin, Tennessee. A few years later, Putnam developed Digital Recorders and Georgetown Masters, some of the most respected "state of the art" recording studios in Tennessee. His prodigious projects broadened Nashville’s scope and paved the way for musicians of all genres to record in Music City.
Norbert was inducted into The Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1996 and was later awarded a Senate Declaration for his contributions to Tennessee music by the Tennessee Senate. In 2009 he was inducted into The Country Music Hall of Fame’s “Nashville Cats” series, which pays tribute to musicians who have proven themselves integral to the city’s role as a national music center. He is also included in the new exhibit there, “Dylan-Cash and The Nashville Cats,” begun in March of 2015 and still running. His library at home included many Platinum album awards as well as Grammy certificates for Buffett's multi-million selling "Margaritaville" production.
Perhaps one of the greatest accolades, though, came in 1969, when country music legend Chet Atkins was recording an album called “Solid Gold ‘69.” When Chet asked Norbert to play bass and arrange the orchestral parts on the album, Norbert called his father to tell him. "Really", his father said. Elvis and rock and roll was just a bunch of noise, but Mr. Guitar himself had asked for his son - now he was impressed. Later, in 1977, Jimmy Buffett was touring for his wildly successful album, “Margaritaville,” which Norbert had produced. Jimmy called to say that Norbert’s father had been to the concert the night before. He had come backstage afterward and introduced himself to Jimmy and they’d talked for a while. He was obviously very proud of Norbert, telling Jimmy that from the beginning he’d encouraged Norbert to pursue a career in music. And, in a way, that was very true.
You would think that after having such a far-reaching and successful career, Norbert Putnam would be content to sit on the garden deck of "Thimbleton House", the Second Empire French Style home he and Sheryl recently renovated, and let the music world spin on without him. But in recent years you could find him playing to sold out concerts in Europe and Brazil with the “Elvis In Concert Tour”; producing a tribute to his old friend, the late Dan Fogelberg; designing music industry studies programs at Delta State University in the Mississippi Delta, Lambuth University in Jackson, Tennessee and consulting with the University of Southern Mississippi at Hattiesburg. He also enjoys speaking to students at universities around the world about his life story. At this moment, he is developing new music with A Band of Legends, featuring some old friends of many years. Norbert is writing the music with some of that original Muscle Shoals and Music City magic blended in.
Told with Norbert Putnam’s affable storytelling style, “Music Lessons” is at once a warm and laugh-out-loud funny romp through music history, packed with stories about some of the greatest musicians in the business. Hopefully, his father would be proud.