"Music Lessons" Review by Bill Dahl
"Record producers and studio musicians usually don’t receive the opportunity to write autobiographies. Book publishers are generally attracted to juicy stories about the top stars, blissfully unaware that behind-the-scenes stalwarts such as Norbert Putnam have all the best tales and the most insight too.
Putnam published Music Lessons Vol. 1 himself, and it’s a gorgeous piece of work – a full-color account (on glossy paper, no less) of his musical exploits over the last six decades that boasts a ton of beautifully reproduced photos and plenty of fascinating anecdotes about the many luminaries that Putnam has worked with. There’s no mud-slinging, but there are a lot of warm-hearted and truthful stories about life in the musical trenches and the powerful producers that Putnam worked with (notably Nashville’s Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley, who transformed the sounds of country music during the 1960s) that showed him the studio ropes.
The Alabama native started out in 1957 as an Elvis-inspired rockabilly bassist, modeling his style on the slapping attack of Bill Black, before segueing into R&B and soul with some like-minded lads that included another future studio mainstay, pianist David Briggs. For a while, Dan Penn was the band’s lead singer; they were then known as the Pallbearers and drove to gigs in a 1953 Cadillac hearse. When Rick Hall assembled his first house band at his fledgling FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals, Putnam and Briggs constituted half of it, along with drummer Jerry Carrigan and ill-fated guitarist Terry Thompson. The band played on groundbreaking early-’60s R&B hits by Arthur Alexander, the Tams, and Jimmy Hughes, and on rocker Tommy Roe’s smash “Everybody,” before Putnam, Briggs, and Carrigan chafed at Hall’s authoritarian ways and moved as a unit to Nashville in 1965. There they found plenty of work in the bustling studios of
Music Row. Unlike the informal atmosphere at FAME, where nailing down a hit could take all day and night, Nashville sessions were unionized and strictly run by the book – which also meant a distinct bump upwards in Putnam’s earnings.
After laying down supple bass lines on countless country sessions, Putnam moved into a producer’s role at the dawn of the ’70s. He and Briggs launched their own recording studio and enjoyed plenty of success, Putnam helming Joan Baez’s 1971 hit “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” His adventures behind the board at various locations with Dan Fogelberg, Dave Loggins, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, and Jimmy Buffett (Putnam produced his immortal “Margaritaville”) are covered in-depth. Putnam had pretty much hung up his bass by then, with one very notable exception: he was Elvis Presley’s first-call studio bassist for most of the 1970s, so there’s plenty here about his extremely cordial relationship with the King.
Ray Charles, George Harrison, Al Hirt, Mickey Newbury, Dolly Parton, Henry
Mancini, Kris Kristofferson, and a host of additional instantly recognizable names sail through the breezy narrative, Putnam relating intriguing stories about each of them like he’s sitting across a table from you over a glass of high-quality wine (another of Putnam’s passions).
Written in short, easily digestible chapters, the book is perfect for dipping into whenever you have a spare few minutes and want to learn something new and previously untold about the musical greats that Putnam has accompanied or produced during his amazing and still very active career."