Of all the bands that accompanied Elvis Presley throughout his career - the stripped-down Sun unit, the '60s Nashville studio band, Chips Moman's American lineup, the TCB stage band - none was so quick-study facile when the tape rolled as the Nashville players that producer Felton Jarvis assembled in 1970. Their first sessions at RCA's Studio B, from June 4 to 8, yielded a hefty 36 songs that would be released over the next several years as four singles (including the hit You Don't Have to Say You Love Me) and four albums (including "Elvis Country," "Love Letters From Elvis" and "That's the Way It Is," just reissued in a 30th-anniversary three-CD edition).
Bassist Norbert Putnam, a native of Florence, Ala., was part of that group, whose Muscle Shoals core also consisted of Fame's first round of studio pros - keyboardist David Briggs and drummer Jerry Carrigan - plus rhythm guitarist Chip Young, harpist Charlie McCoy and guitar legend James Burton.
Putnam, 58, became known for his own production work in the '70s with a slew of folk and country acts from Joan Baez and Buffy Sainte-Marie to Steve Goodman, Dan Fogelberg and Jimmy Buffett. Yet as a bassist he was always just a phone call away from Presley. He played on many sessions up to the singer's death in 1977 (well over 100 songs plus various overdubs, according to Ernst Jorgensen's definitive recordings chronology, Elvis Presley: A Life in Music).
"Of all the people I ever worked with - and someone once said, `Norbert, tell me who the great ones were,' " he says, "there's Elvis Presley and there's everyone else."
Putnam now operates a Memphis-based record label, CDMemphis.com, and its parent organization, Cadre Entertainment. He shared memories about recording with the King in a recent interview, memories that are included in the autobiography he is writing.
Typically, when Elvis would come to Nashville he'd record for five nights. We'd work Monday through Friday. The King would always come precisely at eight o'clock, two hours into the first union session, and then we'd usually clown around. He'd gather everyone around him. He was this great raconteur and would just get started on stories. He loved to make you laugh, and we'd clown around until 10 o'clock.
Now the first session (has) run an hour overtime and Felton Jarvis starts squirming around. "Elvis, we have to do something, we have to do something." And he'd say, "Ah, ah, OK. What are we doing?" And then they'd bring the songs out.
Elvis usually hadn't heard any of the songs, had not chosen any songs. He would choose them at the record date. . . . The sessions were really pretty unprofessional. I'm not kidding.
One recording session (went) like this. We walk out into the main room and we had a record player there. And Freddy Bienstock and Lamar Fike, they were the two publishing guys. Freddy would start. He'd say, "Elvis, I want you to hear this song. Now this song was written by that girl, you know she wrote that number-one song for Dionne Warwick. And we've signed her to our own company. Elvis, she's written this song specially for you."
And he hands Elvis a lyric sheet. Elvis sits in the chair and (Bienstock) drops a needle into an acetate. The track starts to play. It's an Elvis Presley-type rhythm section, and the voice that comes in is a guy imitating Elvis's voice in Elvis's key.
I've got my legal pad. I'm writing out the chord progression and bass line 'cause I'm going to have to play this thing in a second. And - this is great - Elvis Presley is singing with the guy imitating Elvis Presley. The guy is going "ahhh" and he is going "ahhh."
Invariably, the song was a piece of crap. It was trite, it was dumb. Elvis sang the first verse - "The sky is blue and I love you" - and you can see Elvis; he's thinking this isn't as good as that song she wrote for Dionne Warwick. And you see Elvis's eyebrows start to (move), he's trying to pick up on us and we're not giving him any clues.
He got all the way through the chorus and starts on the second verse. And Elvis is still looking around. (Then) he went, "No." He said, "You son of a . . ." And he's wadding this thing and throwing it at Freddy. Freddy would run for the door. "How dare you bring a song like this!" (Expletives would follow). And we'd break up. We're all laughing and rolling on the floor. Elvis loves this, right? Not only has he run Freddy out of the room, he's got the rhythm section in (stitches).
He's going to repeat this act for the next three or four songs.
So here comes Lamar. Lamar goes, "Now Elvis, settle down. Maybe that wasn't the greatest song, but let me tell you . . ." And it's the same thing. "This song, now Elvis, this song was written by that guy out in California who wrote that great hit for so-and-so. I'm telling you, Elvis, this is a number-one record."
Elvis goes, "OK, let's hear that." So he gets the lyric sheet and here comes the band imitating Elvis's rhythm section, the voice imitating Elvis, and here's Elvis imitating the guy imitating Elvis. Now Elvis is really ready, so he gets through the first verse and he's getting a little antsy. He gets about halfway through the chorus, he leaps up, wads (the lyric sheet) up, starts throwing it. Lamar's running, everybody's laughing. This is Elvis's idea of a good time.
About the sixth demo, you can see Elvis is resigned he's going to do this one. It's no better than the first one, it's no better than the second one. It's the same cut of cloth.
He'd say, "Hey guys, we got to do something. Play it again." And they'd play it the second time through and Elvis is mumbling along. Maybe they'd play it three times (before) Elvis would say, "Let's do it. Where's my mike?" And he'd stand up and (engineer) Al Pachucki would run over with a little Shure RE15 microphone that's been wrapped in foam. Elvis liked a hand mike. It wasn't the world's greatest vocal mike but his rings didn't make any noise on it.
Elvis would get out there and we'd say, "Elvis, about the intro . . ." "Well, what's on the demo?" he'd say. "Well, that's (chords) one, four, five, six minor." "That's good." "How about the key, Elvis?" "That's a good key. Are we rolling?"
Well, the band has not played this song. And Felton says, "Rolling, Elvis." We play the intro safely and Elvis starts. He'd do a reading of this thing, reasonably good the first time through. And we'd hit the last chord and the control room would explode. People are leaping into the air, shouting noises and you'd hear the talk back: "Gas, Elvis. King, ah, great!"
We've just done this very careful reading the first time through and Felton says, "You need to come in here and listen to this, Elvis." We're going, let's pray to God he doesn't take that. We go into the control room and they start playing it back telling him how great he is.
I'm thinking Elvis Presley's got a couple of thoughts going through his head: "Do I lose face in front of all my buddies by doing a second take after they've all said it's perfect - Felton's going to take it - or do I go back and work on this some more?"
It was a little embarrassing some of the recordings that Elvis made in the last part of his life, because a lot of these songs were done in one or two takes. From 10 o'clock to maybe about 1 or 2, we'd hammer out six or seven songs. And usually that would happen for a couple of reasons. First of all, there's the cheering squad jumping up and down. (Plus) Felton Jarvis has just renegotiated his deal. He gets $750 per side. He wants lots of sides.
We devised a little plan in order to get a second or third take. (While) it's playing back, I would go over to Elvis and punch him in the ribs. I'd say, "Elvis, do one more for me. I've got a great idea for the bridge I'd like to put in there. I hate to ask you to do it again." And he'd say, "Hey guys, look, we got to do one more for Put."