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A veteran producer from Nashville sets up record-making shop in Memphis.
By Mark Jordan
MARCH 6, 2000: Sitting in his state-of-the-art, all-digital recording studio, it may be hard to believe that Norbert Putnam makes records the old-fashioned way. The computers and disk drives are just tools. When it actually comes time to record the music, the veteran Nashville producer prefers to do things much as they were done when he was coming up during the Muscle Shoals days or as they did in the early '70s, when Putnam played bass on records by Joan Baez, Jimmy Buffett, and Elvis Presley.
"When Elvis started singing, by the third or fourth take he started to get the energy behind him and the magic would start to happen," Putnam recalls. "And there you've got your take. You might go back and do some overdubs, but basically you've got it and it's got real emotion because it was created by musicians playing with each other. ... Of all the artists I worked for, Elvis did it the best. He could go over to a mike and turn it on. He could give you chill bumps whenever he wanted."
It is just that kind of magic that Putnam hopes to re-create at his new recording studio in downtown Memphis. Located in the old Leader Federal bank building at Third and Monroe, the studio is the home of Cadre Entertainment, a new company founded by Putnam and Memphis businessman Tommy Peters. The stately old building is still shaping up, but eventually it will house two studios, an editing room, a music publishing company, an Internet-based record label, a tour promotion company, and office space for the six to eight people Cadre is initially projected to employ. All together it will make Cadre the most comprehensive music entertainment enterprise in Memphis since Stax and Hi records. At the heart of the whole business is CDMemphis.com, the Internet-based record label that will market artists to Europe.
"Without radio airplay it is impossible to have a hit in America, and it is very difficult to get radio airplay in America," says Putnam. "In Europe, however, the music market is much more fan-based."
Putnam's plan is to sign artists associated with Memphis' glory days, cut new records with them, and sell them mail-order to Europe using their Web site, www.cdmemphis.com, as the catalog. Eventually, if and when Internet access becomes faster, cheaper, and more readily available in Europe, the Web site could be used to actually distribute the music over the Web. Much as he did at Sun and Stax, Rufus Thomas will be asked to lead the way, with production slated to begin on his record soon. Deals are also in the works with David Porter and the Bar-Kays, among others.
In addition, Putnam and his team of production proteges will be looking for new, young artists who can capitalize on the lead in the older artists will give them. One such band is the Hattiesburg, Mississippi, pop/rock group King Konga, which came in to cut some demos last week.
"We're going to go back to the old way of working. We're going to sign singers who can sing with a band," says Putnam, recalling the time he worked with a popular young group only to discover that the lead vocalist could only record one measure at a time. "The way it'll probably work is the artist will come in for three or four days, do about 12 sides at about three or four songs a day. And then we'll put the singer on the plane. We'll do the guitar and percussion overdubs and be done. ... We're trying to design it so that we start a new project every Monday."
To help them find new talent, Cadre plans to start having regular open auditions where anyone can come in and try out before the company's producers. Eventually, these artists would be teamed with the veterans for a Memphis-themed European package tour.
It's an ambitious project for a man who just a few months ago was living in retirement in Grenada, Mississippi. Growing up in Alabama, Putnam was a high school bandmate of Dan Penn and as a young man found himself part of the legendary Muscle Shoals stable of musicians. A 1965 session with Elvis led to Putnam being invited to Nashville to work with the King.
"I tell people I played on the worst of Elvis," Putnam says. "I played on all his Dean Martin stuff."
Putnam became a first-call Nashville session player, working with the likes of the Monkees, Ray Stevens, and Jerry Jeff Walker before stumbling into producing when an incapacitated Kristofferson couldn't make the Joan Baez sessions that yielded her hit version of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." Working out of Quadrafonic Studios, throughout the '70s Putnam was known as a top-notch folk rock producer, helping turn out seminal works by Buffett, Kristofferson, Baez, Dan Fogelberg, and the Flying Burrito Brothers among others. In the '80s, Putnam opened the Bennet House, a studio in an 1850 Franklin, Tennessee, mansion, and Georgetown Masters. Last year, however, Putnam and his wife were restoring antebellum homes in Grenada before a chance encounter with Peters led to the formation of Cadre.
Sitting in the control room of his new studio, Putnam thumbs the bass line to a new dance track he is working on. He says that it has taken him 40 years to make the 300-mile journey from Nashville and Muscle Shoals to where all his favorite artists lived and recorded.
"When we started playing on records in Muscle Shoals we wanted to be the Stax rhythm section," Putnam says. " In Nashville all the artists come from someplace else, but in Memphis they came from here. They're part of the landscape."
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