When Elvis Presley came into Memphis' Stax Studios in December 1973 to cut some new material, Norbert Putnam -- the experienced Muscle Shoals-born session bassist -- could tell that something was off about the King.
"He had gained a bit of weight, I noticed. And he had gone through the divorce with Priscilla," Putnam recalls. "But he was definitely there to work. And this guy could do anything vocally. He could croon with Sinatra or scream with Little Richard."
Still, the thing that Putnam says he admired most about Presley -- then and now -- was his intelligence. especially when it came to human emotions.
All of the 28 masters that Presley and his backing musicians recorded in July and December 1973 sessions -- along with multiple outtakes and alternate cuts -- are on the new 3-CD compilation Elvis at Stax: Deluxe Edition (RCA/Legacy).
Putnam played on the December sessions, which yielded material higher in quality and quantity than the July one. He says that the musicians never had any sheet music to refer to, and instead would each scratch down keys, chords, and changes on legal pads while a demo recording played in the studio. Somehow, they managed to find the right groove in short order.
And while the songs dribbled out over several LPs and singles over the next few years, it didn't provide Elvis with the commercial comeback he had hoped for.
"It didn't have a lot of chart activity at the time and that's a shame," Putnam says today. "But people have clamored for this material. When I play with the TCB Band and we go to Europe and South America, they are yelling for [the Stax] material. Those records were more popular there than in the states. I think Elvis was more appreciated around the world than he was in America."
The "TCB Band" Putnam refers to is the occasional still-touring stage show in which many of Elvis' former band and revue members play live music to the accompaniment of Elvis singing the same song on filmed concert footage that plays on a huge video screen (can the Elvis hologram be far off?).
Which, of course, makes blindingly obvious the obvious - live people are playing with movies of a dead man. Elvis' drug-and-obesity induced death in 1977 at the age of 42 has been overly documented so as not to bear repeat here. But - feasibly, had he not succumbed to his own self-destruction - could Putnam & Co. have played in 2013 with a 78-year-old Elvis?
After all, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, and others are still going. And septuagenarians Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney are still fronting two- and three-hour shows. And with 1973 being a crucial year, could Putnam or any other players have saved Elvis?
"Of course, I've thought about it a lot over the years. A lot. I was shocked when he died," Putnam reflects today. "But you have to remember that we saw him in a recording environment. I've known musicians who were drunk and stoned and crazy on the road or [at their houses], but when they came into the studio, they were ready for business. They all knew that it would be the recordings that would survive us all."
However, Putnam points to one man who could have -- should have -- seen the warning signs and done something about it but didn't: Elvis's manager/Svengali, Col. Tom Parker.
"Someone should have staged an intervention, and that someone was Tom Parker. But he didn't, and I wish I knew why," Putnam says bluntly. "But I have to add that I have a lot of respect for [Bodyguard/Memphis Mafia member] Red West. He always had Elvis' back and I think he tried to do something. But no one could get through to him with all of that medication."
Ironically, Putnam says that Elvis himself looked down upon drug users and thought of them as "second-class citizens." He once even tried to get the Nixon White House to investigate the Beatles. But as long as you had a prescription for something, then you weren't a drug addict or user.
Outside of playing bass, Putnam has also had a storied career as a record producer, working with artists like Dan Fogelberg ("the greatest singer/songwriter/player combo ever"), Joan Baez ("I got that job by accident when Kris Kristofferson decided on the first day of recording he didn't want to do it"), John Hiatt and the Flying Burrito Brothers among them.
But it was his time spent working on the records of one man -- and in particular one song -- that may be his most lasting legacy. For it was Norbert Putnam twiddling dials and calling out instructions behind the glass when Jimmy Buffett recorded "Margaritaville."
"He brought me this song and when I heard it for the first time, I thought it was one of the best-written songs ever. It was a complete story in the lyric, and day in the life of Jimmy Buffett on Key West!" Putnam laughs. "He gave you the sight, the smell, and the sound of it. And the lost shaker of salt! And he built a huge business and lifestyle off of that one song. Jimmy sure hit the nail on the head, didn't he?"
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