Nashville Bound
Bass Player|Holiday 2020
Producer, author, and bassist Norbert Putnam looks back half a century at a session with a difference—the near‑mythical Nashville Cats recordings with Elvis Presley
By Joel McIver. Photography: Getty, Ernst Mikael Jorgensen and Pal Granlund

"I tell young musicians that we recorded 35 tracks in five nights, and they tell me that’s impossible!” snickers Norbert Putnam, bassist with Elvis Presley from 1970 to 1977. The kids’ reaction is understandable: Even by the prolific standards of the Seventies, when bands routinely released two or three albums a year, that’s a work rate that beggars belief. It really happened, though, and it’s a privilege to speak today with a musician who saw it take place.

We’re talking to Putnam—‘Putt’, as the late King called him—because RCA, Elvis’s record label for the last 65 years, is releasing From Elvis In Nashville, a new box set. These recordings come from a sustained five-night session at RCA’s Studio B in Nashville in June 1970, plus an additional one-off event in September.

Alongside the house band, the Nashville Cats—of which Putnam was a key member— Elvis did indeed cut 35 songs, live, and on peak form. These songs went on to form three albums, That’s The Way It Is (1970), Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old) (1971), and Love Letters From Elvis (also ’71). The songs have been remixed to get rid of subsequent overdubs and orchestration, getting us closer to the original feel of Elvis plus band in an efficiently creative space.

Although we know now that within a couple of years of the Nashville session, Elvis sank into a state of poor mental and physical health that culminated in his death in ’77 at the age of only 42, Putnam makes it clear that the great man was firing on all cylinders in 1970.

“You couldn’t see an ounce of fat on him,” confirms Putnam, now 78 and still taking occasional bass sessions. “He was working out, and he was doing karate. His bodyguard Red West was there, and he and Elvis gave us a few karate demonstrations. They were pretty impressive, believe me. Elvis used to lean forward with his index and middle finger out, and throw a punch right at Red’s eyes. He could stop one inch from Red’s face, which scared the shit out of everyone, ha ha!”

Elvis was famously fond of guns, as you’ll know if you’ve read any of the sometimes damning books about him, and it wasn’t long before the subject of firearms came up, explains Putnam. “Someone asked him, ‘Elvis, what do you do if someone points a gun at you?’ and he said ‘Red, get a revolver’. All of [Presley’s entourage] the Memphis Mafia carried a shiny aluminum camera case, and of course one of them contained weapons. So Red goes over to the weapons container and gets a revolver. He takes the bullets out— thank God—and assumes the position, pointing the gun at Elvis’s face.

“Elvis leaps forward and does a karate chop across Red’s wrist, and the weapon goes flying across RCA B. Now, at the back of the room, our guitarist Chip Young had two or three guitars leaning against the wall, with the backs of the guitars facing outwards. So this gun goes somersaulting across the studio and goes right into the back of Skip’s beautiful, handmade Spanish guitar. He had paid a lot of money for that guitar, so I’m looking at it, and Chip’s looking at it, and then we all look back at Elvis.

“All the Mafia were saying ‘Oh Elvis, that was great’ because they were paid to applaud everything he did, and Elvis goes right into another karate demonstration. Meanwhile Chip Young is having a heart attack because he’s paid several thousand dollars for that guitar, but then the guy who looked after Elvis’s money comes up to Chip, asks ‘How much for the guitar?’ and writes him a cheque on the spot!”

We’ve already talked about guns and rock’n’roll—we might as well ask about drugs. Did Putnam ever see Elvis taking the uppers and downers that eventually contributed to his death? He pauses to consider before replying, “I don’t think he was taking hard drugs, but I can tell you that in June of 1970, I’m sure he was taking what they called ‘medication’. Every hour, one of the guys would take Elvis into the bathroom, and we were not allowed to go in when he was in there.”

“Then again,” he points out, “I’ve had a lot of music friends get hooked on drugs. There was one drummer I knew, a famous L.A. musician, who used to tie off his arm and shoot heroin five minutes before a session started. After he got the smack in his veins, he was totally normal. He led the band through the session and never made a mistake, because he’d built up some resistance. Maybe Elvis had that sort of resistance too, because he was always so sharp.”

You know what the popular history of Elvis Presley suggests: That he was a red-hot rock’n’roller in the Fifties, sank into a terrible movie career in the Sixties, and ended up a fat joke in a white jumpsuit in the Seventies. Of course, there was more to him than these simple clichés. In 1970, Elvis was performing with maximum skill, still enjoying a wave of public appreciation after his 1968 Comeback Special, on which he had appeared lean and mean in black leather—and he was still only 35. As Putnam tells it, the King was full of enthusiasm for music, and for life, when he walked into Studio B.

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