Norbert Putnam glances at a sleeping Joan Baez in his Quad Studios.
Nashville 1977: Stalwarts like George Jones, Mel Tillis, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty and Charley Pride were still cranking out Number One hits, as were plenty of crossover pop acts. Kenny Rogers dove straight into “a bar in Toledo” with the smash “Lucille,” and Welsh belter Tom Jones stamped his patent grind on “Say You'll Stay Until Tomorrow.” It was the year Elvis Presley enjoyed his last Number One country song with “Moody Blue,” which was followed by his first posthumous Number One, “Way Down.”
It was also a great year for the community's premier non-country music studio, Quadrophonic. Quadrophonic began in 1970 with the partnership of Norbert Putnam, session keyboardist David Briggs and producer Elliot Mazer (Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot). What started as a place for Putnam and Briggs to set up a publishing house quickly turned into one of the hottest studios in the country, thanks to the influx of projects brought to the studio by Mazer. High-profile sessions included those with Neil Young, Dan Fogelberg, Jimmy Buffett, Grand Funk Railroad, the Jackson Five, Buffy Saint-Marie, the Pointer Sisters, Joe Walsh and The James Gang, Stephen Stills, Eric Anderson and many others.
“When we established Quad in 1970, we paid $35,000 for the house and the lot in back,” Putnam recalls. “I remember David [Briggs] and I put together a budget with Elliot [Mazer]. I think we had a little over $100,000 to $125,000 involved in the Quad Eight console, the tape machine, all the mics, the piano — the entire ball of wax. By 1972 or '73, the studio was grossing $400,000 to $500,000 a year. So we paid back everything we had borrowed literally the first year. It was all profit after that. That's a good small business. I think Quad was probably the most profitable studio in Nashville in the '70s. Our day rate was $150 an hour until 6 o' clock in the evening, when it went to $165. And on the weekend it was $165 all the time.”
Quad was the first private studio to have Dolby A and the first to be set up for quadraphonic sound. The first substantial hit out of Quad was Putnam's first production, Joan Baez's 1971 version of Robbie Robertson's “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” which was quickly followed by Neil Young's Harvest and Dobie Gray's “Drift Away.”
The Baez version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was Putnam's first production, and it placed him squarely in the minds of label heavies like Clive Davis and Ahmet Ertegun as the go-to guy for delivering high-quality, commercially appealing projects from singer/songwriters and bands. “I was suddenly a guy in Nashville who produced a million-selling record and had gotten Clive Davis' attention, as well as the rest of the industry. That meant millions to me. Clive called me as soon as Baez was a hit,” says Putnam. “When Clive Davis gave me my contract to do Dan Fogelberg, he gave me a $75,000 budget to make Home Free at Quad. That was an unheard-of budget for any production in Nashville at the time. That's what Joanie did for me.”
By 1977, even Putnam was having to squeeze in time for his productions, because Quad was so busy. Gene Eichelberger, who was in on the ground floor of Quad's creation as the one responsible for wiring and maintaining the facility, engineered numerous projects at Quad. “At that time, Quad was really happening,” he recalls. “The rooms worked great for strings. Everything just worked. It was a very non-scientific way of creating those spaces. It just was burlap and rock wool and insulation. We were never done wiring and changing things, because right after that we went 24-track and I rewired the whole console and turned a 16-track console into a 28-track console.”
The studio had quite a rep for its party room — partially out of Putnam and Briggs' desire to be on the edge of what was available in the Nashville studio scene. If Combine Music, down the street, had free beer at 5 p.m., then Quad would have a full-time ongoing bar. “We were constantly having to go upstairs and tell the drunks to turn the stereo down,” Putnam says, “'cause the chandelier would be shaking downstairs and we were trying to track. You'd hear them playing Donna Summer ‘Love to Love You, Baby’ and stuff like that. [Laughs] And this also goes to prove my theory about studio design, because when you'd turn the big monitors up in our control room, the floor would shake and it would vibrate with the beat of the kick drum and the bass. Gene Eichelberger told me that at a certain vibration he knew the bass was right on the record because he could feel it in his toes. If he couldn't feel it in his toes, he knew he didn't have enough bass on the record. Everything about Quad was a moving membrane.”
Putnam's production career went into serious overdrive in '77, thanks to two career-defining album projects: Buffett's Changes in Attitudes Changes in Lattitudes (featuring “Margaritaville”) and Fogelberg's Netherlands.
Buffet began tracking at Criteria in Miami and finished at Quad. “With artists like Jimmy, I tried to get as much of the vocal off the floor as I could,” Putnam says. “Jimmy had a little bit of trouble singing with headphones. A lot of people do. When I got Jimmy to Quad, I said, ‘Let's put up some speakers.’ We used 604es with Mastering Labs crossovers that Doug Sax's brothers had put together. It smoothed out the midrange. We set them up close together, with Jimmy standing in the center. I put the U87 just within so that Jimmy's ear was about level with the edge of the speakers. I had them play it back and it was about the best stereo you ever heard. [We had] these 15-inch 604es with a horn, and Jimmy just loved it.
Jimmy Buffet working on lyrics to “Margaritaville” in Quad Studios, 1977.
“My thing with Buffett was, ‘If Buffett gives me a great feeling vocal, that's the one!’ I've never had anyone say to me, ‘Why didn't you get Buffett a little more in tune?’ When Buffett got the feeling right, he was like Elvis.”
Putnam also has great praise for Fogelberg's vocals. “Dan Fogelberg was the best singer and player and, for the style of song he wrote, one of the best writers I ever came in contact with,” he says. “You'd set the mic up, get a level, do a little compression just to be careful, and that first take was just breathtaking. His records were quicker, faster and more joyful than anything I ever did.”
Engineer Marty Lewis worked with Putnam on the Fogelberg projects. “Marty was brilliant with EQ and panning,” Putnam says. “For example, one thing you recognize about Fogelberg are those beautiful-sounding acoustic guitars on his records. He might take the B string and drop it just a hair, but not touch the rest of it and a little something would happen. You'd get this cool little phase thing. This was partly because Marty Lewis was not only a great engineer, he was also a fine musician, primarily guitar and percussion.
“One of the great things about being a record producer at that time in the 70s,” Putnam continues, “was that you had a lot of great people running labels like Clive and Ahmet who loved music and artists. If I made a record for Clive and I took it to him, he never looked at me, and said, ‘Norbert, I think it's good, but we need to run it past our committee here and we might want to do some testing on it.’ Clive would say, ‘Norbert, you've got it and we are gonna make this happen.’ That was also true of Ahmet.
“And another thing: Nobody was allowed to come to the studio from the record label on my projects unless I invited them. I never had to worry about some junior A&R guy coming through the door, hearing a rough mix and going back and starting negative comments at the label. So I think it's more difficult today with the passing of those great record guys. I had an easy go of it in the '70s. I had great budgets, they left me alone and I was able to do what I wanted to do. It was a time of great freedom.”
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