Norbert Putnam is a legend in his own right. As a bass player for the studio session artists known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, he’s played on dozens of hit records and produced tons more. His career has taken him all over the globe and even the legendary Elvis had a nickname for him: Putt. But on Feb. 11, 1964, he had a front row seat to Beatlemania, as a reluctant fan.
A year earlier, while working on a record in Alabama with Tommy Roe, a bubble-gum artist in the ’60s, Putnam first heard of the Fab Four. Neither he or his band mates were particularly impressed. They didn’t have a record deal, and Roe only knew them from his tours in Europe, where he was big. After listening to a rough demo tape of Paul McCartney playing the guitar, the guys dismissed them off-hand.
“The first thing we egotistical studio musicians noticed was the b string on the guitar was flat. We looked at each other like ‘they may be great but they can’t tune a guitar.’ And then of course, the first groove starts, and it was the most trite lyric,” said Putnam, speaking on the phone from his home in the Nashville area. “Something about I want to hold your hand, and the chord progression was a stock Isley Brothers chord progression that had been used in a million songs.”
The track was so unimpressive that Rick Hall, owner of the FAME Studios where they were working, reached over and stopped the tape. They had work to do and listening to a bunch of trite Brits who could barely hold a tune was not a productive use of their time.
Fast forward to early 1964, and Tommy Roe again, fresh off of a European tour, came back into the studio. Nobody even remembered the band he was touting beforehand. Except this time, they had a Top 10 hit that Roe was sure would hit Number 1. They were coming to D.C. to play their first U.S. concert and they wanted the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section to play with the opening acts of the performance.
“Well, what are they willing to pay?,” drummer Jerry Carrigan asked. For a bunch of 20-somethings from Alabama, a trip to the capital meant a few things. It meant they’d have to take a day off from their studio sessions to play. The other was cash. “It was a lot of money. I can’t remember at the time, but it might have $1,000 a man,” Putnam said. They decided to do it.
On the day, Putnam and his band mates’ itinerary was a whirlwind. Getting into Washington around 3 p.m. for a show, they carried their instruments straight to the venue. At the time, they were more excited to get a chance to play with The Righteous Brothers than anyone else on the bill, The Beatles included. After a quick rehearsal, they went to grab some food, not waiting around to hear the headliners do their sound check.
When they got back, it was nearly time to take the stage. But not before they had a major decision to make.
“We found as we came back from dinner and entering our dressing rooms, some beautifully engraved invitations to come to the British Embassy at midnight and meet the Beatles. And we looked at them, and we’re scheduled to fly out at about 11:30, back to Nashville,” Putnam said. “So we took a vote. All of us wanted to go to the British Embassy. We’re still not interested in meeting the Beatles. We saw them on the Sullivan Show and honestly thought that they were overhyped, a bunch of cute kids, with a trite song. But I remember saying to David Briggs (the piano player), my mother would be so impressed if I went to the British Embassy.”
But they had work the next day. Crossing studio owner Rick Hall was a prospect that could have cost them their jobs. They decided against it, and in youthful anger, destroyed the invitations. “We were 22 years old,” Putnam lamented. “Can you imagine tearing them up while we were upset? And we threw them in a waste bin and went on and opened the show.”
The show itself proved to be slightly problematic. As studio musicians, they were used to a certain amount of decorum at shows. Screaming teenagers was not quite what they had in mind. And the police had to escort them everywhere because the crush of people didn’t allow for easy access to the stage.
“The whole rhythm section, we were so upset with all these teenagers. Why? Because they’re yelling and screaming and they’re not listening to the Righteous Brothers,” Putnam said. Opening for the Beatles wasn’t easy. Even at their first concert.
When it was time for the Beatles to go on, Putnam and his band were granted a police escort to get off the stage. He and Briggs declined, opting to hang around and play with their new 8mm cameras that they’d brought along. So, instead of retreating to more peaceful pastures backstage, they sat right where they’d played, in front of stage next to their instruments.
“The cop says ‘I’m not coming back for you. You gonna be here for the whole thing,'” Putnam explained. ” ‘That’s okay,’ I said. I shot maybe a minute or so. We didn’t have that much film. So I’d shoot 8 or ten seconds then stop.” Then they started playing. This was a far cry from the lads they’d heard on tape a year earlier. Putnam, an acoustics and electronics enthusiast on top of being a musician, was blown away.
“The Beatles come out, and it’s pandemonium. Kids are just jumping up and down. And suddenly, they hit the first chord. The only analogy I can think of is that Maxell tape ad. Where the guy’s sitting there with his hair blown back by the speakers. I looked at Briggs and he looked at me. We’d never heard a band that loud. And it’s coming off their amps. Because it’s not in the sound system which is above our heads. My god those amps were loud. And the guitars were loud,” he said.
Listening to a world-renowned musician describe a sonic experience that changed his life is a privilege. And to hear Putnam talk about that night at the Washington Coliseum was remarkable. “They were the first really loud European band I ever heard. … They’re hitting us in the face. And the guitar amps were not distorted. They’re hi-fi and they’re clean,” Putnam explained.
But there was still a nagging feeling at the back of their minds.
As Beatlemania took over these two young men from the South, rebellion set in. “David said, ‘the bastards are pretty good. Maybe we should stay and go to the British Embassy!’ I said, ‘damn right, the hell with Rick Hall!’ Putnam recalled. “[We grabbed] our cameras, we work our way through the crowd, we run down the dressing room. We’re gonna grab those invitations, we’re gonna tape the back together and go,” he said. “I ran over to the trash bin. I looked at it. It had been emptied. So that was the end of meeting The Beatles.”
They got on their plane, flew back to Nashville and were in the studio the next morning working on another record. Years later, Putnam would run into George Harrison in Los Angeles while producing music and eventually work with him on his Dark Horse label in England. But he still remembers his missed opportunity on that fateful night in D.C.
“I recited all these stories to him. And he laughed at our folly, George is a great guy with a great sense of humor,” Putnam said. John Lennon once famously said that without Elvis, there’s nothing. The man known as “Putt” would eventually play with the King, in his final days as the king of Memphis. It was a circle that would come complete, after a happenstance overlap in the District.
On that night in 1970, Harrison told Putnam the real reason they were picked to play that show in 1964. “He said, ‘Norbert, if you had come to the British Embassy that night, John Lennon was the one. He would have kissed your boots,'” Norbert said. One of the Beatles was plainly a big fan of their work. “He spent hours trying to imitate [your band] on his early recordings,” Harrison explained.
It was a gratifying feeling for Norbert, who 50 years later, still looks back on that wild seven-hour ride in D.C. history fondly.
“That’s how I had a great career in music. It took everyone I bumped into along the way.”