Bill Putnam

Oct 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Jim Cogan

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There is no Mt. Rushmore of recording, of course. If there were, this guy would be in the Lincoln spot. Or maybe, owing to temperament, the Teddy Roosevelt position. Either way, there should be a wing, a scholarship, an award, jeez, something named in this man's memory. What Les Paul was to the electric guitar, Bill Putnam was to the recording studio. Period.

The Clash shouted, “Know your rights!” Well, now we'll amend that: “Know your history!” It's crucial that we stay in touch with our heritage; many of the first great wave of modern recording engineers are approaching twilight. With the death of Tom Dowd last year and Sam Phillips this past summer, we lost two of the other Rushmore faces. Those still with us hand down to us, like the African griot, tales of an earlier time, when somehow music seemed to be more fun.

“Bill liked to party. He, um, well, I don't know if you can quote some of the stories…” says Murray Allen, one of the contemporaries with whom we spoke.

M.T. “Bill” Putnam (1920-1989) is figuratively alive and well, his presence apparent in any control room where there is a “vintage” piece of cool-sounding gear. But he was so much more than a retro figurehead. He was a mixer, a musician, a singer, swinger and night owl; a restless tinkerer; an instinctive acoustician and a chain-smoking tube amp visionary. A diplomat, an über-mentor and a peerless businessman.

He hung up on Sinatra (this, after Frank fixed Bill up with his second wife, Miriam). Co-wrote a song with Ellington. Golfed with Bing Crosby, drank with Nat Cole. Fended off mobsters. Became the first engineer to rival the star power of those on the send side of the mic. If the Rat Pack ever introduced a technical wing, Bill Putnam would have served as its Chairman of the Board.

And, yes, he recorded. A short list: Muddy Waters, Mahalia Jackson, Curtis Mayfield, Hank Williams, Duke Ellington, Sam Cooke, Count Basie, Chuck Berry, Stan Kenton, Sarah Vaughan, Ella, Nat, Frank, Bing and so forth.

A garrulous, barrel-chested, blond-haired bear of a man, he resembled the skipper from Gilligan's Island. (Had Putnam been at the helm, the Minnow wouldn't be lost.)

“He did so many things so well it's scary,” says an acolyte, Allen Sides, one of many who reckon him to be both surrogate dad and the father of modern recording. “He even tuned pianos.”

Disciple Bruce Swedien: “Every console, I don't give a damn if it's analog or digital — hell, every mixing situation today — is the brainchild of Bill Putnam.”

Right. Let's crank-start the way-back machine…to a time before mixers had agents.

Putnam was born smack dab in the middle of the country, in Danville, Ill. (pop. 25,000), just as the roaring '20s had begun. His father, Fred Putnam, was unquestionably the driver who provided young Milton — ahem, Bill — with his entrepreneurial template. Owner of coal mining, strip mining and trucking businesses, he also got a foot in the door of the burgeoning media of the day — namely, radio. His father had a radio program on WDZ in Tuscola, Ill., the early home of Gene Autry, the singing cowboy who later became a movie star and American icon.

“My interest in radio and electronics really started while I was in the Boy Scouts,” Putnam related to Mix in 1983. “I had decided to get a merit badge in something that was called ‘wireless’ and built a crystal set and a one-tube radio, with my dad's help, which got KDKA in Pittsburgh! I built my own private telegraph system, which ran down the block to a couple of my friends' houses, but since none of us knew Morse code very well, we weren't able to handle much traffic.”

Crystal set. Morse Code. Merit badge. Get the picture?

Historically, Recording had been the tributary that fed the twin rivers of Film and Radio. There is perhaps no single media outlet today that rivals the importance of radio in the first half of the last century. Not only were many of the first radio stations de facto recording studios, the consoles and the engineers were likewise products of some thin frequency on the dial. And film had always been years, if not decades, ahead of the recording industry's technology (Consider: Fantasia, from 1939, was recorded in an early form of surround sound.)

As a teen, Putnam — after flunking the first attempt — got his ham operator's license. At a high school alongside two other showbiz giants, Dick Van Dyke and Bobby Short, Putnam was both singing with dance bands and renting out his own P.A. This balance between music and the means to project and preserve the music would forever be his twin selves, two sides of a very heavy coin.

“My activity in ham radio and my business enterprise had progressed to the point where I then owned my own radio shop,” he said. “My dad, who believed in doing everything on a business basis, rented me some space in the back of his office for $7 a month. The radio shop was quite a success. I sold the radio shop for $700 and graduated high school. I knew what I wanted to do vocationally: I wanted to get into radio broadcasting in the technical area.”

SCHOOL DAYS

Seeds were sown. For Bill Putnam, in the decades that followed, like his father before him and his sons after him, pleasure would be business.


Performing music as a singer with dance bands continued apace with self-schooling in both business and “high-quality sound reproduction.” Formal training came from the Valparaiso (Indiana) Tech Institute. Here, an early influence appeared in the person of Dr. J.B. Hershman, then freshly minted as president. Hershman's expertise was tailor-made for the hungry student: sound acoustics and antennae. “I was absolutely enamored with him,” Putnam would later say. Meanwhile, he made the Gary-Michigan City-Chicago circuit as a singer. Putnam was still on the outside of radio looking in, but this soon changed when a series of entry-level gigs as transmitter engineer opened up, first in Champaign, Ill., and then back home in Danville.

What is interesting to note is how restlessly industrious the man was, no matter his age, qualifications, whatever. Constantly, Putnam was scouring trade magazines, gathering information, sussing out the landscape of radio, audio and music. One story, which is so incredible as to seem apocryphal, must be shared, because it says so much about our hero.

It's 1939. Putnam is 19, working as the transmitter engineer at WDAN in Danville (where Dick Van Dyke got his start on- air). It's a freezing cold January night in the Midwest. Putman noticed that the lights in the tower had gone out. The company policy had been to call the guy from the power company to change the lights in the 312-foot tower. “Three-hundred-and-twelve feet was pretty high in January,” he recalled, “especially in the snow and wind, but knowing they paid $25 to change the lights, I decided to be a wealthy hero.”

Scaling the tower was “a very scary experience. I climbed the tower with a gunny sack carrying two 1,500-watt lights, and when I got to the top, the tower was swaying back and forth like an upside-down pendulum.” It took two hours to get back to Earth. Putnam discovered that he told no one what he was about to do. The phones were ringing. One caller was his boss, who told him he'd been fired.

One week later, he was back at his previous station in Champaign (“at a substantial pay increase”), where he was assigned chief tech duties. Football broadcasts were still in their infancy. Putnam, working with All-American Tom Harmon (father of actor Mark Harmon), conceived of the first-ever device for what is known as spotting, or signaling to the on-air talent who has the ball, etc. The ingenious device gave the broadcasts an immediacy and accuracy never before heard on air.

War time. Putnam was drafted, passed the civil service exam, joined the Army Radio Corps. He worked out of a building where, in just five years, he'd return to stake his claim as a new sort of record maker — Chicago's venerable Civic Opera House. In the meantime, he started another career, that of author. Writing for the publication Radio and Electronics, Putnam detailed the workings of a 3-band EQ amplifier, capable of independent boost and cut controls for highs, mids and lows. This was the first time this concept — taken so for granted today that it seems, like music itself, to have always been around — was put forth.

It didn't take the Army long to figure out that they had a ringer in their midst. Soon, Putnam was working with G2, the military intelligence unit, devising mine detectors. Typically, Putnam realized that the status quo could be improved upon. The mine detectors had unusually bulky battery packs supplying enormous vacuum tubes. Why not use hearing aid tubes and more advanced bridge circuits to miniaturize the detectors? This led to a visit from the Secret Service. Long story short, Putnam devised a miniature gun detector so the Secret Service could protect FDR. Ho-hum.

It was a low-priority gig that helped push the evolution of recording. Compared to mine detectors and gun detectors, recording big bands like the Wayne King Orchestra for the Armed Forces Radio network was of scant significance. But, for Putnam, who always claimed, “musicians are my favorite people,” it charged his world in subtle, yet profound ways. Crafting his own belt-drive turntable, and using mics that had nicknames like the “Bird Cage,” the “Salt Shaker” and the “Eight Ball,” Putnam modestly recalled, “It was surprising how well we did, considering the equipment we had to work with.” Sent to Los Angeles to teach radio broadcasting as the war wound down, Putnam's writings and discoveries in sound and audio had stimulated an interest.

GOIN' TO CHICAGO

“I knew I would get much more involved in recording once the war was over,” he said.


Everything changed after the war. No more rationing. An expanding economy, along with an expanded view of the modern world — a view from the top. The GI Bill ensured that ordinary Joes could suddenly buy a home and go to college. In audio, a huge discovery — the tape machine — increased fidelity and flexibility over discs by a mile. This intersected with the rise of savvy, cash-fat consumers, hungry for jazz and “hi-fi,” looking for cool toys that they could show off. Recording — the ne'er-do-well stepchild of film and radio — needed a leader, a visionary as bold and hungry as the nation itself. Enter Bill Putnam.

Putnam had set himself up to succeed. He had the business acumen, the broadcast chops and the contacts — via his Civil Service and Army days — to put together his own dream. With two partners and a substantial loan from his family, Putnam had $20,000 with which to work. “This may seem like a lot of money to start a recording business in those days, but it was not. I had a great love for the technical side of the business, and far less affection for the affairs of finance,” is how Putnam stated it. “However, I knew that in order to succeed, we had to be innovative in every aspect of the business. In addition to managing the business and finances, my goals were to concentrate on two prime areas: the development of new recording techniques and the development of new technical equipment, which was more specialized and suitable for the specific needs of the recording studio.”

Joe Tarsia, legendary architect of the Sound of Philadelphia, puts it simply: “Look, before Putnam, we were working in the realm of broadcast, not recording, per se. He solved problems for himself, and by doing so, he solved problems for the rest of us.”

It was in Evanston, Ill., birthplace of the Hammond Organ, that Putnam hatched what would become Universal Audio (which begat UREI, then Universal Audio again) and Universal Recording. Putnam also had a remarkably keen eye for making the acquaintance of like-minded individuals, guys who were obsessed with getting things to sound better, work better. Two such gents, Jim Cunningham and Emery Cook were credited by Putnam for helping to establish superior disc cutting (Cook), and echo chambers (Cunningham).

In late-'40s Chicago, there was no independent recording scene to speak of. The majors, such as RCA and Columbia, each had studios in town, but only worked with their respective stables. Putnam scored a coup by winning the bid to broadcast shows for ABC (a very lucrative contract, considering that we're talking about 7,000 programs in a two-year run). “It became obvious, however, that a studio located in Evanston was not going to be very successful as a ‘live’ studio,” Putnam would later recall. So he packed up the truck and moved south eight miles, to Chicago, and settled in a place he had already known from his pre-war days, the august Civic Opera House. It was here, on the 42nd floor, that Putnam morphed from broadcast engineer to recording engineer, producer, label owner and manufacturer.

About this time, we see a trio of giants straddling the recording industry like a three-headed Colossus: Les Paul, Tom Dowd and Bill Putnam. From the late '40s through the advent of stereo, 4-track, then 8-track, these guys scored so many firsts that it's kind of hard to get your mind around it all, and it's tough to determine who did what first: using delay in a hit song, sound on sound (overdubbing), drum booths, half-speed mastering, 8-track recording, solid-body guitar innovations, and more. Bill Putnam Jr. relates, “My dad and Les, whom he loved, used to kid each other and say, ‘You were first.’ ‘No you were…’ So one day, I got to see Les in New York where he was playing and I asked him, ‘So, who was first?’ Les said, ‘F***, I was.’”

From his Mahwah, N.J., compound, Les, a genius of the guitar, studio and self-promotion, is all grace and affection for his old comrade. “Ah, Bill was the sweetest guy; I sure miss him. He used to come over to my old garage studio [the hallowed garage on Curson Avenue in West Hollywood, where Les lit the world on fire with his still fresh-sounding “How High the Moon,” made with the under-appreciated Mary Ford] and he would ask me how I did this or that, and I would pick his brain, too. We just liked to get together and try to figure things out.”

Bruce Swedien puts the business of “firsts” in perspective: “The first time anyone overdubbed was in 1931. It was a film, Cuban Love Song, with Lawrence Tibbet. They overdubbed from optical track [film] back and forth.” See, I told you film was way ahead.

Timing, of course, is everything. In 1946, Putnam couldn't have foreseen what the next 10 years of his life would hold. He just knew that he could figure out a better way to run a session, mike a session, mix a session. His business would be plagued by lack of capital, “not because of lack of revenue, but because of constant expansion,” he would later recall.

Murray Allen, VP of San Francisco's Electronic Arts, was there at the beginning of Putnam's long ride as studio owner/engineer. “In 1946, I did a session at the Civic Opera House with my high school band [Chicago's Senn High, a killer band that included four future members of the vaunted Stan Kenton band]. Bill was just great, so relaxed. He was in charge, but not in any overt way; very laid-back.” Allen didn't realize it at the time, but his path would follow Putnam's for the next three decades, eventually purchasing Universal Recording.

Putnam was living the life, full speed ahead, fingers in lots of pies. He lost his beloved father, Fred, who had given him invaluable business — and life — lessons. He got married to a dancer, Belinda, and had two children, Scott and Sue. He ate, drank and smoked on the run. There was simply too much to do, too many worlds to conquer.

THAT SOUND

One of the “problems” Putnam set out to solve was what old timers refer to as “echo,” or reverb — how to utilize it in a modern recording and how to incorporate it in a console. Putnam would figure out both of those problems in the late '40s, and just like that, a new era of recording was birthed.


Most great engineers have that one moment, that one record that catapults both the room and its operator into the stratosphere. In the case of Putnam and Universal, the sonic epiphany occurred in 1947, on a recording that — much like “How High the Moon” — was so different, so lush, it pricked the ears of both the casual radio listener and every young audio geek in America. The record was by a group that has since faded into obscurity, The Harmonicats, three Chicagoans who played chromatic harmonicas. The song was their version of “Peg o' My Heart.” It was pleasant enough, as instrumentals go, but it was the sound, specifically — the heavenly sprawl of the reverb — that nailed listeners. One such listener was a young Swede from Minnesota.

“Oh, man, that record, you see, was the first time that anyone used reverb artistically,” says Swedien. “Up till then, people used reverb only to re-create the sound of the studio, tried to use it in a ‘natural’ manner. Bill changed all that. That record sounded unlike anything on the radio at that time. I was just a youngster in Minneapolis when I first heard it, and I wore out many, many copies of that record.”

“Peg o' My Heart” was a first. (On the lesser-known “Good Morning, Mr. Echo,” which Bill co-wrote, he devised a scheme by which tape repeats were employed to “answer” the lead vocal, months before Cher was even born.) For “Peg's legendary echo, Putnam utilized neither a high-tech plate nor an acoustically designed chamber. Instead, he made use of the marble restroom at the Opera House. “Bill would put up a sign saying, ‘Wet Paint’ or ‘Men at Work’ outside the restroom so they could use it as a chamber,” says Swedien. “Sometimes, they'd be recording with a speaker and a mic in there, and people would ignore the sign, and you had the sound of a flushing toilet on a take.”

On “Peg,” the remarkably smooth, natural decay of the restroom's marble tiles, coupled with the comb-filter cotton candy of the chromatics, combined to transport the listener into the ether. From this million-selling recording, on Putnam's own Universal Records, our man now had some muscle, and there was no turning back.

“People forget,” says Phil Ramone, “Chicago used to be a very hot place for music. By the '50s, you see big labels like Mercury and Vee Jay sprouting up there. Soon, Chicago became known as the place to record.”

You can imagine the scene as the '40s segued into the '50s: Putnam's was the largest independent studio in town. He had recorded anything that came through the door, but much of it, remarkably, was hillbilly music, played by the itinerant musicians of West Madison Street. However, big band and swing — the rock and pop of the day — were in full bloom. Clubs in Chicago, as they had since the halcyon days of Satchmo and Biederbecke in the '20s, were favored haunts of the Counts and Dukes of jazz. This royalty was beginning to get wind of some of the records coming out of Universal.

It was jazz that Putnam craved to capture. Specifically, swinging, stomping big- band jazz, not the cool bop that was the domain of so much of Rudy Van Gelder's Blue Note and Prestige recordings. As a jazz engineer, Putnam would soon rival Van Gelder's catalog, albeit in a vastly different manner. (In fact, there couldn't be two more disparate personalities in the history of recording than Rudy and Bill: Whereas Van Gelder would be loath to let anyone into his control room, where smoking was verboten, Putnam, who “didn't believe in secrets,” according to Swedien, would be likely to bum a smoke off you.)

Bill Putnam was more fortunate than he realized. Besides working and hanging with his idols — people like Duke Ellington and Count Basie were suddenly queuing up to work with him — Chicago was host to a home-grown crop of musicians — Quincy Jones, Sam Cooke, Joe Williams, Nat “King” Cole, Mel Torme, Lou Rawls, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield and more — who would completely change the face of music.

His biggest risks and rewards were spread before him like diamonds and broken glass.

[Stay tuned. Next month, in Part Two, we find out about the rise of UREI and the move west to Los Angeles, where Putnam built United Western and mentored the next generation of engineers.]

Bonus! Bill Putnam, In His Own Words, From The Mix Archives.


Jim Cogan is the co-author of Temples of Sound. Jim will moderate a Temples seminar on Oct. 12 at the 115th AES. Contact: cogan@aol.com






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