Thursday, 10 August 2017

Bill Putnam and Universal Recording

One significant name was left out of the recent series of posts about the Flamingos' early work: Bill Putman, who ran Universal Recording. The technical quality of the Flamingos' Chance and Parrot sides reflects the fact that both companies used Putnam's studio at 111 East Ontario Street, situated off Michigan Avenue. He would have engineered their tracks, although presumably label bosses Art Sheridan and Al Benson would have been the respective producers. Johnny Keyes' memoir Du-Wop places Putnam in the studio when the Magnificents were recording Up On the Mountain early in 1956:

"OK, let's try another one fellas. Move in on the mike a little, mid-range voices," a voice boomed through the playback speakers. It was Bill Putnam, the staff engineer. He was also one of the faces that was glaring down at us from the control room.
“An instinctive acoustician” who has been called "the father of modern recording", Putnam (above, with Nat King Cole) became interested in the technical side of radio as a child, but it was the experience of recording big bands for Armed Forces Radio which made him set up a manufacturing company and studio after the war, concentrating on:
The development of new recording techniques and ... new technical equipment ... more specialized and suitable for the specific needs of the recording studio.
After a time in Evanston Putnam and his partners moved to the 42nd floor of the Chicago Opera House.
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 ... the sonic epiphany occurred in 1947, on a recording that ...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 ... 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.

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 ... 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.
If the recording seems unexpectedly familiar to some listeners, it was used over the closing credits of the original television series of Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective.

Peg O' My Heart earned him enough money to set up a new studio:
It was at the Ontario Street space, and with the help of [Jim] Cunningham and [Emory] Cook, where Putnam began to make serious breakthroughs in isolation, mastering and reverberation ... This studio, in operation from roughly 1950 to 1955, was a pivotal juncture in Putnam's career.
Emory Cook specialised in mastering and Jim Cunningham in echo chambers; a 1979 article by Cunningham on the four basic types of reverb can be found here, although I'm not clear what form would have been used on the Flamingos' records.

A column which Cook wrote in for the New York Times in 1952 is also worth noting, possibly as a kind of unofficial mission statement for Universal Recording. Headed: High Fidelity - Does It Exist? he attacks studios with "foam-walled 'dead rooms' ":
Cook bewailed the fact that "modern studios have evolved to the point where they are unnatural places in which to originate sounds." He contended that recording music in an acoustically "flat" studio- a sound-absorbent space free from the world’s overtones and echoes - was a practice to which all music lovers should object. "We listen to [music] for its emotional or spiritual impact," he wrote; "and, to be effective in that direction, the reproduction must lead us back in fancy to some concert hall or auditorium - or night spot - where once we heard it alive and in the flesh." A high-fidelity recording, in other words, should capture not merely a sound itself but the context of its airing in the world.
Cook is writing about the newfangled LP rather than the humble 78 or 45, but his observations have some bearing upon the Flamingos' recordings. You could say they take us to another world, a region of the mind rather than a simulation of the group's live sound in a club or theatre. An alternative argument is that we are, in effect, hearing them in an idealised version of their original setting: sound bouncing off the tiles on a subway platform, say, or voices echoing down a stairwell.

At least you might think that until you remember Zeke Carey vehemently denied that they were a streetcorner group. If Putnam, Cunningham and Cook, makers of the Flamingos' distinctive studio sound, had the recreation of a specific locale in mind it's more likely to have been inside the synagogues of Baltimore and Chicago where the nucleus of the group learnt to sing.

Bill Putnam Jr has said that his father never discussed the rock'n'roll artists who used the studio and I haven't found any stories or information online about the specifics of how Putnam Sr might have worked with the Flamingos. But, pace Johnny Keyes, it's a safe bet that his work extended beyond glaring at them from the control room. Putnam was musically minded as well as technically so; he sang with a band at high school and beyond, and declared musicians were his favourite people. His passion may have been for jazz but a memory of Jerry Butler's suggests he was alive to musical potential wherever it was found:
It was 1958. Putnam, who worked regularly with Basie and Ellington, was doing a session for a couple of kids."I was 18 at the time," says Butler. "Curtis [Mayfield] was only 15. We came in with a song that Curtis had written called 'For Your Precious Love.' Because of some contractual obligations, it was decided that union musicians were gonna play on the track. Well, we ran the song down to show the musicians, and Putnam turns to Curtis, who had been playing the guitar, and says, 'That's the heart and soul of your song right there in that guitar.' So right there, Curtis' guitar became the glue. Putnam spotted that."
The recording will be familiar to most readers but it's worth embedding here as a reminder of the cathedral-like setting which is part of its power:

According to a German wikipedia entry for Putnam he was also behind the Dells' Sweet Dreams of Contentment, one of my all-time favourite doo wop records - excuse enough, surely, to include it below. (And their big hit Oh What a Night, but you've heard that.)

I recall, back in the day, having a discussion on the Kewl Steve board with Clarke Davis and others about the word intoned at the end of Sweet Dreams. I didn't print out our exchanges so they are probably forever lost in the ether - though as no definitive answer emerged it probably doesn't much matter. What has been preserved is a beautiful sound, at once clear and muffled, as befits a dream, which members of the group have cited as the recording most evocative of those early days. And when Johnny Funches soars into the stratosphere at the end, it's one of the great doo wop moments - whatever he's saying.

I don't know how credit for the Flamingos' sound ought to be divided between Bill Putnam, Emory Cook and Jim Cunningham and perhaps it's foolish to try, as they obviously worked so closely together. Assuming he was sound engineer on the group's August 1953 session was it Putnam's decision to keep the backing band as a subliminal presence on Golden Teardrops, ensuring the record's immortality?

Equally, I don't know whether the Flamingos, or Art Sheridan or Al Benson, came to the studio with clear ideas about how they ought to be recorded. But however credit may be divided these early recordings are a blueprint for the Flamingos' later work.

Posts about the Flamingos' Chance and Parrot recordings here.


Bill Putnam Sr, Part 1 by Jim Cogan
Bill Putnam Sr, Part 2 by Jim Cogan
Article on Emory Cook by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

Quotes come from Jim Cogan's two-part article unless stated otherwise.

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