Neil Young. Joan Baez. Dan Fogelberg. Kris Kristofferson. Jimmy Buffett. Dobie Gray. Bob Seger. J.J. Cale. Michael Jackson. Donovan. The Pointer Sisters. These are just a few of the legendary recording artists who worked at Nashville’s Quadrafonic Sound Studio in the 1970s when the facility became ground zero for the growing number of rock and folk sessions in the city.
Considering Quadrafonic’s influential place in Music City’s history, surprisingly, it was not originally intended to be a place where records would necessarily be made. Near the end of 1969, a pair of celebrated session musicians, old friends from Muscle Shoals, keyboardist David Briggs and bassist Norbert Putnam, purchased an old, two-story house at 1802 Grand Avenue, a block off Music Row. They had plans to put in a studio where they could write and experiment, a place more accommodating to musicians than the studios in which they normally worked. They set about converting the front porch into the control room and several of the rooms on the ground floor into the tracking area.
“As the construction came along, Elliot Mazer stopped by one day,” Putnam recalls. “Elliot was one of the first New York producers besides Bob Johnston to come to Nashville to record. He brought a bunch of folkies down here. So Elliot’s walking through the old house and says, ‘I like this place. It’s got a good feel to it. I would record here.’ Then he said, ‘Why don’t you put in a 16-track and a good console — I’d come over here.’”
Mazer first came to Nashville to record in 1963 with El Trios Los Panchos, an internationally famous Latin trio, who recorded with the city’s famous A-Team of studio musicians. “That was my beginning in Nashville,” he says from his home in North Carolina.
He returned in 1968 to produce the Canadian folk duo Ian & Sylvia. “The next chance I had was when I met Albert Grossman, and Albert [managed] Ian & Sylvia and Gordon Lightfoot and Dylan, and Dylan had already done some stuff in Nashville. Albert said, ‘Listen, if you want to take those kids to Nashville, go.’ So I said, ‘Yeah, great.’ So I took Ian & Sylvia down there and we did an album at Bradley’s Barn.”
Drummer Kenneth Buttrey, who was in his mid-20s at the time, became the leader on those sessions, and he brought in a number of younger musicians he played with regularly. “I had come down earlier to observe a Vanguard session with Ian & Sylvia, and that’s when I met Kenny and Norbert and Briggs, I believe,” Mazer continues.
As he got to know these younger session musicians, the idea evolved that they should form an instrumental group and make records of their own. That was the birth of the nine-piece session supergroup Area Code 615, which fused country, rock, and R&B. A number of the musicians currently being featured in the new exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City, were in the group, including Buttrey, Briggs, Putnam, multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy, guitarists Wayne Moss and Mac Gayden, fiddler Buddy Spicher, and pedal steel player Weldon Myrick. With Mazer producing, they went into Moss’ Cinderella Studio and recorded what would become the group’s eponymous debut in 1969.
“I took the first album up to Polydor in New York,” Mazer recalls. “They heard it and said, ‘This is great, let’s have it.’ Boom!” The label released a second album on the group in 1970, A Trip In The Country.
In February of that year, the group performed four dates at the Fillmore West, opening for Country Joe & The Fish. It was on this trip that Mazer first learned about Briggs and Putnam’s plans for a studio. When they returned to Nashville, he made his first visit to 1802 Grand and suggested that Briggs and Putnam make it a master studio.
“We thought about it, and we met with Elliot again — he wanted to come in as a partner,” Putnam says. “There was this new influx of folk rockers coming down, so a couple of weeks later, David and I decided to bite the bullet and buy the gear.
“So that’s how Quad came into being. Elliot was the one who sparked the idea of it being a real studio.”
They equipped the studio with a Quad 8 console and a 16-track Ampex MM1100 two-inch tape machine. “It was a great console,” Briggs says. “A lot of the big hits [tracked at Quad] were cut on that console. The Quad 8 sounds better than just about any console I’ve ever used.”
According to Briggs, it was an easy decision to bring Mazer in as a partner. “He had several accounts, and we could start right away with some work, and it would be worth it.”
Partnering with Mazer began to pay off even before the studio was officially open. “He mixed ‘Long, Long Time’ there before we even had the big monitors hooked up,” Briggs says of the acclaimed track from Linda Ronstadt’s 1970 album, Silk Purse, which Mazer produced in Nashville. “He hooked up some JBLs.”
Engineer Gene Eichelberger began a long association with Quadrafonic during the studio’s first year of operation. “Gene was the guy,” Briggs says. “We had hired another engineer, but he got in over his head, which we found out pretty quickly. Gene had been doing some maintenance work for Wayne Moss out at Cinderella, and we all thought he was pretty smart. So we got rid of the other guy and hired Gene.”
Eichelberger had worked on the second Area Code 615 record at Cinderella. “That’s how I met Norbert Putnam, David Briggs, and Elliot Mazer,” Eichelberger told author Gary Gottleib in 2010. “Elliot asked me to come in and do some work for him, and I did, because the guy they had hired, he could wire, but he couldn’t put a system together and make it work. So, they hired me, and I went to work for Norbert, David, and Elliot at Quadrafonic Sound. That was the beginning of ’70.
“It was a great studio because we’d try anything, and since we were people who tried anything, we would get people to build things for us to try them out,” he continued. “We had the first parametric equalizer. It was made by George Massenburg and Burgess McNeil. They were up in Baltimore, thereabouts, and they’d come down, and we’d try it out. They’d change it, and we’d try it out more. Anyhow, that’s when we started getting peripheral gear. And I built direct boxes using transformers, UTC transformers, so that we could hook them up to record out of a guitar or out of a power amp, whichever you felt like doing. This was before there were any direct boxes that you could buy. I built them. That was in 1970.
“One thing with Norbert was he would try it. If it was new, and he had used it in another studio, we would have one at Quad real soon.”
It was Putnam’s fascination with cutting- edge technology that inspired the studio’s name. As he related to Sound On Sound magazine in 2003, he had been in discussions with engineers at CBS Laboratories in Connecticut about the emerging quadraphonic format, and decided to name the facility Quadrafonic Sound. Around Nashville, the studio soon became known as Quad, which inspired T-shirts that read, “All Quad’s Children.”
A few albums recorded at Quad in the first two years served to put the studio on the map nationally. The first being Joan Baez’s Blessed Are . . . , which was cut there in January of 1971.
“Joan Baez calls me up about the same time that we’re opening and she says, ‘I want you to lead my sessions. I’m doing a new album and Kris Kristofferson will produce it,” Putnam says. Baez wanted to use some of the guys from Area Code 615 because she wanted to “try to get a hit record.”
“Of course, we were finishing Quad at the time, and I’m thinking ‘I wonder if I could talk her into cutting at Quad.’ So I said, ‘That’s easy — I’ll put the band together. Would you come and use our new studio?’ and she said, ‘Sure.’” Putnam laughs, as he recalls the conversation. “I called David and said, ‘We’ve got our first big act coming in.’
“So I booked the band, and six weeks later, or however long it was, I’m on my way on Monday afternoon to Quad,” he continues. “We’re going to record Monday through Friday — 2 to 5, 6 to 9, and 10 to 1 a.m. We’ve got 15 sessions to record 22 songs.
“So I come through the door about a quarter to 2, and Kris is in the back in the coffee area, and he’s wasn’t looking all that healthy — he looked slightly inebriated to me, and I think perhaps he was. Kris was a little shy about the technological part of making a record. As I came back to talk with him, he said, ‘I don’t know shit about all those lights and buttons. You could plug your bass in the deck, and you could play in there and listen and help her. I just don’t want to get into all that,’ he said.
“So I ran upstairs and found Joanie, and she said, ‘Can you help me get this record produced?’ I said, ‘Love to.’ Ten minutes later, we’re starting on the first song.
“Of course, I got lucky because one of the songs she had chosen was Robbie Robertson’s ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.’ ”
When Putnam and Briggs opened Quad, they wanted to one-up Bob Beckham, head of Combine Music, who famously offered free beer to songwriters at the end of the workday, even writers not signed to Combine. So they decided to have a free open bar at Quad, 24-7, and their lounge soon became a destination for the city’s hipper songwriters, people like Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury, Donnie Fritts, Guy Clark, and Jimmy Buffett. During the time Baez was working at the studio, the lounge would be overflowing with not only writers, but also their girlfriends; which is how “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” came to have between 15 and 20 people singing on the song’s chorus.
“One of the things I discussed with Joanie was wouldn’t it be great to have a huge group of people singing along, as people do in a concert,” Putnam explains. So he recruited the songwriters in the lounge, as well the girlfriends who were hanging out, to lend their voices to the chorus.
“We tried to put the ones who were least inebriated up closer to the mic, and we put the drunks in the back. I triple-tracked it, so we had close to 60 voices singing on it — and it was magic!” he says with a laugh.
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” would become Baez’s one-and-only top 10 hit, reaching No. 3 during a 13-week stay in the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It not only brought welcomed attention to the fledgling studio, it launched Putnam’s career as a hit-making producer. He would soon be helming albums for Dan Fogelberg, Jimmy Buffett, Buffy Sainte-Marie, New Riders of the Purple Sage, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Eric Anderson, and Steve Goodman, among others.
A month after Baez was at Quadrafonic, Mazer brought the next big act to the studio — Neil Young, who was in Nashville in February of ’71 to appear on The Johnny Cash Show after a short winter tour in support of After the Gold Rush. “I went to Nashville at the end of the tour to do the Johnny Cash television show, which was new and really hot at the time,” Young recalled in his 2012 memoir, Waging Heavy Peace. “Bob Dylan had just done the first one, and everyone wanted to do it. James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt were doing the second show, and so was I. Everyone loved Johnny Cash; he was the real thing. The show was all about the music, and it was cool, very real. While I was there, I met Elliot Mazer, the record producer.”
Mazer hosted a dinner for Young, Taylor, Ronstadt, and a few others, including Young’s manager, Elliot Roberts, whom he had known from New York. At the dinner, Young asked Mazer about Quadrafonic. “He said, ‘You have a studio and a band?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, they’re great.’ He said, ‘Well, can I come in tomorrow and do some recording?’ And that was it.”
Even though it was a Saturday (Feb. 6) and most of the Area Code 615 guys were not available, Mazer rounded up Buttrey, bassist Tim Drummond, and pedal steel player Ben Keith, who would go on to work with Young for four decades. Young dubbed these Nashville musicians The Stray Gators.
“By midafternoon, we cut ‘Out On The Weekend.’ I got sounds going, and Neil came into the control room and heard the playback and just about collapsed,” Mazer recalls. “He said, ‘This is wonderful sounding.’ He said to me later he had never come into a control room to hear a playback where the playback sounded better than what it sounded like in the studio. I said, ‘That’s what we’re here for — we’re here to make records.’ ”
The two dates that weekend were the beginning of the sessions that would become Young’s most successful album, Harvest, which went to No. 1 on the Billboard album chart and earned triple-platinum certification for sales. It yielded his only Top 10 hit, “Heart of Gold,” which reached No. 1 on the Hot 100 during 15 weeks in the Top 40.
“Heart of Gold” and “Old Man” were also recorded during those first sessions at Quad, and after taping their appearance on the Cash show, Ronstadt and Taylor stopped by the studio to add backing vocals to those tracks.
“That was Linda and James and Neil sitting on a couch in the control room with a mic in the control room, and that’s how I overdubbed those vocals, which Neil couldn’t believe,” the producer explains.
Young and Mazer went back to Quadrafonic a few years later to record tracks for Homegrown, an unreleased album whose legend has grown exponentially as the decades have passed.
“One of the biggest things we did that helped our reputation more than anything was Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away,” which was a smash, and that became a big account for us with Mentor Williams for awhile,” Briggs says. The Williams-penned song from the album of the same name went to No. 5 during a 15-week run in the Billboard Top 40.
“Mentor came here and did a demo and saw what we were doing,” Briggs explains.
Williams made his first trip to Nashville in 1971. After a meeting with Chet Atkins on Music Row, he explored the surrounding area. “All the little houses were publishing houses, or they were recording studios,” he recalls by phone from his home near Taos, N.M. He walked over to 18th Street and ended up at Quad, where he met Troy Seals.
Seals was a then-unknown songwriter-guitarist, who would go on to have his songs recorded by some of the biggest names in popular music, including Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Etta James. At the time he met Williams, Seals was just getting his start in Music City and had only recently become the first songwriter signed to Danor Music, Briggs’ and Putnam’s newly launched publishing company.
“I played some songs for Troy, and he played me some songs that just blew me away, man,” Williams says. “I hit it off so well with Troy that I spent most of the rest of that trip writing songs with him.
“I told him I was planning to record an album with Dobie; that I was close to making a deal. I had signed Dobie to my production company, and there was an A&R guy at Decca that was really interested. I stayed a couple weeks and wrote several songs with Troy. We met every morning at eight o’clock and just had a ball. I knew I had a friend for life with Troy.”
Williams got a firsthand look at the studio, and he says he ‘just loved it.” He made plans to return with Dobie once he had a deal in place.
Back in Los Angeles, Williams feared he was on the brink of losing his songwriting deal with his publisher because he had yet to write a breakout hit. “That weekend, I sat down and sort of wrote about how I was feeling, and “Drift Away” came out in about 10 minutes,” he says. “I was writing the song to myself, you know — and I think that’s why so many superstars recorded it.”
“Drift Away” has been recorded more than 400 times, including cuts by Ray Charles, Rod Stewart, Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton, Ringo Starr, Ike & Tina Turner, and the Neville Brothers, but none of their versions has topped the success of Gray’s rendition recorded at Quadrafonic.
Within a couple of years, Mazer sold his interest in Quadrafonic back to Briggs and Putnam. “There was a lot of Neil Young stuff going on in California, a lot of CSNY stuff to do, and I was spending more and more time out there,” he explains. “So there was a lot of reasons to leave Nashville at that point.”
The studio continued to prosper; it was so heavily booked that Briggs and Putnam could rarely get in to do their own projects. When a group of doctors from Atlanta offered them a million dollars for the facility in 1979, they decided to sell it.
Even though the studio remained in operation for more than three more decades, when the group from Atlanta bought it from Briggs and Putnam, it was in many ways the end of an era in Music City. Putnam refers to those days as “Nashville’s Golden Age.” It was time when great things were accomplished by the producers, songwriters, and musicians affectionately known as All Quad’s Children.
(Editor’s note: This is the second in an ongoing series of articles The East Nashvillian will publish that dig deeper into the history behind the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s new exhibit: Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City.)