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John Putnam Sings the Blues – With Age Comes Respect

John Putnam Sings the Blues – With Age Comes Respect
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By Steve Weinstein

These days, bar bands, like everyone else in the music industry, are singing the Blues. At 64, John Putnam, a veteran Blues guitarist (he also plays a mean piano) has seen more ups and downs than a guitar neck. That said, today’s music scene — or, rather, lack of a music scene — is as bad as he’s ever experienced.

“One of my first jobs was with a band in 1962,” he recalls. “We got $149 for a night; $700 to $800 in today’s dollars. I could almost pay my month’s rent in boarding house with my share of the take. Now I get something not much better than that” — in 1962 dollars, no less.

Far from a tale of woe, however, Putnam’s story is how one man has managed to pursue his passion and damn the naysayers. Even more, as you shall see, this is an upbeat story about how with age comes not only experience but respect.

Putnam, a native New Englander, was able to eke out a living playing bars in Boston from 1972 to 1980. Even after he returned to school, got married, had a daughter, and, as he puts it, “had to buck up,” he continued his avocation. As the nation’s premier college town, Boston’s dive bars provided John Putnam and Used Blues, the band he formed in 1989, a regular circuit; once in a while he landed gigs at larger, upscale venues like House of Blues.

Then, in the ‘90s, he moved to New York to be with the great love of his life, wife Ellen Feldman. Not a great career move. As Putnam soon discovered “it’s so much worse here than in Boston. Supply and demand is so much higher.

Like Los Angeles, Nashville and Austin, Texas, too many bands are chasing too few venues. Some pass the hat; others even “pay to play,” paying the club owner for a gig. Club owners routinely expect a band to bring in a certain guaranteed number of fans.

“Today, not only are the bands expected to practice and rehearse; and own, maintain and move the equipment out of the venue,” Putnam sighs, “they have also been given the task of bar manager. And now a new chore is assigned to the bands: social media. Bands must spend many hours hyping themselves to compete with the onslaught of others hyping themselves.”

Forget any hope of up-and-coming acts being signed by the few record labels left in the wake of the digital revolution. In New York, sky-high real estate effects every aspect of a musician’s life, from increasingly more expensive and hard-to-find rehearsal space, to living five-to-a-room in rabbit warrens. “People compete here to play in the subway for free!” Putnam adds. (Yes, in New York buskers have to pass a competition just to make music in the city’s subway stations.)

In their defense, the club owners don’t have it easy, either. Landlords would prefer to see a nice, quiet, high-paying corporate tenant. And publishers representing songwriters are scavenging for royalty payments many consider predatory. Horror stories abound like the North Carolina restaurant that ignored $6,000 annual fees to BMI, only to face a $42,000 fine. The result is that many bars not only have banned cover bands but any music whatsoever.

At least Putnam doesn’t live in any rabbit warren. He and Feldman share spacious digs on Manhattan’s West Side and a summerhouse on Fire Island. But in every way, he’s as impacted by the sad state of bar bands as any other musician. Read on, however, because at last we get to that promised upbeat coda.

As the readers of this website are all-too aware, ageism infects every aspect of our lives, be it the office where we work, the gym where we work out or even the church where we worship. But, like bluegrass, the older the Blues performer, the more respected and revered.

If anything, complaints about ageism go in the other direction. Being young can actually work against a Blues musician. The best-known Blues singers are far on the other side of 50; many, like the reigning king, as in B.B. King, way on the far side.

The Daily Beast’s Ted Goia even asked, in a column “Do blues musicians need to be really, really old?,” why there were no well-known performers under age 50. “Blues fans celebrate their oldsters,” he noted. “Fact is, we like our blues singers to show some signs of decrepitude.

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Partly, this is probably attributable to the music’s origins among the sun-wizened visages of sharecroppers deep in the Mississippi delta. A weathered, lined face marks a musicians having paid his dues. But it’s more having the look. “John,” Feldman says. “has that deep, deep growl.” Keith Richards is the sex symbol here, not Justin Bieber.

Through all the tribulations of his craft, Putnam manages to keep busy. In March, for example, he’s playing four clubs. What keeps him and others like him going is a deep and abiding love of the music they’re playing. Recently, Putnam gigged at a bar with a session musician, 60, who had toured with the Rolling Stones. “He’s not bitter,” Putnam says. “He wasn’t going, ‘Oh life is tough. He was happy to be playing.”

If the crazy hours and the long drive home from the outer ‘burbs bother Feldman, she know that “he loves performing, so he continues to pursue what he loves. The first time I saw him perform, I was knocked off my feet, and every time after that, I still am.”

“I’m an addict,” Putnam confesses. “Much as I see so much of it being really very degrading, there are those moments when I know I’m hitting it, when all is so close to perfect, it feels like God is smiling. It’s not rational and I can’t put it down.”

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Steve Weinstein
Steve Weinstein is a journalist who had interned at the Sunday Times of London and has written for New York Magazine, The International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal (online), CNBC.com and The Village Voice among others. He has edited Crain's New York Business, Edge Media Network, the New York Blade and New York Press, and authored The Q Guide to Fire Island (Alyson, 2007). He lives in Midtown Manhattan with two Staffordshire pit bulls.