Robert Allen Palmer (January 19, 1949 – September 26, 2003), born in Batley, Yorkshire, was an English singer. Known for his soulful voice, he combined an eclectic mix of musical styles on his albums – soul, jazz, rock, reggae, and blues.
The son of a British serviceman stationed in Malta, Palmer moved with his family to Scarborough, Yorkshire in 1959. Influenced as a child by blues, soul, and jazz music on American Forces Radio, Robert Palmer joined his first band, The Mandrakes, at the age of fifteen while still at Scarborough Boy’s High School. His first major break came with the departure of singer Jess Roden from The Alan Bown Set in 1969, after which Palmer was invited to London to sing on their single “Gypsy Girl”. The vocals for the album, The Alan Bown!, originally recorded by Roden (and released in the U.S. that way), were re-recorded by Palmer after the success of the single.
In 1970, Palmer joined the twelve-piece jazz-rock fusion band Dada, which featured singer Elkie Brooks. The band lasted a year, after which Brooks and Palmer formed the critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful rhythm and blues group, Vinegar Joe; Palmer sang and played rhythm guitar. Signed to the Island Records label, they released three albums: Vinegar Joe (1972), Rock ‘n’ Roll Gypsies (1972), and Six Star General (1973).
On the basis of his youthful looks, strong stage presence, and soulful voice, Island Records signed Palmer to a solo deal. His first solo album, Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley, recorded in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1974, was heavily influenced by the music of Little Feat and the funk fusion of The Meters, who acted as backing band along with producer/guitarist Lowell George of Little Feat. His first single was a cover of Little Feat’s “Sailin’ Shoes.” Although moderately successful in the UK, both the album and single reached the Top 100 in the U.S.. Notably, “Sailin’ Shoes” (the album’s first track), Palmer’s own “Hey Julia” and the Allen Toussaint-penned title track carry virtually the same rhythm, and are packaged on the CD as a “trilogy” without a pause between them.
After relocating from London to New York City with his wife, Palmer released Pressure Drop in 1975 (featuring famed Motown bassist James Jamerson). An album infused with his interests in reggae and rock music, it was noted for its cover art of a nude girl on a balcony rather than any commercially successful songs. (The lead single “Give Me An Inch” did win critical plaudits for Palmer’s note-perfect delivery and its chord changes, which surprised George during the recording process.) He toured with Little Feat to promote that album.
However, with the failure of the follow-up Some People Can Do What They Like, Palmer decided to move to the Bahamas; after that, his “expatriate lifestyle” was likely to receive more coverage than his music in British newspapers.
In 1978, he released Double Fun, a collection of Caribbean-influenced rock, including a down-tempo and syncopated cover of “You Really Got Me”. The album reached the Top 50 on the U.S. Billboard charts and scored a Top 20 single with the Andy Fraser-penned “Every Kinda People”. With its blend of Caribbean steel pan, violins and moving lyrics, “Every Kinda People” has become one of Palmer’s best-loved songs, covered multiple times by other artists (including Chaka Demus and Pliers, Randy Crawford and Amy Grant) and cited by music fans and spiritual groups for its positive message.
Palmer’s next album was an artistic departure, concentrating on a rockier direction. Secrets (1979) produced his second Top 20 single with Moon Martin’s “Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor)”, which like “Every Kinda People” became one of his signature tunes.
The 1980s saw Palmer find an increasing amount of commercial success. The album, Clues, produced by Palmer and featuring Chris Franz and Gary Numan, generated hits on both sides of the Atlantic, first with the radio-friendly single “Johnny and Mary” and then “Looking for Clues”. Catchy music videos matching the synth pop stylings of New Wave gave him much needed exposure to a younger audience. The success was repeated with the 1982 EP release of Some Guys Have All the Luck.
In 1983 Palmer blended techno beats, early sampling and more of the island music of his adopted Bahamas (including steel pan) into the adventurous Pride album. Though the album wasn’t the smash Clues was, it did feature standout tracks in the title song and Palmer’s cover of The System’s “You Are In My System”, with The System’s David Frank contributing keyboard tracks to the latter song.
“You Are In My System” was an example of Palmer’s passion for R & B covers. He squeezed the song onto the Pride album after the other tracks were finished. Hearing the track in a Paris club, Palmer rushed back to his Bahamas hometown, where the reconvened band (co-composer Frank included) put together the number. Esquire magazine recounted the tale of the last-minute addition later that year. Palmer did the same in liner notes for his 1992 Addictions Volume 2 CD, which included his re-voiced version of “You Are In My System.”
Palmer’s milestone year was 1985. After Duran Duran went on hiatus, guitarist Andy Taylor and bassist John Taylor joined drummer Tony Thompson and Palmer to form the band Power Station. Their eponymous album, recorded mostly at the New York studio for which the band was named, reached the Top 20 in the UK and the U.S. It spawned two hit singles with “Some Like It Hot” and a cover of the T. Rex song “Get It On”. Palmer performed live with the band only once that year, on Saturday Night Live. The band toured, and even played Live Aid, with singer Michael Des Barres after Palmer bowed out at the last moment to go back into the studio to further his newly revitalized solo career. It proved to be a good choice for Palmer.
Palmer recorded the album Riptide in 1985, recruiting Thompson and Andy Taylor to play on some tracks and Power Station producer Bernard Edwards, who worked with Thompson in the group CHIC, to helm the production.
Riptide featured the Number One single “Addicted to Love”. The single was accompanied by a memorable and much parodied music video, directed by Terence Donovan, in which Palmer is surrounded by a bevy of near-identically clad, heavily made-up female “musicians”. The singles “Hyperactive” and his cover of Cherrelle’s “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” also performed well. Another song, “Trick Bag” was written by one of his major influences, New Orleans jazz artist Earl King. In 1987, he won the Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance for his song “Addicted to Love”.
Palmer had offered to replace Lowell George in Little Feat as they prepared their 1987 reunion, but they declined his offer.
In 1987, Palmer moved to Lugano, Switzerland and set up his own recording studio. Producing Heavy Nova in 1988, Palmer again returned to experimenting, this time with bossa nova rhythms, heavy rock, and white soul ballads. He repeated his previous success with “Addicted to Love” with the video of “Simply Irresistible”, again Palmer with a troupe of female “musicians”. The ballad, “She Makes My Day”, also proved to be a hit. In 1989, he won a second Grammy for “Simply Irresistible”, which would later be featured in the Tony Award-winning musical Contact. Rolling Stone magazine voted Palmer the best-dressed rock star for 1990.
Palmer collaborated with UB40 for his next album, Don’t Explain. Released in 1990, it featured the Bob Dylan-penned Top Ten single, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”, and the Top 20 Marvin Gaye cover, “Mercy Mercy Me”. Throughout the 1990s, Palmer ventured further into diverse material. Ridin’ High (1992) was a tribute to the Tin Pan Alley era.
In 1994, Palmer released the tropical album, Honey, to mixed reviews and commercial success. While the album failed to spawn any hit singles in the United States, he did find success in Britain with the release of three hit singles: “Girl U Want”, “Know By Now” and “You Blow Me Away”.
In 1995, Palmer reunited with other members of Power Station to record a second album. Bassist John Taylor eventually backed out of the project (because of personal problems), to be replaced by old colleague Bernard Edwards. Palmer and the rest of the band completed the album Living in Fear (released in 1996), and had just begun touring when Edwards died of pneumonia.
The next few years saw more touring and more compilations; the next release of new material, Rhythm and Blues (1999) contained a mixture of Little Feat influenced songs, rock, and pop. Palmer released “True Love”, a single from the album Rhythm and Blues; the song was a minor hit in Britain.
His final release, Drive (2003), was critically hailed as the grittiest and most heartfelt album of his career. Inspired by a previous collaboration with Carl Carlton on a Robert Johnson tribute album (Hellbound on My Trail), Robert Palmer featured covers of fifteen blues standards on Drive, in addition to the original track, “Lucky”. Drive is a musical love affair as conducted by a man who seems to channel the blues rather than merely sing them - and one of the most surprisingly sound albums of Palmer’s long career.