From his 1974 debut album, Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley to his untimely death in 2003 at the age of 54, Robert Palmer was an important fixture on the rock and pop scene. As a performer, he was a pretty hard guy to pigeonhole. He sang rock, soul, blues, reggae, R&B – all of it well.
Allmusic: “Born Alan Palmer on January 19, 1949, in Batley, England, he spent much of his childhood living on the island of Malta before permanently returning to Britain at the age of 19 to sing with the Alan Bown Set.
A year later he joined Dada, a 12-piece, Stax-influenced soul group which soon changed its name to Vinegar Joe. After three LP’s with the band, Palmer exited to mount a solo career and debuted in 1974 with Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley, recorded with members of Little Feat and the Meters.”
Actually, the only member of Little Feat to appear on this album is slide maestro Lowell George. Steve Winwood plays on one track and the non-Meters tracks include ubiquitous NYC studio aces Cornell Dupree, Bernard Purdie, and Richard Tee. The inclusion of New Orleans funkmeisters Meters should give you some idea of what Palmer was aiming for on this album.
The album kicks off with the triad of Lowell George’s “Sailing Shoes,” moves to Palmer’s “Hey Julia” and segues into New Orleans jazz/blues legend Allen Toussaint’s “Sneakin’ Sally.” There was a period of time where you could not turn on the radio without hearing these tunes.
I hadn’t heard them in a while and man if you don’t feel like dancing when you hear this, call the doctor – stat! (I put the three songs in the Spotify list rather than here so they’d run together.)*
Even though he was a Brit, Palmer’s success was initially greater in the US than in the UK. In 1975 he released the album Pressure Drop named for the Toots and the Maytals song. Interestingly, Wikipedia categorizes this album as both rock and blue-eyed soul, Sally being characterized only as rock. (I’ll put one of those blue-eyed songs, the terrific “Back in My Arms” on the Spotify list.)
This album adds in the rest of Little Feat and for good measure throws in the Muscle Shoals horns. From Pressure Drop this is, “Here With You Tonight” (co-written by Palmer and Vinegar Joe mate Pete Gage) which is a funkfest and a half:
Palmer’s fame kept growing and in 1979, with a greatly stripped-down four-piece band he released the album Secrets from which came the classic rock staple, “Bad Case of Lovin’ You.”**
Where Secrets had been a rock album, the chameleon-like Mr. Palmer’s next album, Clues, was a combination of rock and synthpop. I really like “Looking for Clues” which I’ll put on the Spotify list and which features Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz. (Palmer – who seemingly knew everybody – had played percussion on the Heads’ Remain in Light.)
But I also dig “Johnny and Mary” :
By now you’re saying to yourself, I know this guy’s voice. And given his suave style, his sex appeal and his handsome face, wasn’t he a natural for MTV?
Indeed. And so for the last number, we come to an excellent tune with one of MTV’s most famous (and frankly kinda silly) videos, “Addicted to Love.”*** In this 1986 video, Palmer performs with some of ME’s model ex-girlfriends to weird effect. Of this event, one of the gals said this:
“I was 21 and got the part on the strength of my modeling book. We were meant to look and ‘act’ like showroom mannequins. Director Terence Donovan got us tipsy on a bottle of wine but as we were having our make-up retouched, I lost balance on my heels and knocked the top of my guitar into the back of Robert’s head, and his face then hit the microphone.” (Don’t you hate when that happens?)
Palmer won the Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance.
Palmer followed up with the song “Simply Irresistible” and in 1990 – and this is the first time I’ve said this on these pages – won Rolling Stone’s award for best-dressed rock star. (Which had to have pissed Bryan Ferry off mightily.)
Palmer later formed a “supergroup” called Power Station with guys from Duran Duran and Chic though I recall nothing particularly memorable from that union.
To everyone’s shock, while in Paris in 2003, Palmer had a heart attack and died. He was a heavy smoker and ironically, his final album cover shows him with cigarette in hand.
Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; AllMusic
*One of the stations in the Boston area used to occasionally run a sound bite from Palmer where he said, jokingly, that it was ok to play these songs separately.
**Palmer also had a hit in 1978 with a tune called “Every Kinda People,” but as as a song, meh.
***Noddy Holder of Slade said, “The one main song that I wish that I’d written and recorded is ‘Addicted to Love’ by Robert Palmer. To me, that’s a perfect pop song. Everything about it really hits the nail on the head.”