Eclectic singer-songwriter noted for his dapper dress sense
Most famous for transatlantic hits such as the barnstorming US chart-topper Addicted to Love and the equally raucous Simply Irresistible, the British singer Robert Palmer was a consummate performer and interpreter of other people's songs as well as a capable writer himself (She Makes My Day).
In a career stretching over 34 years, he went from the blues-rock of Vinegar Joe, the group he co-fronted alongside the vocalist Elkie Brooks, to a solo career taking in fruitful collaborations with the likes of Little Feat, UB40 and the Duran Duran offshoot Power Station. Blessed with a stunning vocal range, Palmer tackled most musical genres from the funk of Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley to the electro-pop of Looking for Clues and Johnny and Mary and his suave, soulful covers of Marvin Gaye's Mercy Mercy Me/I Want You. In 1992, he also crooned his way through Witchcraft and other standards on the Ridin' High album, headlining the Royal Albert Hall with an orchestra in a move later replicated by Robbie Williams.
Always immaculately dressed, Palmer lived up to his international- playboy image on risque album sleeves and tongue-in-cheek sexy videos which defined the mid-Eighties on MTV before turning into parody. At various times, he set up homes in the Bahamas, Switzerland and Italy and seemed intent on becoming the missing link between the musical chameleon David Bowie and the tax-exile rock star Rod Stewart. More recently, he had been exploring a bluesier direction on 1998's Rhythm & Blues and the Drive album released earlier this year.
Born in Batley, Yorkshire, in 1949, Alan Palmer was raised in Malta, where his father, a civilian attached to the Navy as a codebreaker, got a posting the following year. He went to a naval school when he was three, he remembered: "There were no two kids from the same place. The school was mostly like playtime, then off to the beach. Yet, when I got back to England at the age of 11, I was way ahead."
He had also discovered Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Peggy Lee and Nat King Cole on the American Armed Forces Radio Network.
The teenage Palmer didn't enjoy the years at Scarborough High School for Boys. "I was the only one who spoke Oxford English", he said. By 15, he had passed six O levels and began playing in a band called the Mandrakes while studying at Art School. When a cleaner threw out most of his curriculum work during the summer holidays, Palmer rebelled, decided that he was better off being a singer anyway and opted for a career in music. However, his art training served him in good stead as he later kept a beady eye on the design of his record sleeves. His dapper dress sense also came from his background: "My mother used to tell me how really fussy I was about my school uniform. Because I was brought up around naval people, particularly the Italian wave, I was very meticulous about my clothes. I've always felt more comfortable dressing conservatively. I just don't like to draw attention to myself."
In 1969, the young Alan Palmer replaced the vocalist Jess Roden as the frontman in the Alan Bown Set and took up the first name Robert to avoid confusion with the group's leader. He made his recording debut on the Gypsy Girl single issued by the Deram label and rerecorded lead vocals for the The Alan Bown! album but soon joined a jazzier outfit called Dada. When that split up, Palmer stuck with the singer Elkie Brooks (then a raunchy performer rather than the MOR star she is now) and they launched the rootsier, bluesier, rockier Vinegar Joe and signed to Chris Blackwell's Island Records in 1972. Vinegar Joe released three albums and developed a mighty reputation as a live unit throughout Europe but eventually broke up in 1974.
Chris Blackwell offered Robert Palmer a solo deal and sent him to New Orleans to work with the Meters (who later evolved into the Neville Brothers) and the Little Feat guitarist Lowell George. The resulting album, Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley, became the cult album of 1974 in the United States and Palmer relocated to New York for 1975's Pressure Drop before moving on to Nassau in the Bahamas and recording Some People Can Do What They Like in 1976.
Each Robert Palmer album sold better but mainstream success still eluded the singer until 1978's Double Fun and the breakthrough hit single with a positive message, Every Kinda People. As the Seventies turned into the Eighties, he put his magpie musical instincts to great use, recording the Moon Martin rocker Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor) and the Todd Rundgren's ballad Can We Still Be Friends on the Secrets album and teaming up with the electronic pioneer Gary Numan on Clues.
In 1981, the sequencer-driven Johnny & Mary became a big hit in continental Europe and would eventually be used in a car commercial but, at the time, Palmer told me he was most excited about the fact that this song, written by him, had actually been covered by Marie Leonor, the French singer who was supporting him on his summer tour.
In 1983, the maverick Palmer pulled another master stroke with his infectious cover of You Are in My System by the US dance duo the System but went one better when he joined Power Station two years later. A supergroup of sorts built around the bassist John Taylor, guitarist Andy Taylor and Chic drummer Tony Thompson, Power Station scored huge transatlantic hits with Some Like It Hot, Communication and a cover of T-Rex's Get It On but Palmer decided not to tour with them and Michael Des Barres replaced him for their appearance at Live Aid and subsequent US dates in 1985.
The canny Palmer used the exposure he had gained with the Durannies and hit a career high the following year with Addicted to Love: "I dreamt this song, it woke me up in the middle of the night so I made a note of it on a cassette player I keep by the bed in case of emergencies . . . When I finished writing it, I knew I had caught a big one. It broke all sorts of records in the States and it felt like I'd just written the National Anthem for a while. I heard it everywhere."
A video full of mini-skirted models wearing clingy black outfits helped Addicted to Love to reach the top of the US charts while the song earned Palmer a Grammy Award for Best Rock Vocal Performance and was also covered by Tina Turner. In 1987, Palmer moved to Switzerland, and the following year he signed to EMI Records and issued the Heavy Nova album and the Simply Irresistible single which went on to reach No 2 in the US and win him another Grammy.
Acclaimed as the Best Dressed Male Rock Artist by Rolling Stone magazine in 1990, Palmer charted with an excellent rendition of Bob Dylan's I'll be Your Baby Tonight with UB40 and Mercy Mercy Me/I Want You, his tribute to Marvin Gaye, but never quite scaled the heights again throughout the rest of that decade.
A bon vivant who thought nothing of polishing off a couple of G&Ts before a hearty lunch, fine red wine and cognac to follow, Robert Palmer managed to blend his eclectic musical tastes into a style that suited the mood of the hedonistic Eighties. "I guess I always treated music as a hobby. It still is," he told interviewers: "I find a new way for the groove to sit by doing something totally unorthodox and it makes my week. Writing is the hardest thing. Every song I've written has been real work. The music I make was always designed to create a mood."
Pierre Perrone (The Independent - 27 septembre 2003)