Robert Palmer, a musical chameleon who became a pop star in the 1980s with propulsive songs and iconic MTV videos such as Addicted to Love and Simply Irresistible, died yesterday in a Paris hotel room of a heart attack. Mr. Palmer, who was reported by his manager to have been in perfect health, was on a break from a recording session in London and was with his companion, Mary Ambrose. He was 54.
Mr. Palmer, a handsome, dapper Briton who had lived in Switzerland for the past 16 years, first made his mark in the mid-1970s with solo albums steeped in the funk and R&B sounds of the South. He was called a blue-eyed soul singer.
But Mr. Palmer was too restless, too curious to stick to any particular musical genre. Reggae would enter his world, as would raw rock 'n' roll and synthesizer-based electronic music. What linked most everything was the groove: The groove was paramount.
"I don't have any fear of success, and I don't have any fear of failure," he told the Globe in 1986. "But if there's some aspect of me that's being focused on, I tend to do the opposite just to trash it... It's not as if I'm trying to `trick' people into enjoying different styles. There are aural prejudices I don't have. I'm a singer."
Here's a snapshot from a 1991 concert at what is now the Tweeter Center: Mr. Palmer, sporting an expensive Italian suit, took a break between songs and pondered the notion of bonding with the audience. "Jah Rastafari?" he asked, shrugging and making a face. "Are you ready to rock?" he asked. "Well, we aren't." Mr. Palmer and his backing octet slid into a soft, syncopated, sedate number.
Later, after several genre switches, Mr. Palmer said, "Sorry I'm like this; what can I say?"
These were some of Mr. Palmer's favorite things: electronica, bossa nova, heavy metal, 1940s-style ballads, slinky R&B and funk, reggae, punk, avant-garde minimalism, calypso, African polyrhythms, and mainstream pop. His latest album, released this spring, was Drive, and it was a spare, blues-based CD.
"Things keep changing," Mr. Palmer told the Globe in 1983. "There are no rules to making music. Once you figure there are rules, then that's the end of it. It's no fun anymore."
Like Roxy Music's Bryan Ferry, Mr. Palmer liked the cut of a fine suit. He was a sharp-dressed man who looked as if he had just stepped out of a GQ photo shoot (He did appear on the magazine's cover and later called it "a silly gig"). But also like Ferry, he enjoyed working hard in that suit, singing, sweating, and giving off an aura of sophisticated sensuality.
It was that image that helped Mr. Palmer break through to a mainstream audience during the '80s with the enthusiastic cooperation of MTV. Mr. Palmer's Addicted to Love video became a classic, with its cadre of leggy and beautiful, if remote, women in black dresses providing eye candy.
"I love good wine," he told the Globe in 1986. "I love good food. I like good tailoring, and I like to be able to pick and choose my company. But if that adds up to some crass image, that was a total opposite of me... totally at odds with where I was. It got right up my nose."
Detractors called him a dilettante and a lounge lizard, a guy who was too versatile for his own good, someone who favored style over substance. The Los Angeles Times sneered that Mr. Palmer "made rock 'n' roll safe for guys who look like stockbrokers and made an art of passivity." The Toronto Globe and Mail called him "the Velour Fog."
Mr. Palmer was unfazed by the criticism. "I can't concern myself at all... with thinking, `Is it going to be hip?' or `Are my musical friends going to like this?" he told the Globe in 1986. "Hopefully, what I'm trying to do is communicate various emotions... If you're in a bandwagon thing, I'd rather be in real estate. I want to do something that turns me on and the players on, so that what you recorded is maybe something you haven't heard before."
Mr. Palmer, the son of a British military intelligence officer, grew up in Malta, where he lived until he was 19. Back in England in the late 1960s, he sang with the bands Alan Bown Set, Dada, and Vinegar Joe before going solo.
He achieved a substantial amount of success as a solo artist and then shifted course temporarily to form a supergroup called Power Station with the members of Duran Duran in the mid-'80s. The group played hard rock and funk and scored with Communication and T. Rex's Get It On (Bang a Gong).
He played with members of Little Feat, The Meters and UB40. He covered, among others, songs by Bob Dylan, Gary Numan, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Devo, Husker Du, ZZ Top, and Keb' Mo.
When writing Addicted to Love, Mr. Palmer woke up in the middle of the night with a melody. He sang it into the tape recorder by the side of his bed. Most of the time, he said, "it'll just be mumbling in the middle of the night. But I played it back, and I knew I caught it. I had the melody, the tempo, and the descending chord changes. Then it was just a matter of filling in the dots, and I already had the lyric laying around." And so, a hit song was born.
According to the Associated Press, Mr. Palmer is survived by Ambrose and two children from a previous relationship: a son, James, a musician who played on Mr. Palmer's last album, and a daughter, Jane.
A private ceremony will be held next week in Switzerland, said his publicist, Elizabeth Freund.
Jim Sullivan (Boston Globe - 2003)