Robert Palmer is one of the most exciting Soul singers to emerge in the Seventies that I've seen perform. Palmer is a blond, startlingly good-looking young Englishman, whose grace, elegance and compressed energy onstage combine to exude a rare magnetism. Recently, when I saw him perform at the Bottom Line in New York, he galvanized an audience of skeptics and made every woman in the room fall in love with him. Palmer's sex appeal alone suggests his potential to be a superstar. More importantly, he is a Soul singer's Soul singer who became hooked on Rhythm and Blues when he was fifteen and discovered Otis Redding. "It was the first time I really heard music," he recalls. A self-taught singer, Palmer learned from listening To Redding, Marvin Gaye and James Brown, among others. "I've concentrated on trying to reproduce the aura of music I like without copying the style of any one singer," Palmer maintains.
And so he was. While there are echoes of Redding, Gaye and Wonder and others from the late-Sixties Motown pantheon in Palmer's singing, he has used their influence to forge a distinct style of his own, rough in timbre, refined in phrasing, and in contrast to most other blue-eyed Soul singers, a style mix rapt with emotional intensity.
Now in the process of establishing residency in Nassau, Palmer was born in Batley, Yorkshire, England. When he was very young, his family moved to Malta. "Johnny Weissmuller was living out there in Malta," Palmer recalls. "He taught me to swim when I was three." The son of a navy man, Palmer led a comparatively isolated life on the island and attended the Royal Naval School there. When he was nine, the family moved back to England for good. As a teenager, Palmer picked up harmonica (Today, he also plays bass, percussion and rhythm guitar, but not onstage).
Palmer began his musical career with a band of fellow art students who called themselves The Mandrakes. While with them, Palmer, then 19, was spotted by Alan Bown, leader of one of Britain's first horn bands, who asked him to join up as a vocalist. Palmer stayed for a year and a half until guitarist Pete Gage persuaded him to help start a new Jazz-Rock ensemble called Dada. The nine-member Dada was eventually pared down to become the popular band Vinegar Joe in which Palmer played rhythm guitar and shared lead vocals with Gage and Elkie Brooks. Though successful in England and on the continent, Vinegar Joe's constant touring took its toll of Palmer's energies, and their brand of Rock did not give him the room he needed to develop his interest in R&B.
In February 1974, Palmer quit the band and put together some tapes of his songs, which he had made with a drum machine, bass and guitar, and took them to Island Records' Chris Blackwell, who was already familiar with Palmer, from Alan Bown and Vinegar Joe, who had both recorded for the label. Liking what he heard, Blackwell teamed Palmer with producer Steve Smith and sent them to the United States to put together a solo album with whatever musicians they wanted to use. Only three weeks after speaking with Blackwell, Palmer was in New York getting ready to record with legendary sessionmen Cornell Dupree, Richard Tee and Bernard Purdie. From New York, Palmer went to Allen Toussaint's Sea-Saint Studios in New Orleans to work with The Meters and Little Feat's Lowell George. Of those sessions, Palmer recalls, "Some of the songs on the album are first takes. The musicians understood exactly what I was up to and immediately contributed what was needed."
The album, Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley, was hailed by critics as a brilliant synthesis of R&B styles, shaped by one of the most intelligent and far-reaching Rock talents to emerge in the Seventies. If Sally established Palmer as a respected cult figure in the States, Presure Drop, his second album, and the sensational Spring '75 club tour following its release, left Palmer poised on the brink of mass popularity. Recorded in Baltimore and Los Angeles, and again featuring members of Little Feat plus respected Motown musicians, The Muscle Shoals Horns, and Barry White's arranger, Gene Page, conducting a large string section, Pressure Drop featured sparser arrangements for Palmer's hard-edged Funk and introduced his romantic ballad side. The title cut was a brilliant version of the Maytals' reggae classic.
In the fall of '76, Palmer's third Island album will be available. Recorded mostly in Los Angeles, Palmer says that it is "as different from Pressure Drop as Pressure Drop was from Sally. It is more stylized, since I've been able to spend more time arranging the songs. There is lots of 'Work to Make Things Work' happening."
On Palmer's third album, Some People Can Do What They Like, he extends some of his studio techniques that are used to make Jamaican "dub music", in which the B-side of a reggae song is completely remixed, often strange sounding version of the A-side, minus the lead vocal and made so that a Jamaican deejay can talk over the music. Using two 16-track machines, Palmer cut the tracks using a regular rhythm section, then selectively alternated the original tracks with new tracks of other instruments such as timbale and steel drum, to make the tunes more flexible by eliminating the necessity of punching instrumental tracks in and out of a mix at eight-bar intervals.
Behind Palmer's approach in the studio is a musical philosophy that coalesced while he was on the road, Live. Palmer's main sets are seamless, uninterrrupted flows of music that succeed in maintaining an astonishingly high energy level and an interplay between Palmer and the musicians that is not just a standard lead singer and backup band relationship but often a mystical give-and-take. For Palmer's concept of good music is that it should be experienced, by musicians and audience alike, as a self-renewing energy source. He cites teh spirit of Mexican and African folk music before "it has been adapted into pop" as a source of rhythmic inspiration. "I used to work with three drummers from Nigeria," Palmer recalls. "We would start at midday and play till sundown. I like the idea of a music that just takes you away. Mexican folk music is very sophisticated in the harmonics they use and the places they phrase. I'm also attracted to it because of the atmosphere. You can tell the people are having a really good time."
Translated into his own original songs, this means that Palmer sees music as beginning from its roots: from within the rhythm and the bass line. "All of my new tunes began as bass lines," he says. "I work from the ground up." Translated into the studio, Palmer's philosophy means that he believes in recording "only what's necessary, only hot licks."
If Some People Can Do What They Like (Palmer's obviously happy reference to his creative conditions) is a fraction as hot as he indicates, it will be a monster.
Stephen Holden (1976)