Palmer's now addicted with rhythm, blues and pork with chocolate
Let's begin with what we think we know; Robert Palmer wears sharp suits, surrounds himself with impossibly svelte models and detests discussing any aspect of his charmed existence with the media. The ex-pat Yorkshireman writes great songs and was straddling musical genres when Puff Daddy was still Puff Baby. But he takes himself too seriously and wouldn't know self-deprecation if it sat on his 5-year-old-face.
It is strange, then, to find him nursing a Martini in his London hotel, a picture of bonhomie and keen to introduce his beautiful but resolutely unsvelte American girlfriend, Mary Ambrose.
"I've been trying to work out where I got this reputation for not liking the press" he muses as Mary orders another round, "And I don't know. I probably got one idiot trying to corner me at a really busy time and bit his head off. Next thing I know I'm an embittered old recluse."
Palmer lives on the Swiss-Italian border and enjoys a jetset lifestyle but all the other popular preconceptions are little truer than his alleged disdain for the Forth Estate. "I really love nice clothes", he concedes, "but so would you if you lived near Milan. The thing about decent tailoring is that it insulates you against the vagaries of fashion. There aren't any pictures of me in daft trousers or silly hats that can get dragged up when someone wants to make me look a prat."
However, today's ensemble - a natty gaberdine jacket with triple pleted trousers, Italian silk tie, white shirt with razor sharp collar and a dark wool high - buttoning waistcoat - contributes to the over - earnest reputation.
"I look like Little Lord Fauntleroy," he rasps in a cigarette-tainted voice that combines Batley bluntness with Eurotrash drawl and West Coast slang.
So with the manufactured persona of Addicted To Love - the 1986 smash that out-smoothed Miami Vice and changed the face of modern videos - so comprehensively dismantled, we are left with just the music.
And that, it becomes clear, suits Robert Palmer just fine. He has a new single, True Love, out tomorrow and an album of striking Soul-based grooves, Rhythm And Blues, is released next month. It is the work of a man steeped in his art and just how deeply is shown by the way his craggy features light up when he discusses its traditions and history.
"Did you know that Nat King Cole became a singer by accident?" he inquires after Mary prompts him to share what is clearly a favourite story. "He was pianist in a band and the singer got ill just before a TV appearance. All the others said he had to sing because he was the most junior member. He hated it and that's why his arrangements are so special. He puts the piano's voice before his own.
This beguiling blend of gossip and artistic insight is the essence of the man. He lives and breathes music, displayinga breathtaking and decidedly un - English open - mindedness that leads him to the strangest places. "One of my favourite records in years is Brandy's Never Say Never", he says, apparently oblivious to the fact that ageing rockers are not supposed to name - check pubescent popsters. "I look at the American R'n'B charts and, for the first time in years, see artists crossing boundaries but retaining consistency in a way that excites me."
The spectacularly unimaginative title of the new album should not lead listeners to conclude Palmer's bid to muscle in on similar turf. "Do you know what the term means?" he asks. "To some people it's Otis Redding territory, to others it's the Motown sound and now it's Monica and Brandy.
"I looked it up in a music dictionary and it says "an American form with the emphasis on the backbeat" and that's what I love about it. It lets me explore melody and chords in a fairly conventional way but I can do it over African rhythm or whatever I like. I wanted to jettison my trademark shotgun approach. You know, one song was Bossa Nova, the next Heavy Metal, I wanted to do an album which you could put on and leave. I hope I have."
He has, as it happens, but his greatest enthusiasm is reserved for discussing someone else's music. "My son James has just started out," he reveals after a couple of bottles of Pinot Grigio and a brace of post-prandial Scotches have dismantled what remained of his "massive shyness"
Palmer explains, "He's an excellent musician - drums, bass, guitar, the works - but his real strength's writing and whatever happens in this business that is always going to be the most important thing." Following an impromptu rendition of one of Palmer junior's recent compositions, the conversation turns to starrier collaborations and illuninates the steel behind Palmer's affable exterior.
"There won't be any more Power Station stuff", he says of the supergroup he assembled with ex-Chic bassist Bernard Edwards and Duran Duran's Andy Taylor. "Mary's got great empathy with Andy but I think he needs to practise more and, when Bernard died, the group seemed to have run its course."
So the bassist's premature death from acute pneumonia made it hard to recapture motivation? "It wasn't that," he says quicly, "Quite frankly the drummer, Tony Thompson, lacked discipline. Bernard used to keep him in check but I didn't have the time , energy or inclination to do so. He's selling seat-belts in Saudi-Arabia now."
It is this professionalism and impatience with anyone less committed that has kept Palmer at the top of the pop tree since the seventies. His hunger remains and with it comes an appetite for new developments that should see him stay there in the future.
Our encounter ends, however, with talk of different hunger. "You'll never guess what I ate the other night," laughs the man with a reputation for staying as tightly- buttoned as his trademark suits. "I had roast oig and chocolate. It was .......... oooh....wow......amazing."
Clearly a combination every bit as beautiful as the timeless twinning of rhythm and blues.
James O'Brien (The Sunday Express - mars 1999)