Gifted soul singer whose hedonistic image belied his solid musical integrity
One of the most gifted white soul singers of his crowded era, Robert Palmer, who has died of a heart attack aged 54, worked hard at being misunderstood. Album covers presenting glamorous women in various states of arousing déshabillé, and video clips featuring rows of identically clad models, gave the impression of a man more interested in hedonism than musical integrity. In fact, he believed that both were essential elements of a balanced life.
Born in Batley, Yorkshire, and raised in Malta (his father was a naval officer), Palmer had a voice that could be suave and gritty by turns, drawing on his early love of blues and soul music. His 30-year solo career produced a number of hits around the world, most notably Every Kinda People, Best Of Both Worlds, Johnny And Mary, Looking For Clues, Some Guys Have All The Luck and Addicted To Love.
Fond of blending genres (once, unforgettably and perhaps unforgivably, engineering a marriage between heavy metal and bossa nova), he was often just far enough ahead of pop music's evolutionary curve to have missed the big payoff.
Palmer was noted for the care he devoted to the visual presentation of his music. Some fans, particularly those whose tastes were formed in an era that prized authenticity, found this off-putting. Others, however, understood that he aspired to inhabit the space between Sly Stone and Marvin Gaye on the one hand, and Bryan Ferry and David Bowie on the other. Like Ferry and Bowie, he grew up loving the sound and attitude of black music, and wanting to project it with what Rickie Lee Jones later called "white-boy cool".
At 15, Palmer joined his first band, the Mandrakes, with whom he toured Scandinavia. He was still in his mid-teens when he replaced the equally gifted Jess Roden with the Alan Bown Set, who were well established on the busy British club circuit. After making one album with the band, which had changed its name to Alan Bown!, he briefly joined DaDa before teaming up with the singer Elkie Brooks in a new rock band called Vinegar Joe.
Three albums for Island Records and countless gigs established Vinegar Joe's credentials but failed to produce commercial rewards, and, in 1974, they split up. Palmer's potential had been spotted by Chris Blackwell, Island's founder, who launched his solo career by sending him to America to work with a hand-picked group of top musicians.
Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley, Palmer's first solo album, featured members of Little Feat (with whom he toured the US as guest singer) and the Meters on a series of tracks suffused with southern soul. Almost as striking was the cover, the first of several by the photographer Graham Hughes, which pictured a stylishly dressed Palmer fleeing through a tunnel with a model clad in a lacy slip and a string of pearls.
By the time Pressure Drop, Palmer's second album, appeared, the cover girl had removed everything but her high heels. It might have surprised those who derided him as nothing more than a rock'n'roll playboy to witness the glee and pride with which, on returning from Los Angeles with the tapes of the album, he played rough mixes featuring such heroes as the former Motown bass guitarist James Jamerson and the drummer Ed Greene. Jamerson's characteristically inventive lines were in evidence on Palmer's Which Of Us Is The Fool, a wonderfully passionate and infectious record, which mystifyingly failed to become a hit.
For all the attention to appearance and the impression of self-regard, first and foremost Palmer was a music fan who loved the opportunity to work with great musicians. The influence of the Jamaican-born Blackwell could be heard in the use of Caribbean idioms on his first big hits, Every Kind Of People and Best Of Both Worlds, in 1978, but two years later, with Looking For Clues and the strikingly sombre Johnny And Mary, he was demonstrating an ability to absorb the new-wave electronics of Kraftwerk, Devo and Gary Numan. (Johnny And Mary later provided the theme music for a memorable Renault TV advertising campaign.)
In 1984, he joined John Taylor and Andy Taylor, from Duran Duran, and Tony Thompson, Chic's drummer, to form a shortlived super group, the Power Station. Two years later, he returned to his solo career with Addicted To Love, which was promoted with one of the most striking (and, to some feminists, distasteful) videos of the early MTV era. She Makes My Day, a single from his 1988 album Heavy Nova, was another hit.
For much of the 1990s, Palmer seemed becalmed, occasionally arriving - from his home in Lugano - to schmooze the matrons of daytime television while promoting various greatest-hits compilations. Ridin' High, a 1992 album of standards, was an artistic and commercial failure, and in 1996 there was an attempt to revive the Power Station, with an unsuccessful second album.
In any age Robert Palmer would have been a hipster, with a hot line to the coolest sounds, the sharpest threads, the latest pose. It is a hard stance to maintain, and occasionally he wobbled. But his last album, the recently released Drive, showed him enthusiastically returning to his roots with direct and inventive versions of songs by JB Lenoir, Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson, Little Willie John and others - and not a model girl or wardrobe credit in sight.
He is survived by his partner Mary Ambrose, and by James and Jane, the two children from his first marriage, which ended in divorce.
Richard Williams (The Guardian - 27 septembre 2003)