Nattily dressed crooner Robert Palmer admits his most interesting work was found on his first three albums cut in the mid-'70s with members of Stuff, the Meters, Little Feat and the British soul-funk outfit Kokomo.
Despite much bigger hits with Addicted To Love, I Didn't Mean To Turn You On and Some Like It Hot, Palmer concedes those early discs - Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley, Pressure Drop and Some People Can Do What They Like - represented a remarkable synthesis of improvised funk grooves, New Orleans R&B and tasty originals like Give Me An Inch, Keep In Touch and Hey Julia.
For many music fans, Palmer never bettered those efforts.
"Here was this white English kid coming to New Orleans and New York to work with bands I had only heard on vinyl," Palmer recalled. "I first knew Stuff (guitarist Cornell Dupree, drummer Bernard Purdie, keyboardist Richard Tee and bassist Gordon Edwards) when they were called The Encyclopedia Of Soul, the seminal New York Rhythm and Blues band. They had been on loads of records and still had that raw edge.
"So, I jumped in the deep end and asked if they would be up for some sessions. They didn't know me from Adam and, at first, they wouldn't even say hello. But eight bars into the first tune, Purdie turned around and said, 'Sir, excuse me, what did you say your name was?' From then on, it was great."
Palmer, a veteran of the London blues-rock band Vinegar Joe, was barely out of his teens when he made the trip to the U.S. to cut his first solo album for Island, Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley. The idea to do the title track, originally recorded by Lee Dorsey, came from the wife of Little Feat guitarist-singer Lowell George.
Much of the material was cooked up on the spot in the studio as Palmer encouraged the expert rhythm players to stretch out while the husky-voiced singer improvised percusive vocals over the top.
"I don't work that way anymore," the good-natured Palmer said during a visit to Los Angeles. "I know better now. But I was trying for that funk-jam feel. The point was to get this groove I always had a feel for. And I got it, even more than I'd even hoped for."
Those three albums were practically a who's-who of Funk and Soul music. Along with members of New York session perennials Stuff, Palmer recruited Kokomo guitarists Neil Hubbard and Jim Mullen, Meters members Ziggy Modeliste (drums), Leo Nocentelli (guitar) and George Porter Jr. (bass), plus Little Feat's Kenny Gradney (bass), Richie Hayward (drums) and the late George (slide guitar and vocals). Barry White collaborator Gene Page laid on silky string arrangements.
"Some of those tunes lasted 12 minutes each," said Palmer, who turns 47 next week. "There was no reason to stop. We were just cueing the sections by numbers, which is how they do it in New Orleans. You know, 'Go to the three section!' You'd just keep going until somebody woke up, basically."
Reaction to Palmer's early albums was strong on the college radio circuit and among critics.
"After my third record, I went back down to New Orleans to do a gig and the Meters were opening for me," Palmer said. "I felt weird about that, but they were cool."
Palmer's commercial breakthrough came in the mid-'80s when he hooked up with Duran Duran heartthrobs John Taylor and Andy Taylor to record a one-off project as the Power Station. A couple of monster chart-toppers resulted - Some Like It Hot and Get It On.
After the Power Station took off, Palmer had top 40 hits with Addicted To Love (which went to No. 1 in 1986), I Didn't Mean To Turn You On, Simply Irresistible, Early In The Morning and You're Amazing.
A new Power Station album is due this year, followed by a world tour. Palmer's last album, Honey in 1994, featured a variety of styles, including Bossa Nova, African rhythms and Hard-Rock numbers driven by metal guitarist Nuno Bettencourt of the band Extreme.
But in conversation, Palmer requires little prompting to return to his experiences two decades ago with the sorely missed brain behind Little Feat, Lowell George.
"Working with him was great because you'd catch onto a grain of an idea and the next time you looked at your watch, it was a day later and you hadn't done anything but gone with that idea," Palmer said. "In the meantime, ideas would just fly back and forth. Suddenly, you'd take a left turn and bang, there'd be a song. It was just music, music, music with him. I don't really find anything wrong with the word 'obsessive.'
"I especially loved the way he played guitar. He had the ability to describe the whole song in a very minimal way. And he had this very surreal sense of humour. He was the real thing."
Tired of increasing crime in the Bahamas, where he'd lived since '76, Palmer moved to Switzerland in the late '80s. He still dresses well.
"I just always felt comfortable in a suit and tie," Palmer said. "It's served me well, because I never got aligned with any fashion trend. I simply believed that if you're going to be in public, dress up."
Fred Shuster (L.A. Daily News - 1996)
A message from the author :
"Thank you for finding and posting my 1996 interview for the L.A. Daily News with Robert in which we mostly talked about his first three solo albums, - which he agreed represented his best work. I loved meeting Robert because I have always loved those albums (...) Anyway, thank you for this terrific resource. Good work!!"
Fred Shuster (2011)