Over the course of a nearly 30-year solo career, Robert Palmer explored musical genres as a painter would approach colors, characterizing albums with a variety of styles that could alternate track-to-track from rock to reggae, from soul to samba, blues to big band.
It’s just too bad that’s not how he’s remembered…
In an ITV News interview held a few days after Palmer’s death in September 2003, Seal (another genre-blending British musician) said he was “completely amazed” by Palmer’s “diversity and unique approach to songwriting.”
Today, the majority of music fans are more likely to recall Palmer as the sharp-dressed singer backed by a bevy of expressionless fashion models in his iconic video for “Addicted to Love,” a number-one hit in 1986.
During a time where MTV still showcased music, the video’s cosmopolitan serving of “sex-sells” fed the appetites of new audiences worldwide. The recipe worked so well that Palmer and company would replicate the ingredients in other videos, helping to propel album sales to double-platinum status.
The irony is that the idea for the “Addicted” video was never his. Nevertheless, the invention came to define him. The excessive debonair playboy persona cultivated in those videos would nearly eclipse the legacy of a knowledgeable and skilled artist.
In his memoir Remain in Love, Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz fondly recalls his wife (and co-member), Tina Weymouth, and him spending time with Palmer while living and recording in the Bahamas in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
“Robert was a true scholar of music history and… was also very well informed about the latest musical happenings in the UK, Europe, and around the world and introduced us to many artists that we did not know about.
“He had spent a good part of his youth living on the island of Malta, where he listened to North African radio, so he had a strong love of African music, too.”
Frantz played drums on “Looking for Clues,” the bouncy opening cut of Clues, Palmer’s most financially successful solo record before the days of “Addicted.”
Curious listeners looking for evidence of Palmer jumping deftly from one genre to the next, can find it on Clues. The album’s songs swing effortlessly from synth-pop (“Looking for Clues” and “What Do You Care”) to gritty rock (“Sulky Girl” and “Not A Second Time”) to new wave (“Johnny and Mary” and “I Dream of Wires”). Then there’s the riskier bits of color blending, like the Arabic-influenced synth-funk on “Found You Now” and the poly-rhythmic island lullaby, “Woke Up Laughing.”
Palmer performed this kind of style-hopping on many of his records. His early albums cooked up Southern-fried funk, then added Caribbean flavors when he began recording at Compass Point Studios in Nassau (where he met Frantz and Weymouth). He’d go on to explore elements of African highlife, juju and Afrobeat, then venture deeply into Latin American styles of bossa nova, salsa, choro, and carioca.
After lukewarm success with a few British bands, Palmer started his solo career in 1974 in New Orleans, a town that, of course, is also well-known for offering a rich gumbo of spicy and sophisticated musical styles.
It was there, at Allen Toussiant’s Sea-Saint Studios, that Palmer, backed by The Meters and Little Feat’s Lowell George, recorded the title track for his now-classic debut album, Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley.
Although Lee Dorsey originally released the Toussaint ditty three year earlier, it was Palmer’s ‘70s-funk rendition that would become more closely followed in the years to come by the likes of Sister Sledge, Ringo Star, Phish and a countless number of jam bands across the country.
Palmer was a complete unknown in the U.S. when he came here to record Sneakin’ Sally. In 1996, he recounted to the L.A. Daily News his first encounter with legendary drummer Bernard Purdie during an album session.
“Here was this white English kid coming to New Orleans and New York to work with bands I had only heard on vinyl,” Palmer said. “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?’”
The name, obviously, is Robert Palmer. But the question revolving around his identity still lingers. In our collective memories, something vital remains obscured behind the fine Italian-tailored suit and silk tie.
Somewhere, lost amid the vacant faces of the female models hired to perform almost as props, was an adventurous musician focused on new ways to approach traditional sounds from half the globe over.
Thankfully, for those who want to search, his efforts can still be heard today.
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