Robert Palmer hovered on the brink of superstardom for more than a dozen years until a spirited rock and roll single, “Addicted to Love,” pushed him to the top in 1986. Since then the handsome and well-groomed Palmer has become a favorite with rock’s maturing audience. In Gentleman’s Quarterly, Greg Collins observes that even though Palmer’s biggest hits are hard-rocking numbers like “Bad Case of Lovin’ You (Doctor, Doctor)” and “Simply Irresistible,” a “more restrained sensibility is what Robert Palmer has to offer rock music…. [He is] not your basic mainstream material.”
Known for his elegant designer suits and his preference for fine food and wines, Palmer is also an experimental musician who has been among the first to experiment with reggae, electronic sound, and international folk music motifs. Still, the singer told People magazine, he is savoring his first real taste of the pop music spotlight. “I’m not somebody who started in a garage six months ago and MTV put me up there,” he said, referring to his decade-long British solo career. “This is much more delicious. It almost feels like I’m getting away with something. It’s all fallen into place perfectly, a nice accident.”
The son of a British naval officer, Palmer moved frequently in his youth, spending time in such exotic locales as Malta, Naples, and Cyprus. He described himself in Gentleman’s Quarterly as a lonely child who “hung out mostly with adults” and who never saw a movie or a television until he was twelve. In Rolling Stone, he claimed that he received his only musical training—in guitar—from a “little old lady who burned a paraffin stove.” Most of his musical influences came from American records, especially the rhythm and blues work of Lena Home and Nat King Cole. At fifteen Palmer joined his first band, providing guitar and vocals, but it was many years before he decided to be a professional musician. In the meantime he studied graphic design and immersed himself in the many exotic forms of music that would someday enter into his songwriting work.
During his early twenties, Palmer drifted through a number of locally renowned British rock groups, including Dada, Vinegar Joe, and the Alan Bown Band. In those days, writes Collins, Palmer would “open for Jimi Hendrix and the Who and whoever else was big and touring England at the time. Palmer, however, did not approve even then of the rock life-style.” Palmer admitted as much. “I loved the music, but the excesses of rock and roll never really appealed to me at all,” he said. “I couldn’t see the point of getting up in front of a lot of people when you weren’t in control of your wits.” Even then Palmer dressed well and performed with a
Born January 19, 1949, in Batley, Yorkshire, England; son of a Royal Navy officer; married ca. 1970, wife’s name Sue; children: James, Jane.
Rock singer-songwriter, 1965—. Has performed solo and with numerous groups in Great Britain and the United States, including the Mandrakes, the Alan Bown Band, Dada, and Vinegar Joe. With John Taylor and Andy Taylor, member of group Power Station, 1985-86.
Signed with Island Records (Great Britain), ca. 1973; had first hit album and single, Sneakin’ Sally through the Alley, 1974. Signed with EMI Records, 1988.
Addresses: Other— 2-A Chelsea Manor, Blood St., London SW3, England.
certain restraint. “I’m not concerned that my stuff isn’t extreme,” he told Rolling Stone. “I don’t want to be heavy. I can’t think of another attitude to have toward an audience than a hopeful and a positive one. And if that includes such unfashionable things as sentimentality, well, I can afford it.”
Palmer signed a solo contract with Island Records, a British company, in the mid-1970s. He then cut a string of albums that were “critically celebrated but commercially lackluster,” to quote Steven Dougherty in People. His 1974 record, Sneakin’ Sally through the Alley, was a modest success, as was his 1978 effort, Every Kinda People. The small Island label gave Palmer great experimental leeway, and, according to Collins, “he taught himself to play different instruments and built an electronically sophisticated home studio. Palmer was into synthesizers before anyone else in the pop field.” David Fricke notes in Rolling Stone, however, that Palmer’s albums cast him “as a lesser white soul brother to Boz Scaggs and Hall and Oates—slick urban R&B in one more three piece suit.”
Palmer had slipped into relative obscurity by 1984, and he was working on a new album when he was contacted by John Taylor and Andy Taylor of the group Duran Duran. They asked Palmer to write and perform a few songs for an ad hoc group called Power Station—a sort of project-between-projects. Everyone involved was surprised when Power Station placed three songs in the American top ten and produced an album that sold better than had any of Palmer’s solo efforts. Palmer was never tempted to make Power Station his permanent band, however. In a brave leap of faith, he went back to work on his solo album, Riptide, releasing it in 1986.
The gamble paid off. Riptide became Palmer’s first number one-selling album, and “Addicted to Love,” with its sexually charged music video, topped the charts for several weeks. Then Palmer decided to challenge his success even further. His next album, Heavy Nova, joined an incongruous variety of influences, from hard rock to 1940s torch songs to a bossa nova instrumental. Heavy Nova was another platinum success, and its best-known single, “Simply Irresistible,” was one of the biggest hits of the summer of 1988.
Having finally tapped into the American market, Palmer signed with EMI Records in 1988 and appeared in a popular Pepsi Cola commercial singing “Simply Irresistible” in 1989. Collins suggests, though, that the limelight may not change Palmer’s desire to experiment, as it has not changed his drug-free, retiring lifestyle. “A baritone who can also sing tenor and falsetto, [Palmer] has incredible range, allowing him to sing in almost any style he chooses,” writes Collins. “He knows full well that his rock and roll does well in America. But then there’s all this new stuff running around in his head that he really likes.” Collins concludes: “But the star machine is revving up. Robert Palmer’s days of quietude may be numbered.”
Sneakin’ Sally through the Alley, Island, 1974.
Pressure Drop, Island, 1975.
Some People Can Do What They Like, Island, 1976.
Double Fun, Island, 1978.
Secrets, Island, 1979.
Pride, Island, 1983.
Riptide, Island, 1986.
Heavy Nova, EMI, 1988.
Gentleman’s Quarterly, July, 1988.
Glamour, July, 1988.
People, June 9, 1986.
Rolling Stone, October 18, 1979; June 5, 1986.
—Anne Janette Johnson
Born Robert Allen Palmer, January 19, 1949, in Batley, Yorkshire, England; died after a heart attack, September 26, 2003, in Paris, France. Singer. British rocker Robert Palmer was firmly entrenched in the vintage American soul style early in his career. He later enjoyed a streak of 1980s hits that owed much of their appeal to the stylized MTV videos that accompanied them. "With his suavely grainy voice and songs like 'Addicted to Love,' 'Bad Case of Loving You' and 'Simply Irresistible,' Mr. Palmer presented himself as a pop Romeo," noted New York Times writer Jon Pareles. "The 1986 video clip for 'Addicted to Love,' which showed Mr. Palmer backed by a band of deadpan models in little black dresses, cemented his image."
Palmer was born in England in 1949 but spent much of his childhood living on the Mediterranean island of Malta, where his father served as an intelligence operative attached to the British Navy. His interest in music was spurred in part by American Forces Network broadcasts, an English–language radio service for United States troops stationed in Europe which featured an intoxicating mix of American soul, R&B, and jazz.
After the family returned to England when Palmer was 12, he began taking guitar lessons and joined his first band, the Mandrakes, three years later. In 1968, he became the singer for the Alan Bown Set, and a year later joined a jazz–rock group called Dada. That band morphed into the unfortunately named Vinegar Joe, which nevertheless enjoyed some minor success as a compelling live act, thanks to Palmer. Yet the singer eschewed the rock lifestyle that brought many of his peers down in the early 1970s. "I loved the music, but the excesses of rock 'n' roll never really appealed to me at all," Los Angeles Times writer Dennis McLellan quoted him as saying. "I couldn't see the point of getting up in front of a lot of people when you weren't in control of your wits."
In 1974, Palmer released his first solo record, Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley, whose Helmut Newton–esque cover photograph of the singer and an attractive female emerging from a tunnel near Heathrow Airport established his image as the alluring, elegantly dressed gentleman rock star. The work was recorded in New Orleans with top musicians, but failed to score any major hits. He did nominally better with his next release, Pressure Drop, a 1976 collection of tracks with distinct reggae overtones. By then Palmer, his wife, and children were living in New York City, but decamped to the Bahamas in 1978. His next effort of that year, Double Fun, yielded his first Top 20 hit in United States with "Every Kinda People," a Caribbean–influenced track that became a staple of easy–listening radio for years.
Palmer returned to the grittier side of rock with 1979's Secrets, and he had another hit with "Bad Case of Lovin' You (Doctor Doctor)," a cover of a Moon Martin song. In the early 1980s, he teamed with Gary Numan to write some songs, but Palmer's records during this era were critical and commercial flops. It was only when he joined the supergroup Power Station in late 1984, whose line–up included John Taylor and Andy Taylor from Duran Duran, that Palmer began to gain transatlantic fame. The group's releases, "Some Like It Hot" and the T. Rex cover "Bang a Gong (Get It On)," were massive hits in 1985, but Palmer had assumed the project was just a lark and was uninterested in touring to capitalize on the unexpected chart success. Instead he went to work on another solo LP titled Riptide, also released in 1985, which gave him a No. 1 hit with "Addicted to Love" and a Grammy Award for best male rock vocal performance.
The video for "Addicted to Love" caused a stir when it first aired on MTV, and remained on the music channel's heavy–rotation list for months. It featured a slickly suited Palmer in front of a passel of nearly identical models, each of whom wore tight black dresses and sported blood–red lipstick. Palmer's "band" nominally played instruments or otherwise detachedly gyrated to the music, and feminists criticized the video as blatantly sexist. It had been shot by a highly regarded fashion photographer, Terence Donovan, who reprised the look in two other videos for Palmer, "I Didn't Mean to Turn You On" and "Simply Irresistible." The latter song earned him his second Grammy Award in 1988.
Palmer went on to release a slew of other solo LPs, but none attained the chart success of Riptide or its successor, Heavy Nova. His last record was the blues–tinged Drive in 2003. By then Palmer, divorced for a number of years, was living in Switzerland with his longtime girlfriend, Mary Ambrose, who was featured on the cover of his 1994 album, Honey. In September of that year, he traveled to England to film a television documentary about his musical career called My Kinda People, and was staying at a Paris hotel with Ambrose when he died of a heart attack on September 26, 2003. Just two weeks earlier, Palmer had undergone a medical checkup and was pronounced in good health. He is survived by Ambrose, his parents, and a son and daughter. Tributes from the many musicians who knew and respected him poured in when news of his death emerged. "He was a fabulous singer," longtime friend Sting told People. "A gentleman. And underrated."
Chicago Tribune, September 27, 2003, sec. 2, p. 10; E! Online, http://www.eonline.com/News/Items/0,1,12576,00.html?tnews (September 29, 2003); Los Angeles Times, September 27, 2003, p. B20; New York Times, September 27, 2003, p. A25; People, October 13, 2003, p. 94; Times (London), http://www.timesonline.co.uk (September 26, 2003); Washington Post, September 27, 2003, p. B7.