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Robert Palmer

Robert Palmer

One of the great underappreciated singers of the rock era, Robert Palmer sang with such ease that it disguised both his vocal skill and his adventurous tastes. Deeply rooted in soul, he pivoted to a variety of sounds throughout his career, often operating at the vanguard of fashion or perhaps right on the edge of the mainstream. The latter designation suited the albums he made in the mid-'70s, when he played New Orleans funk with the assistance of the Meters, then dabbled with reggae. Palmer's career started to come into focus with the breezy island sounds of "Every Kinda People" gave him his first American hit, while the pounding arena rock of "Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor)" gave him his second. After a sojourn into new wave on Clues, Palmer joined John Taylor and Andy Taylor in their Duran Duran offshoot the Power Station, an allegiance that brought him back to the Top Ten and opened the door for his 1986 blockbuster Riptide and its accompanying smash single, "Addicted to Love." Thanks to his stylish, winking videos -- the besuited singer was backed by a band of supermodels -- Palmer became a superstar on MTV, and he stayed there into the early '90s, when the tastes of the network and the singer diverged. During the last decade of his life, he targeted an older audience while taking the time to push himself into fresh musical territory, whether it was the old-fashioned pop of Ridin' High or the contemporary blues of his final album, Drive.

The son of a civil servant in Britain's Royal Navy, Robert Palmer was born in Batley, West Yorkshire, on January 19, 1949, and largely raised in Malta, where his father was stationed. By the time his family returned to England when he was 12 -- they moved to Scarborough, a seaside resort town on the Yorkshire coast -- he already had developed an interest in music, falling under the spell of Otis Redding in particular. Palmer attended the Scarborough School of Art & Design and attempted to work as a photographer for the Scarborough Evening News, but he felt the pull toward music. At the age of 15, he started playing guitar and singing with a group called the Mandrakes, but his big break arrived when he joined the progressive soul band the Alan Bown Set in 1969. Palmer sang on their single "Gypsy Girl," which was enough of a success to prompt the group to have him record all the vocals on The Alan Bown!, an album they had completed with their previous singer, Jess Roden.

Palmer moved to London and joined the large fusion outfit Dada in 1970, leaving the group with its other singer Elkie Brooks and her husband, Pete Gage, to form Vinegar Joe in 1971. With Palmer and Brooks splitting vocal duties, Vinegar Joe signed to Island Records, where they released three albums -- Vinegar Joe and Rock N Roll Gypsies, both arriving in 1972, with Six Star General following in 1973 -- before splitting. Island retained Palmer as a solo artist, and he headed to New Orleans to record his debut album, Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley, with the city's premier funk band, the Meters, along with Lowell George of Little Feat. The release wasn't a hit -- it did chart at 107 in the U.S. -- but it provided the foundation for a career, earning enough attention for Palmer to record a second album, Pressure Drop. Delivered in 1975, the set added some reggae and lush soft rock to the funk of Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley, while its cover art unveiled what would become Palmer's visual signature: he's dressed stylishly while a sexy model hovers in the background.

Some People Can Do What They Like gave Palmer some momentum in 1977 thanks to a bright, funky version of the calypso standard "Man Smart, Woman Smarter," a sound that led to the Caribbean-influenced 1978 album Double Fun. The record's first single, "Every Kinda People," brought Palmer into the Billboard Top 40, peaking at 16. Instead of capitalizing on its breezy style, he dove into straight-ahead hard rock on 1979's Secrets, the first album of his that he self-produced. A hard-charging version of Moon Martin's "Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor)" gave him another hit, climbing to 14, while his cover of Todd Rundgren's ballad "Can We Still Be Friends?" reached 52.

Palmer took another left turn with 1980's Clues, an album steeped in the synth-heavy textures of new wave that featured contributions by synth pop pioneer Gary Numan and Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz. The record didn't generate big hits in either the U.S. or the U.K., yet the funky, stylized "Looking for Clues" became an early MTV staple and the eerie, atmospheric "Johnny and Mary" became a standard of its era, appearing in commercials and being frequently covered. Palmer continued in this vein on the four new studio tracks added to the 1982 live set Maybe It's Live, most notably on "Some Guys Have All the Luck," which earned him his first big hit in the U.K. Released in 1983, Pride found Palmer continuing in a synthesized new wave direction, but the record didn't match Clues in terms of its commercial profile.

While supporting Pride, Robert Palmer played Duran Duran's July charity concert in Birmingham, England, striking up a friendship with the group's Andy Taylor and John Taylor. When Duran Duran took a hiatus after releasing Seven and the Ragged Tiger, the two Taylors teamed with Chic's drummer Tony Thompson -- Bernard Edwards, Thompson's Chic bandmate, handled production -- to record a backing track for a cover of T. Rex's "Get It On (Bang a Gong)" intended for Bebe Buell. This evolved into the notion of recording an album with a revolving series of lead singers, a rotation that would've included Robert Palmer, but after he cut vocals for "Communication," they decided he should be their permanent singer and the group became the Power Station. Their eponymous album arrived in March 1985, generating Billboard Top Ten hits in "Some Like It Hot" and "Get It On" -- the former reached 14 in the UK, the latter went to 22 -- but Palmer opted to not participate in the group's summer tour, choosing to return to his solo career instead.

Palmer quickly recorded Riptide, an album produced by Bernard Edwards and featuring contributions by Tony Thompson and Andy Taylor, releasing it at the end of the year. Riptide's first single, "Addicted to Love," became a smash hit thanks in part to its instantly iconic video featuring Palmer performing in front of a band consisting of supermodels styled as mannequins. The video saturated MTV, sending "Addicted to Love" to number one on Billboard (it reached five in the U.K.), making Robert Palmer a rock star in the process. He recycled the video's concept for "I Didn't Mean to Turn You On," the other big hit from Riptide, and for "Simply Irresistible," the Grammy-winning number two hit from 1988's Heavy Nova (it won Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male, the same award given to "Addicted to Love" in 1997).

Heavy Nova marked Palmer's first album for EMI -- Island countered its release with the hits collection Addictions, Vol. 1 -- and saw the singer exhibiting some signs of creative restlessness; next to synthesized hard rock sat a version of the Johnny Burke & Jimmy Van Heusen standard "It Could Happen to You," along with hints of Caribbean and Cajun music. The 1991 album Don't Explain found Palmer working with the legendary jazz producer Teo Macero on a set of originals and covers. Among the latter was a Marvin Gaye medley of "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" and "I Want You," which gave him his final American Top 40 hit; it also was a U.K. Top Ten, as was a version of Bob Dylan's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" recorded with UB40.

Robert Palmer reunited with Teo Macero on Ridin' High, a 1992 album where he indulged his obsession with the Great American Songbook. He worked with producer Stephen Hague on Honey, a 1994 album that leaned toward adult contemporary despite a cover of Devo's "Girl U Want." The following year, Palmer participated in a Power Station reunion that turned out to be ill-fated: John Taylor left during the recording of Livin in Fear and his replacement Bernard Edwards died from pneumonia shortly after its release.

Palmer returned to his love of R&B for 1999's aptly titled Rhythm & Blues, thereby setting him on the path that led to 2003's Drive, a record that was dominated by the blues. A few months after its May release, Robert Palmer died of a heart attack in a Parisian hotel room. He was in town recording a television special called My Kinda People. He was 54 years old. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine

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