Robert Allen Palmer (19 January 1949 – 26 September 2003), was an English singer-songwriter and musician. He was known for his distinctive voice and the eclectic mix of musical styles on his albums, combining soul, jazz, rock, pop, reggae and blues. He found success both in his solo career and in the musical act The Power Station, and had Top 10 songs in both the UK and the US.
His iconic music videos by Terence Donovan for the hits "Addicted to Love" and "Simply Irresistible" featured identically dressed dancing women with pale faces, dark eye makeup and bright red lipstick, which resembled the women in the art of Patrick Nagel, an artist popular in the 1980s. Sharp-suited, his involvement in the music industry commenced in the 1960s, covered five decades and included a spell with Vinegar Joe.
Palmer received a number of awards throughout his career, including two Grammy Awards for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, an MTV Video Music Award, and was twice nominated for the Brit Award for Best British Male.
1964–1973: Early bands
Palmer's father was an English naval intelligence officer stationed in Malta. Palmer moved with his family to Scarborough, North Yorkshire in 1959. Influenced as a child by blues, soul and jazz music on American Forces Radio, Robert Palmer joined his first band, The Mandrakes, at the age of 15 while still at Scarborough Boys' High School. His first major break came with the departure of singer Jess Roden from the band The Alan Bown Set in 1969, after which Palmer was invited to London to sing on their single "Gypsy Girl". The vocals for the album The Alan Bown Set!, originally recorded by Roden (and released in the US that way), were re-recorded by Palmer after the success of the single. According to music journalist Paul Lester, Palmer rose from northern clubs in England to become "elegant and sophisticated" and the master of several styles.
In 1970, Palmer joined the 12-piece jazz-rock fusion band Dada, which featured singer Elkie Brooks. The band lasted a year, after which Brooks and Palmer formed the critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful rhythm and blues group, Vinegar Joe; Palmer sang and played rhythm guitar. Signed to the Island Records label, they released three albums: Vinegar Joe (1972), Rock 'n' Roll Gypsies (1972) and Six Star General (1973), before disbanding in March 1974.
1974–1984: Early solo career
Island Records signed Palmer to a solo deal in 1974. His first solo album Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley recorded in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1974, was heavily influenced by the music of Little Feat and the funk fusion of The Meters who acted as backing band along with producer/guitarist Lowell George of Little Feat. Although unsuccessful in the UK, both the album and single reached the Top 100 in the US. Notably, "Sailin' Shoes" (the album's first track), Palmer's own "Hey Julia" and the Allen Toussaint–penned title track carry virtually the same rhythm, and were packaged on the album as a "trilogy" without a pause between them.
Subsequently relocating from London to New York with his wife, Palmer released Pressure Drop, named for the cover version of the reggae hit by Toots & the Maytals, in November 1975 (featuring Motown bassist James Jamerson). An album infused with his interests in reggae and rock music, it was noted for its cover art of a nude girl on a balcony, rather than any commercially successful songs. He toured with Little Feat to promote that album.
However, with the failure of the follow-up Some People Can Do What They Like, Palmer decided to move to Nassau, Bahamas, directly across the street from Compass Point Studios which was owned by Palmer's mentor, Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records.
In 1978, he released Double Fun, a collection of Caribbean-influenced rock, including a cover of "You Really Got Me". The album reached the Top 50 on the US Billboard chart and scored a Top 20 single with the Andy Fraser–penned "Every Kinda People". The song has been covered by other artists including Chaka Demus and Pliers, Randy Crawford and Amy Grant. It reached No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Palmer's next album was an artistic departure, concentrating on pure rock. 1979's Secrets produced his second Top 20 single with Moon Martin's "Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor)". The No. 14 hit also gave Palmer his first Billboard Hot 100-year end chart hit.
The 1980s saw 'Compass Point Star' Palmer find an increasing amount of commercial success. The album Clues, produced by Palmer and featuring Chris Frantz and Gary Numan, generated hits on both sides of the Atlantic, first with the radio-friendly single "Johnny and Mary" and then "Looking for Clues". Catchy music videos matching the synth pop stylings of New Wave gave him much needed exposure to a younger audience. The success was repeated with the 1982 EP release of Some Guys Have All the Luck.
In April 1983 Pride was released, which not as commercially successful as Clues did feature the title song and Palmer's cover of The System's "You Are in My System", with The System's David Frank contributing keyboard tracks to the latter song. On 31 May 1983, Palmer's concert at the Hammersmith Palais, London was recorded and broadcast on BBC Radio 1. On 23 July 1983, Palmer performed at Duran Duran's charity concert at Aston Villa football ground where he struck up friendships with members of Duran Duran which would spawn the supergroup Power Station.
1985–1995: Power Station and MTV success
Duran Duran went on hiatus, and their guitarist Andy Taylor and bassist John Taylor joined former Chic drummer Tony Thompson and Palmer to form Power Station. Their eponymous album, recorded mainly at the New York recording studio for which the band was named, with overdubs and mixing at Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas, reached the Top 20 in the UK and the Top 10 in the US. It spawned two hit singles with "Some Like It Hot" (US #6) and a cover of the T.Rex song "Get It On (Bang a Gong)", which peaked one position higher than the original at US No. 9. Palmer performed live with the band only once that year, on Saturday Night Live. The band toured, and played Live Aid, with singer Michael Des Barres after Palmer bowed out at the last moment to go back into the recording studio to further his solo career.
With Palmer bailing on the tour, some critics referred to it as "unprofessional behaviour". In Number One magazine he hit back at the claims he joined the band for money: "Firstly, I didn't need the money and, secondly the cash wasn't exactly a long time coming. It wasn't exactly an experience that set me up for retirement."
He was also accused of ripping off the Power Station sound for his own records. He snapped: "Listen, I gave The Power Station that sound. They took it from me, not the other way around."
Palmer recorded the album Riptide at Compass Point Studios in 1985, recruiting Thompson and Andy Taylor to play on some tracks plus Power Station record producer Bernard Edwards, who worked with Thompson in Chic, to helm the production. Riptide featured the US No. 1 and UK No. 5 single "Addicted to Love". The single was accompanied by a memorable and much-parodied music video, directed by Terence Donovan, in which Palmer is surrounded by a bevy of near-identically clad, heavily made-up (and appropriately pouty) female "musicians," either mimicking or mocking the painting of Patrick Nagel. In September 1986, Palmer performed "Addicted to Love" at the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards in Los Angeles. In 1987, he won the Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance for "Addicted to Love". At the 1987 Brit Awards, Palmer received his first nomination for Best British Male.
It seems he got the idea for the Addicted to Love video clip from an appearance he made on the Australian television show Countdown. According to the book Glad All Over, film director Ted Emery talks of the time Palmer came into the studio to promote the Doctor Doctor single in 1979:
Another single from Riptide, his cover of Cherrelle's "I Didn't Mean to Turn You On", also performed well (US#2, UK#9). Another song, "Trick Bag," was written by one of his major influences, New Orleans jazz artist Earl King.
Concerned about the rising crime rate in Nassau, Palmer moved to Lugano, Switzerland, in 1987 and set up his own recording studio. Producing Heavy Nova in 1988, Palmer again returned to experimenting, this time with bossa nova rhythms, heavy rock and white-soul balladeering. He repeated his previous success of "Addicted to Love" with the video of "Simply Irresistible", again with a troupe of female "musicians". The song reached No. 2 in the US and was Palmer's final Top Ten hit there. The ballad "She Makes My Day" also proved to be a hit in the UK, peaking at #6. In 1989, he won a second Grammy for "Simply Irresistible", which would later be featured in the Tony Award winning musical Contact. At the 1989 Brit Awards, Palmer received his second nomination for Best British Male, and "Simply Irresistible" was nominated for Best British Single. Rolling Stone magazine voted Palmer the best-dressed rock star for 1990.
Palmer expanded his range even further for his next album, Don't Explain (1990). It featured two UK top 10 hits with covers of Bob Dylan's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" – collaboration with UB40 – and Marvin Gaye's cover "Mercy Mercy Me". Throughout the 1990s, Palmer ventured further into diverse material. The 1992 album Ridin' High was a tribute to the Tin Pan Alley era.
In 1994, Palmer released Honey to mixed reviews. While the album failed to produce any hit singles in the US, he did find success in the UK with the release of three modest hit singles "Girl U Want", "Know by Now" and "You Blow Me Away".
In 1995, Palmer released a greatest hits album, which reached number four in the UK. In 1995 he reunited with other members of The Power Station to record a second album. Bassist John Taylor eventually backed out of the project, to be replaced by Bernard Edwards. Palmer and the rest of the band completed the album Living in Fear (1996), and had just begun touring when Edwards died from pneumonia.
Palmer's favourite author was Jack Vance and he was especially fond of the character Cugel. Jack Vance paid homage to Palmer in his novel Night Lamp, which begins: "Toward the far edge of the Cornu Sector of Ophiuchus, Robert Palmer's Star shone brilliant white, its corona flaring with films of blue, red and green colour."
Robert Palmer was married in 1974 to Shelly Putman. They had three children together, Anthony, Anna and Martin. They divorced in 1978. In 1979, Robert Palmer married Susan Eileen Thatcher. They had two children together, James and Jane. They divorced in 1989. In 1993, Palmer permanently relocated from the Bahamas to a converted mill-house in Lugano, Switzerland after he found that the islands had become overrun with drugs and guns and were no longer safe. Palmer's companion at the time of his death was Geraldine Edwards.
Later life and death
Palmer moved to Lugano, Switzerland, in 1986, and became a naturalised citizen of Switzerland in 1993. He lived there until his death.
A heavy smoker, he died in Paris at the Hôtel Warwick Champs-Elysées, rue de Berri, from a heart attack on 26 September 2003 at the age of 54. He had been in the French capital after recording a television appearance for Yorkshire TV in the UK. He was on holiday with his close friend, Jack Bruce, and conducting publicity appearances for his most recent release Drive prior to his death. Among those who paid tribute were Duran Duran, stating; "He was a very dear friend and a great artist. This is a tragic loss to the British music industry."
He was survived by his parents, Leslie and Anna Palmer, his girlfriend, Geraldine Edwards, his brother, Mark Palmer, and his children, James, Jane, Anthony, Anna and Martin.
In October 2004, newspapers reported on the struggle for Palmer's estate, worth an estimated £30 million, between Mary Ambrose and Palmer's five children. Ambrose, a former girlfriend of Palmer's, claimed Palmer had changed his will to favour her. According to commentators at AbsoluteRadio.co.uk, the courts denied Ms Ambrose's claim as without merit and she was awarded the equivalent of US16,000 per the Court of Appeal of Ticino 19 December 2007 (11.2004.49) in compensation, with the remainder of the estate divided amongst Palmer's five children and UNICEF, to which Palmer donated a large charitable contribution.
On her All The Best compilation album, Palmer's Switzerland neighbour Tina Turner added a live version of "Addicted to Love" in tribute to him.
- 2012 reissues
On 24 January 2012 Culture Factory an independent label reissued Some People Do What They Like, Double Fun, Secrets and Pride in a miniature replica of the original vinyl packaging and with remastered sound. The reissues also had miniature "obi's" and the label on the CD is a replica of the original label. The reissues did not feature any bonus tracks and there were no new liner notes on the making of the albums included as part of the reissue campaign.
With Power Station
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Image from Discogs