Born January 19, 1949, in Batley, Yorkshire, England; son of a Royal Navy officer; married ca. 1970, wife's name Sue; children: James, Jane. Addresses: Other-- 2-A Chelsea Manor, Blood St., London SW3, England.
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 Horne 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 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 life-style. "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."
by Anne Janette Johnson
Robert Palmer's Career
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.
- Selective Works
- 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.
September 26, 2003: Palmer died on September 26, 2003, in Paris, France, from a heart attack. He was 54. Source: CNN.com, www.cnn.com, September 26, 2003; New York Times, September 27, 2003, p. A25.
- Gentleman's Quarterly, July, 1988.
- Glamour, July, 1988.
- People, June 9, 1986.
- Rolling Stone, October 18, 1979; June 5, 1986.