Robert Palmer, rock ’n’ roll dandy


ONE of my favourite music videos is Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love, directed by the fashion photographer Terence Donovan.

Palmer is immaculate in white shirt, black trousers, skinny black tie and thousand-dollar gelled hairdo. Backing him as he sings is a bevy of beautiful, blank-eyed, crimson-lipsticked models in little black dresses swaying to the beat but making no attempt to play their instruments convincingly. Thanks to that ironic vignette, which would be viewed today as intolerably sexist, the 1986 single went to No 1 in America and No 5 in the UK, and marked the high point of Palmer’s career as a style icon. Quite a journey for a Yorkshire lad.

Robert Allen Palmer was born in Batley on January 19, 1949, son of a former British naval intelligence officer. Shortly after his birth the family moved to Scarborough. Aged 15, while attending the resort’s High School for Boys, Robert joined his first band, the Mandrakes. After an apprenticeship on the northern clubs circuit, he was invited in 1969 to London where he replaced Jess Roden as singer with the Alan Bown Set.

The following year he joined Dada, a large jazz-rock outfit including singer Elkie Brooks and her husband Pete Gage, who played guitar and keyboards. In 1971 Palmer, Brooks and Gage formed the R & B outfit Vinegar Joe, who were signed by Island Records. It seems likely that label chief Chris Blackwell was interested only in Palmer, whom he had earmarked as a future million-selling heart-throb. However Robert insisted that he and Elkie should share vocal duties. ‘Chris didn’t want to know about me,’ Brooks told Geoff Barton of Classic Rock‘Luckily, Robert stood his ground, saying: “No way, she’s a fantastic singer, she’s great, she’s got to be a part of it”.’

Playing live, Palmer would slide around the stage in designer duds while Elkie stamped her feet and played the raunchy rock chick like a British Janis Joplin. The future singer of solo pop hits such as Lilac Wine told Barton: ‘I underwent a personality change in Vinegar Joe. Deep down I was a shy girl from Manchester, I know that’s hard to believe. Vinegar Joe was the start of me getting less inhibited as a person. Vinegar Joe transformed me into a rock chick. A couple of brandies certainly helped as well.’

As the Vinegars progressed, Palmer’s appearance mutated from long-haired rocker to well-groomed lounge lizard, as these separate performances on the Old Grey Whistle Test show.

The band released three albums, none of which sold a lot. Barton reported: ‘They were an electrifying live act and quickly became a staple of the UK’s then-thriving university circuit. But they struggled to capture their supercharged performance energy on vinyl. “It wasn’t good enough on record, was it?” agrees Brooks. “We did very well on tour, but we just weren’t pushed enough in the studio”.’

In early 1974 Palmer announced he was leaving. Gage pleaded with him to stay but he apparently replied that Chris Blackwell had bought him a house in the Bahamas ‘so I can’t really tell him no; he’d be so upset with me’.

Palmer’s first solo album, Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley, was released in September that year. A big-budget production recorded in Nassau, New Orleans and New York, it was heavily influenced by the music of Little Feat and the Meters, who were among the backing musicians along with the New York Rhythm Section including Cornell Dupree on guitar and Bernard Purdie on drums.

From the opening funky cover of Lowell George’s Sailin’ Shoes, title song of the Feat’s second album, it is clear that Palmer feels comfortable in such stellar company. This segues into Hey Julia (does anyone else think he sings out of tune on this?) and then the excellent Lowell-driven title track. 

For quite a while I assumed Palmer had written this himself thanks to the Yorkshire-sounding line ‘up pops the wife’. In fact it was the work of the legendary Allen Toussaint and the same lyrics pertain on an earlier version, by Lee Dorsey. There is another Toussaint song, From A Whisper to a Scream, but the rest of the material is written by Palmer alone, apart from Blackmail,  co-authored with Lowell George.

The moody Get Outside, with George’s slinky slide guitar, could come from any Feat album, which is praise indeed. George is again greatly in evidence on How Much Fun? So far, so succinct, but then we come to the final track, Through It All There’s You, which rattles on for more than 12 minutes without actually setting the world on fire. Listen out, Steve Winwood fans, for his contribution on piano.

While 1975’s Pressure Drop has plenty of funky moments (how could it not with the whole of Little Feat among the musicians?), it marks the beginning of Palmer’s transition into blue-eyed soulster. Track one, Give Me An Inch, has a strings section, for heaven’s sake. The rousing Work to Make it Work is more like the old stuff but it’s stringtime again for Back In My Arms

Allen Toussaint is revisited for River Boat and then we have the reggae title track, the original of which was recorded by Toots and the Maytals. 

Here With You Tonight, complete with the Muscle Shoals Horns, was co-written by Palmer and Pete Gage during the latter months of Vinegar Joe’s career. Trouble is a jolly cover of another song from Sailin’ Shoes, followed by the excellent Fine Time with the Feat on top form, as are backing singers Vicki Brown and Fran Tate. The final track, Which of Us is the Fool? returns to the soul-with-strings format and was released as a single but failed to chart.

The front cover of Pressure Drop features a besuited Palmer playing with a TV remote control while a naked model on the balcony looks out to sea. The next album, Some People Can Do What They Like, shows him playing strip poker with Denise Michele, Playboy’s Playmate of the Month for April 1976.

After a couple of fairly anodyne tracks, the album gets going with the rollicking Man Smart (Woman Smarter), a calypso attributed to the Trinidadian King Radio among others. When in doubt, raid the Little Feat songbook and Spanish Moon, from Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, is more than satisfactory. As is the Don Covay composition Have Mercy

The drumming is terrific on What Can You Bring Me and then there is a charming Caribbean-flavoured instrumental snippet, Off the Bone, which could almost have come off the great Van Dyke Parks record Discover America. The title track  brings things to a busy conclusion.

Palmer’s 1978 album Double Fun engendered a single, Every Kinda People, which was his first American Top 20 hit. There is also a funk version of the Kinks’ You Really Got Me which verges on sacrilege. His next few LPs experimented with a variety of styles and enjoyed some chart success. Secrets (1979) includes a cover version of Can We Still Be Friends by Todd Rundgren, one of the great pop songwriters. Clues (1980) is notable for the hypnotic Johnny and Mary.  In 1983 Palmer performed at a charity concert alongside Duran Duran and became friendly with several members of the band. The following year DD’s Andy and John Taylor joined Palmer and Tony Thompson of Chic to form a supergroup, The Power Station. They recorded an eponymous album which included an enterprising cover of T Rex’s Get It On, one of three singles taken from it, the others being Some Like It Hot and Communication. The band was booked for Live Aid in 1985 but Palmer pulled out just before the event, saying he wished to further his solo career, and was replaced by Michael Des Barres.

It proved to be a wise move. Riptide, the album he recorded in Nassau that year, included Addicted to Love, which is where we came in. One of the girls in the video, ‘bassist’ Mak Gilchrist, told magazine: ‘I was 21 and got the part on the strength of my modelling book. We were meant to look and act like showroom mannequins. Director Terence Donovan got us tipsy on a bottle of wine.’

The success of the video encouraged Donovan to repeat the formula with Simply Irresistible and I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On, both of which are a hoot.

By now a fully fledged international pop star, Palmer went on to enjoy success well into the 1990s. A heavy smoker, he died of a heart attack in a Paris hotel room aged 54.

The Addicted to Love video remains hugely popular on t’internet and at the time of writing has been viewed on YouTube more than 71million times. The ‘drummer’, Kathy Davies, said she was given the role because ‘the naughty ones always get sent to the back’. She said she did not mind because she had a rear view of Palmer and he had ‘a good bum’. 


2 Replies to “Robert Palmer, rock ’n’ roll dandy”

  1. “Addicted To Love” is brilliant – it’s one of the best singles of the 1980s. The Eighties was the decade when we started to think of pop songs as videos, but even without that famous video, ATL was a classic. I bought the LP on the strength of it, but it wasn’t a very good LP unfortunately!

    Before then, I’d known Robert Palmer for his run of singles at the turn of the 70s/80s. I wasn’t aware of the earlier part of his career, but these singles were great: “Bad Case of Loving You”, “Some Guys Have All The Luck”, “Looking For Clues” and “Johnny and Mary”. Those last two named were very much in the New Wave mode of their time. “Johnny and Mary” and Bill Nelson’s “Furniture Music” could be in a genre of their own.

    I was a fan of Elkie Brooks’s singles from that turn of the 70s/80s time also, and so it was a revelation when I learnt that her and Robert had both been in the same group. Those OGWT clips of Vinegar Joe are fantastic; they show what a great live act they were and why people rave about them, but their 3 LPs are a let-down. If they’d made better records they could have been a British equivalent of the J. Geils Band, the high-octane American R&B rockers of the early 70s.

    Robert’s early death was tragic. In his later years I always thought he looked angry and red-faced; the unhappy appearance of a heavy drinker. I remember him snapping at a (TV) interviewer who had suggested that the success of ATL was mainly due to the scantily clad girls.

    I wonder if Elkie and Robert ever performed together post-Vinegar Joe; did they remain friendly or did they become rivals in their successful solo years? I read Elkie’s autobiog some years ago, which was excellent, but I can’t remember what she said, if anything, on the subject.

  2. Additional useless information: “Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor Doctor)” was a hit at the same time as “Doctor Doctor” by UFO was. Both were great singles but I often confuse one with the other in my memory.

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