Excuse me while I become spontaneously obsessed with the music of Robert Palmer. I’d never forayed much into his back catalog. I knew all the songs everyone knows: “Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor),” “I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On,” “Simply Irresistible,” and of course “Addicted To Love.” I’m well familiar with his Power Station days with Roger and Andy Taylor of Duran Duran and Tony Thompson of Chic. I knew about his covers of Allen Toussaint’s “Sneaking Sally Though the Alley” and Little Feat’s “Sailing Shoes” from his ’74 debut album. But I’d never spent any time sitting down and listening to his albums.
Well, that all changed last week when I was surfing through the archives of Rolling Stone magazine (if you’re a subscriber, definitely check it out). I was leafing through September 25th, 1975 article about his then-upcoming second album, Pressure Drop. It mentioned how half was recorded in Baltimore with Little Feat as the backing band, and the other half in Los Angeles with a couple of Little Feat members and a Motown session legend on bass, “Funk Brother” James Jamerson.
Then I started clicking around his discography during those early years, and I noticed the names of some of his collaborators: names like Lowell George, Allen Toussaint, the Meters (his backing band on his debut album), Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Gary Numan, Andy Fraser (of Free), and Chris Frantz (Talking Heads).
So as I’ve sat and listened to these first several Palmer albums, I’ve been floored by the soulful, laid back, funky R&B vibe that permeates them. Of course, with Lowell George as produce of the first record, and Little Feat backing him on Pressure Drop, some tunes are right out of the classic Little Feat playbook (“Here With You Tonight,” for one). But there’s elements of reggae, rock, soul – a nice healthy mixture of different styles.
Palmer broke out commercially in 1979 with “Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor), ” from his 5th album Secrets. But it’s those first four albums I’ve been spending time with over the last week. Here are some of my favorites from his first funky four:
“Sailin’ Shoes”, “Hey Julia,” “Sneakin’ Sally through the Alley” (Album 1: Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley – 1974)
The first three tunes from Palmer’s debut album work together as a trilogy – the groove seamlessly flowing from one song to the next. As brilliant of an opening trio as it is for Palmer, it really speaks to the genius of the Meters, who were at the top of their game at this point. With Art Neville on keys, George Porter, Jr. on bass, Leo Nocentelli on guitar, and Joseph Modeliste on drums, the funk smokes through this first nine plus minutes of Robert Palmer’s solo career.
“Fine Time” (Album 2: Pressure Drop– 1975)
Palmer really lets it rip with his vocals, soulfully shrieking into the higher registers. He gets raw with it while Little Feat lays down one of their signature grooves.
“Man Smart (Woman Smarter)” (Album 3: Some People Can Do What They Like– 1976)
Palmer didn’t shy away from covering tunes (his breakout hit “Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor)” was a cover, after all), and his third record brought about a great cover of “Man Smart (Woman Smarter)”, which has been performed by the likes of Harry Belafonte and the Grateful Dead (a live staple of theirs from 1981 onward, and how I first heard the tune). Once again, there’s a Little Feat connection, with the melodic flourishes of piano man Bill Payne on full display.
“Every Kinda People” (Album 4: Double Fun– 1978)
Palmer self-produced his fourth record, which kicks off with “Every Kinda People,” written by Free’s Andy Fraser. It’s got a “What’s Going On?”-era Marvin Gaye vibe to it – smooth and easygoing, a steel drum accentuating the chorus.
Unity, harmony, love for one another… It seems like such a simple concept to most of us, doesn’t it?
So I’m off to listen to more of these new/old treats. That’s the wonder of music – there’s always new avenues to explore, new and old, wherever you turn. We lost Robert Palmer all the way back in 2003, but his music lives on.