ROBERT PALMER – More Than Meets The Eye

“In interviews I hardly ever get asked about music. I do, however, get asked about the ‘Addicted to Love’ video and my suits on a daily basis”

  • Robert Palmer

Say the name Robert Palmer and it immediately sparks a mental picture and associated comments re: Palmer’s MTV defining video of his biggest hit, “Addicted To Love”. The video shows a relaxed Palmer nonchalantly singing the song while fronting a “band” of beautiful models in tight black dresses. While certainly a captivating image, and, what would be, for most artists, a crucial moment; for Palmer it proved to be a temporary stop, at a point in time, in his musical journey.

To fully understand, one has to accept the fact that Robert Palmer was the antithesis of a Rock star. That statement takes into account his interesting background, his reluctance to get caught up in the trappings of the Rock lifestyle, and, perhaps most importantly, his desire / willingness to grow and experiment with his musical choices in the face of a record buying public that doesn’t readily accept change.

Robert Allen Palmer, (1949 – 2003), was born in Batley, West Yorkshire England, and moved with his family when he was 3 months old to various locales as dictated by his father’s work as a British intelligence officer. That being the case, Palmer spent most his childhood years in Malta, Gibraltar, and Cyprus which provided him with more of a global view of matters. During this time Palmer claimed that he had never seen a movie or watched TV. Instead he spent his days “at the beach”, admitted to being a lonely child with few friends, and one whose time was primarily in the company of adults. Palmer also recalled his love of music being cultivated via his parents’ record collection, and nights spent falling asleep to the radio listening to the likes of Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, and Billie Holiday on American Forces Network. (Some years later, Robert would make his initial music purchase, the 1965 release, The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads. The album would serve as a foreshadowing of things to come while heavily influencing his singing style). 

The family returned to the England in 1961, when Robert was 12 years old, settling in the resort town of Scarborough, on England’s North Sea coast. At that time young Robert was interested in many forms of exotic music that no doubt was influenced by his family’s various residences. Although music was a passion that led to Palmer singing with his first band The Mandrakes; he wasn’t convinced that music was, in fact, his true calling. That being the case, Palmer studied graphic design while pondering his future. It wasn’t long, however, after his move to London, that Palmer joined a 12 piece Jazz / Rock Fusion Band, Dada, that included singer Elke Brooks. Dada morphed into Vinegar Joe – a Rock / Blues outfit that found Robert playing rhythm guitar and sharing vocals with Brooks. Although the band built a reputation as an electrifying live act on the UK concert circuit, they couldn’t get any traction on their 3 albums, and disbanded in 1974, tired of the grind of the road.

That same year, Island Records, a British–Jamaican label founded by Chris Blackwell signed Palmer to a solo deal sensing that the eclectic Palmer would fit well with their varied roster that included Bob Marley & The Wailers and Toots & The Maytals. Over the course of his nine releases on the label, Palmer would prove to be a soulful singer with an amazing range and great taste. And, coupled with his dapper looks, a readymade persona.

The label would reap immediate benefits with Palmer releasing his outstanding debut, the New Orleans R&B soaked Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley. Backed primarily by The Meters and Little Feat’s Lowell George, Palmer proved himself to be a worthy torch bearer of cool and committed Blue-Eyed Soul at its finest. The album kicks off with a three song medley stringing together George’s “Sailing Shoes”, Palmer’s own “Hey Julia” and Allen Toussaint’s title song that sets the tone for one of the year’s best releases.

Using a similar “Sally” template as a base, his next release, 1975’s Pressure Drop, is cited by many, (this writer included), as Robert Palmer’s high water mark. Backed by Little Feat, (minus Lowell George), and the Muscle Shoals Horns, Palmer navigates through nine interrelated entries. Bookended by the gorgeous opener “Give Me An Inch” and the Sam Cooke inspired closer “Which Of Us Is The Fool”, the set proves that Palmer is rivalled only by Boz Scaggs in composed sophistication. But don’t be fooled; Palmer can get hot and steamy in a heartbeat. For proof just listen to Palmer’s “Fine Time” or the title cut, (a Toots & The Maytals’ cover that demonstrates Palmer’s affinity for Reggae).

The “Drop” follow-up, Some People Can Do What They Like, while not hitting the heights of either “Sally” or “Drop”, is a worthy descendant of “Drop” and forms the last part of a trilogy served up as a collection of Robert Palmer’s finest recordings. Maintaining the stylish sheen of “Drop” it counters by favouring a more of a stripped down approach on what can be rightly positioned as Palmer’s Funk album. He’s in fine voice throughout on a number of memorable musical moments. The album starts out with a mournful lost love appeal – “One Last Look”, a stylistic partner to “Give Me An Inch” written by Little Feat’s Billy Payne and his ex-wife Fran Tate – before getting to the business at hand. The business of Funk. Of note are Little Feat’s “Spanish Moon” that, riding on a heavy bottom end, Palmer slows down to a strut; the slippery syncopation of Charles Wright & The 103rd Street Band’s “What Can You Bring Me”; and the frenetic heavily James Brown influenced title cut. “Some People” also displays, for the first time, Robert’s affection for rolling island rhythms by injecting the same into a cover off Don Covay’s “Have Mercy” and bringing Calypso into full view on Harry Belafonte’s “Man Smart (Woman Smarter)”.

To provide clarity, the success of Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley / Pressure Drop / Some People Can Do What They Like was more of an artistic achievement than a revenue generating endeavour. Despite heavy FM play, these works didn’t raise Palmer much above cult status resulting in paydays that were likely acceptable at best. Unfortunately, subsequent releases failed to capitalize on the artistic promise of the so-called “trilogy”, primarily due to the Palmer’s wandering musical tastes. That is, every one of Palmer’s releases had something to recommend them but the various albums couldn’t be pigeonholed for a music buying public that demands such categorization. He still revisited the accepted R&B style that found favour going forward but there wasn’t enough to entice significant purchases resulting in a number of commercial failures.

All was not lost at this juncture in that, to his credit, Palmer was consistently a great live performer; sure to sell out wherever he played. He always surrounded himself with top flight talent that was well rehearsed. Much like one of his idols, Otis Redding, Palmer was known to be a task master who was a stickler for tempo. And, of course, adding to the cause was that Palmer was always in good voice, (the quality of which he attributed to chain smoking Dunhills and his fondness for single malt scotch).

The next significant album – once again not notable for marketable success but rather for a sudden change in direction – was the 1980 album Looking For Clues. The release has withstood the test of time, and, in retrospect, has its admirers lauding the release for the forward thinking venture into Technopop. But, at the time, such an unforeseen left turn was puzzling and surely looked like commercial suicide. In fact, in an interview with Toronto’s CITY TV’s “New Music”, Palmer was asked quite bluntly how he could turn his back on a successful formula to abruptly enter the New Wave / Techno arena. (Palmer had even shed his tailored suits for a chopped white sweatshirt bearing a UPC, track pants, and high top shoes in the accompanying videos and supporting tours). Palmer’s response was just as blunt. He remarked that he didn’t want to be typecast as “an R&B saviour”, and that he had varied musical interests which, as an evolving artist, he should be allowed the freedom to explore. He also said that he saw the move as creative growth and hoped that his fans accepted it as such, and would be willing to follow him. And, in saying that, the album does contain some outstanding tracks such as the churning title cut, “Johnny And Mary” that brings Palmer’s considerable songwriting talents to the fore, and a striking remake of the Beatles’ “Not A Second Time”.

More releases followed that once again failed to move the needle before Robert decided to be part of a side project with his friends John and Andy Taylor of Duran Duran. The band, The Power Station, maintained some Duran Duran like slickness, and added a crunching hard rock guitar sound rounded out with a pronounced bottom end. Palmer’s commanding vocals rode on top, and while matching the collective’s drive, added a dollop of soulfulness. (It should be taken into account that a hard edged Rock sound wasn’t foreign turf for Palmer. He had shown Rock tendencies in the past as evidenced by recordings like “You’re Gonna Get What’s Coming” from 1978’s Double Fun and Palmer’s first hit single, Moon Martin’s “Bad Case Of Loving You” from 1979’s Secrets). The resultant release was a hit, producing 3 Top Ten singles including “Some Like It Hot” and a cover of T-Rex’s “Get It On (Bang A Gong)”. (Incidentally, of “Get It On,” Palmer said that when he read the lyric sheet he thought the song was ridiculous, and that the only way that he could pull it off was to “camp it up”). Palmer balked at touring with the band because he didn’t want to go on the road with a line-up of just 8 songs. That, and coupled with the fact that he was currently working on his next album.

That next album was Riptide which went to the top of the charts for several weeks on the strength of the (in)famous “Addicted To Love”. While overshadowed by “Addicted To Love”, in all fairness, Palmer should be given some credit for other very good songs that are included in the set like “Hyperactive”, a refined version of Earl King’s “Trick Bag”, “I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On”, and “Discipline Of Love”.

In the context of a lot of the music of the day, “Addicted To Love”, (that earned Palmer his first Grammy), doesn’t need to be defended. But it has its’ detractors based almost solely on a video of what’s viewed as a mindless sexist power chord vamp. What’s lost is that its’ appeal lies in its’ very ZZ Top like simplicity. Further, I’m sure the song would be viewed quite differently had it been released as it was initially intended. The song was originally recorded as a duet with Chaka Khan, (who Palmer credited with the vocal arrangement). However, at the last minute, Khan’s management had Khan’s vocal track erased because they felt that the song would detract from the three singles she had out at the same time. (And, of course, any accompanying video including Chaka is left to speculation).

Palmer had finally broken through to the mainstream so it was an obvious decision to capitalize on his new found fame by repeating the formula with his next single “Simply Irresistible”. Complete with the complementary video of Palmer at the mic surrounded by gyrating models, “Simply Irresistible” would hit and garner Palmer a second Grammy. But the album it was drawn from, Heavy Nova, unfortunately didn’t follow suit. The juxtapositioning of heavy Rock with romantic standards, (e.g. Palmer covers Peggy Lee’s “It Could Happen To You”), led to buyer confusion and resistance.

Given the state of the industry, and the ephemeral nature of record buyers, Robert Palmer had an opportunity to grab the brass ring but had lost consumer trust by failing to stay with the winning formula established with “Addicted To Love” and “Simply Irresistible”. This skepticism would make it even harder, given Palmer’s continued “moving target” approach, to make any headway with future releases.

True to form those upcoming albums would contain diverse offerings of Adult Contemporary, R&B, World Beat, and Blues, (sometimes all on the same record). Lost in the confusion was Palmer’s last offering, 2003’s Drive, that was given short shrift because of the preceding demonstration of a seeming lack of direction, and the fact that it’s a fairly straight ahead Blues record. Unfortunately, Blues is a hard sell; and, in this instance, more so when coupled with the credibility factor of the suave Robert Palmer doing a Blues album.

It’s rather unfortunate because Drive is a really good record. The stylized insert photo portrays Palmer holding a cigarette, and the gutbucket vocals on the disc give the distinct impression that he smoked a carton of them before going into the studio. Like nothing Palmer has ever done before, the production values are akin to a vintage Blues recording with standard Blues instrumentation complete with harp. The result is a rendering of 10 credible Blues / R&B covers. (There are 12 cuts but Palmer couldn’t help himself; he had to include other genres: Adult Contemporary – “Dr. Zhivago’s Train” – and World Beat – “Stella”). The album opens with a rocking rendition of J.B. Lenoir’s “Mama Talk To Your Daughter”; and other highlights include Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog”, Bobby Bland’s “Who’s Fooling Who”,  and Little Willie John’s “I Need Your Love So Bad”.

Throughout Robert Palmer’s career, he remained a very private person. The thrice married Palmer obviously had a love for women as evidenced by his album covers and videos, but there were no salacious rumours or sordid tales that made the tabloids. The Rock star life held little appeal, and there were no stories of an ill-behaved Palmer heaving TV’s out hotel windows. As he said in interviews, he avoided unwanted scrutiny by always working on the next musical project; (Palmer proved to be proficient on a number of instruments over the years and he prided himself in having built a state of the art home recording studio).

One aspect of the star making machinery that Palmer always paid close attention to was promotion. He welcomed going on promotional junkets (“it’s part of the job”), and was always gracious and accommodating in all of his dealings with the press. It’s stuff of legend that, in the 80’s, Palmer would show up for a round of interviews with a pack of Dunhills and a bottle of single malt that he would steadily work his way through in the course of the exchanges.

Palmer moved to Lugano Switzerland in the 90’s and lived there till his untimely death. He and his partner Mary Ambrose were vacationing in Paris when Palmer died suddenly after suffering a massive heart attack on September 26, 2003. He was 54.

Despite his time in the spotlight Robert Palmer was never really appreciated. With everything he brought to the table, Robert Palmer was truly a cut above.


  1. Sailin’ Shoes
  2. Hey Julia
  3. Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley
  4. Give Me An Inch
  5. Pressure Drop
  6. Fine Time
  7. Which Of Us Is The Fool
  8. One Last Look
  9. Spanish Moon
  10. What Can You Bring Me
  11. Some People Can Do What They Like
  12. Every Kinda People
  13. You’re Gonna Get What’s Coming
  14. Bad Case Of Loving You
  15. Looking For Clues
  16. Johnny And Mary
  17. Some Guys Have All The Luck
  18. Addicted To Love
  19. I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On
  20. Simply Irresistible
  • Rico Ferrara, October 2021


“Dinah Washington just about invented Gospel based soulful singing”

  • Quincy Jones

Dinah Washington has proven to be the most influential singer of her generation. A case can be made that she even eclipsed her idol, Billie Holiday, in that regard. She has inspired a great number of Jazz and R&B singers, but none more so than Esther Phillips and Nancy Wilson. (For instance, listen to Nancy Wilson’s “How Glad I Am” or just about anything by Esther Phillips for that matter). Known for a pitch perfect and distinctive vocal style with unqualified diction, Washington’s roots were in the Baptist Church.

It was early on after the family moved to Chicago from her birth home of Tuscaloosa Alabama that her mother discovered that four year old Dinah, (born Ruth Lee Jones on August 29, 1924), had a highly developed musical ear. Dinah’s mother, who worked as a domestic, played piano and served as a vocal coach at St. Luke The Baptist local church. Sensing her daughter’s God given ability, she encouraged her to bring her talents to the fore. Starting to play piano in elementary school, it wasn’t long before Dinah was rehearsing her mother’s choir and later singing lead as a teenager.

At 15, with her mother’s blessing, she got her first professional gig singing with a well-known local Gospel ensemble, The Sallie Martin Singers. Once again, Dinah quickly assumed the role of lead singer of the group. But all was not right in Washington’s world in that her heart was elsewhere. Heavily influenced by Billie Holiday’s 1930 recordings, and rationalizing that Sister Rosetta Tharpe was mixing Blues and Gospel – after winning a talent contest at The Regal Theatre – Dinah started moonlighting as a Blues / Cabaret singer. Washington did so without her mother’s knowledge because she knew that she never would have received her consent.

Dinah stayed with Sallie Martin for two years, and at 17, decided to take a stand and follow her first mind – that of entering the secular music field with no looking back. What should be taken into consideration is that although it was a personal artistic decision, financial considerations no doubt played a role. To explain, when the family moved from Tuscaloosa, they did so not only to escape the overt racism of the South but also to hopefully benefit from a more prosperous life. But growing up in Chicago’s South Side proved to hold no better living conditions than those in Alabama. (Washington would mention more than once the roach infested apartment that they inhabited upon their move to the Windy City). The abject poverty would have a lasting effect on Washington and be one of the reasons that she would later overcompensate, as her star brightened, by rewarding herself with unrestrained purchases. (Friends and family would also benefit in that she would shower them with lavish gifts as well).

By the time Dinah had committed herself to her new career, she was already a seasoned entertainer. It wasn’t long before she established herself gaining popularity at all of the high profile Chicago night spots be it The Down Beat Club, The Rhumboogie, or The Garrick Stage Bar. Dinah moved quickly from a gifted Gospel singer to one displaying a mastery of Blues, R&B, Jazz, Pop, and anything in between. During her residency at The Garrick she was introduced to Lionel Hampton who happened to be looking for a female singer. Hampton’s first impressions proved to be right on the mark: “She had that gutty style that they would call R&B. I invited her to sing at The Regal Theatre the next day…she walked out on the stage liked she owned it”.

Ruth Jones was now Dinah Washington, (there’s much conjecture as to how she came to be called DW), and although her three year stay with Hampton was an important career building block, Dinah recognized it correctly as a stepping stone. Dinah wasn’t pleased that she was excluded from Hampton’s Decca recordings. Coupled with that, Dinah was only allowed to sing 2 or 3 numbers a night when she knew she was the star of the show. (That was borne out by Hampton himself: “Dinah alone could stop the show… I had to put her down next to closing because nobody could follow her. She had a background in Gospel, and she put something new into the popular songs I had her sing”). Therein was another problem as Dinah saw it. That is, none of the songs were Blues which Dinah was sure was where trends were leading and a genre that Dinah was convinced would pay her more than the $75 a week she was making with Hampton.

Dinah stayed with Hampton for 3 years (1943 -1946). While still performing as Hampton’s featured vocalist, Dinah stepped outside to cut some sides on the Keynote label under the supervision of renowned Jazz pianist, composer, producer, and music journalist Leonard Feather. In 1943 the 19 year old Washington cut the Feather composition and Top Ten hit “Evil Gal Blues”. The recording made quite an impression on Feather who said: “After the first take of ‘Evil Gal Blues’ I was convinced that something of lasting value was happening”. He went on to say that “Evil Gal” was arguably the most impressive debut record by a female singer since Bessie Smith’s “Downhearted Blues” in 1923. High praise indeed from someone who was certainly in the know.

The same session yielded another Top Ten hit, (once again written by Feather), “Salty Papa Blues”. Dinah did record as a featured singer on a Hampton release for Decca in a second session with Feather that produced “Blow Top Blues”. However, the Hampton / Feather co-write, that hit # 21 on the charts was released in 1947, a year after Dinah left Hampton. And, while still in Hampton’s employ she recorded 12 sides for the Apollo label in 1945, but the official launch of Dinah’s solo career wasn’t until 1946 when she signed with Mercury Records.  

Washington was on Mercury Records for a highly successful run from 1946 through 1961 recording 444 sides for the label. She would also record with Roulette, but it was during her Mercury years that Dinah – the label’s top selling artist with more than 30 hits – rose to stardom while being well rewarded financially for her efforts. (As an example, in 1949 a 25 year old Dinah was making over $100,000 annually – more than 1.1 million dollars in today’s money).

Still, Dinah’s relationship with Mercury was a stormy one. She was never satisfied, finding fault with the label on a number of fronts including how Mercury was promoting her as “Queen Of The Blues”. Her complaint was not only that Bessie Smith already had the title, but also that it was limiting because as Dinah said “I can sing anything”. And she could, as evidenced by her many hits crossing all genre boundaries.

Although she had numerous hits, Dinah’s probably best remembered for the three recordings inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame for their qualitative and historical significance:
“What A Difference A Day Makes” – a # 8 hit in 1959 that earned Dinah a Grammy, was inducted in 1998
“Teach Me Tonight” – a 1954 recording inducted in 1999
“Unforgettable” – a 1959 recording inducted in 2001

In addition, Dinah is also known for a couple of double entendre numbers that fall into the “Dirty Blues” category and display her playful, bold, sassy side: “Long John Blues” and “Big Long Sliding Thing”. “Long John” is a song about her dentist: “He took out his trusty drill / Told me to open wide / He said he wouldn’t hurt me/ But filled my whole inside”. Like “Long John”, “Sliding Thing”, (supposedly about a trombonist), leaves little to the imagination.

On a more serious note, among her albums, her 1954 release Dinah Jams merits essential listening. Recorded live before a studio audience, the date intersperses vocals and hot instrumentals with Dinah holding her own with Jazz heavyweights including Clifford Brown, Clarke Terry, and Max Roach. Dinah contributes moving, impeccable renditions of “Lover Come Back To Me”, “Come Rain Or Come Shine”, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, and “You Go To My Head”. Not only is the recording a display of her immense vocal artistry it does so in a setting that matches her with peerless musicians that challenge her and push her to inspired heights.

Dinah also cemented her reputation with outstanding live performances. Among her high profile achievements were headlining appearances at The Newport Jazz Festival from1955 to 1959. (In particular, her 1958 appearance singing “All Of Me” is a highlight of the classic film Jazz On A Summer’s Day). And, Dinah also appeared frequently at historic Jazz venues such as Birdland and The Village Vanguard.

Dinah’s other prevalent qualities were less flattering. Namely, her tempestuous temper that, when combined with her inordinate consumption of alcohol – she loved fine brandy – made for a devastating combination. And, making matters worse, anyone in the vicinity of the target of her wrath was collateral damage, and suffered her scorn as well.

No one was safe from her disdain be they record executives, backing musicians, fans, or fellow artists. Etta James tells a story of playing in a small club, and upon hearing that Washington was in town and planning on catching her midnight show, decided to perform “Unforgettable” in her honour. Etta said: “I didn’t even get to the chorus when I heard this earth shattering crash. Dinah got up off her chair, swept all the glasses and plates off her table, and pointed at me screaming ‘Bitch, don’t you ever sing the Queen’s song when the Queen is right in front of you’”.

Such tantrums and scenes of arrogance were commonplace for Dinah. It was said that she had an outsized ego and a temperament that could move from angelic to demonic and back in a flash. It all stemmed from a deep rooted insecurity that took her to extreme depths of self-doubt. Her personal life was in constant turmoil, falling in and out of love on a continual basis, in search of devoted acceptance from a true soul mate. Depending on the source, Dinah had 7 or 8 or 9 marriages, and numerous affairs on the side. (Dinah was famous for saying of marriage: “If you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, get a new dog”).

Adding to her insecurities, Dinah – who was a short and stocky in stature – was excessively concerned with her looks. She battled weight problems, was always going on crash diets, and turned to prescription medications – mostly for weight loss and insomnia – that would prove to be her downfall. Also playing a role in her uncertainty was that Dinah never forgot her once impoverished life. She raced through life buying shoes, furs, cars, and anything else to simultaneously make her forget her humble beginnings and lift her spirits.

On the morning of December 14, 1963, Dinah’s last husband, Dick “Night Train” Lane, couldn’t wake her from what he initially thought was a deep sleep. The subsequent medical examiner’s report stated an excess of barbiturates in her blood – more than twice the dosage of two different sedatives. It was thought that Dinah took them by mistake because they were not properly identified. Dinah Washington, “Miss D”, “Queen of The Blues” was dead at the relatively young age of 39.

Dinah Washington was truly one of the most beloved and controversial singers of the 20th century. In addition to Washington’s many artistic accomplishments, she paved the way for African Americans in commercial Pop music and was the first Black woman to star in Las Vegas. Gone but hardly forgotten, among many other acknowledgments, Dinah Washington was inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1993.


  1. Evil Gal Blues
  2. Salty Papa Blues
  3. Blow Top Blues
  4. A Slick Chick (On A Mellow Side)
  5. Ain’t Misbehavin’
  6. Long John Blues
  7. Big Long Slidin’ Thing
  8. Baby Get Lost
  9. Am I Asking Too Much
  10. I Wanna Be Loved
  11. Trouble In Mind
  12. Lover Come Back To Me
  13. Come Rain Or Come Shine
  14. I’ve Got You Under My Skin
  15. You Go To My Head
  16. Mad About The Boy
  17. Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby
  18. Teach Me Tonight
  19. All Of Me
  20. What A Difference A Day Makes
  21. Unforgettable
  22. This Bitter Earth
  23. Cry Me A River
  24. After You’ve Gone
  25.  Me And My Gin
  26. Send Me To The ‘Lectric Chair
  • Rico Ferrara, October 2021