Simply Irresistible: The life and times of Robert Palmer

Suave and sophisticated, Robert Palmer is known as much for his well-tailored image and stylish videos as he is for his songs. I’ve admired his music ever since he released his first solo album back in 1974 and followed his career which spanned fourteen solo records, plus various greatest hits compilations, live albums and his supergroup project with members of Duran Duran.

I also got to see Robert Palmer live, once at the beginning of his career when he was singing with Elkie Brooks in Vinegar Joe and then some year later at the Hammersmith Odeon at the height of his solo fame during his Heavy Nova tour.

His big break came with the advent of MTV in the early 1980s. His carefully cultivated image as a Bryan Ferry-like sophisticate, immaculately attired in designer suits, and the release of a succession of radio-friendly soft rock singles, were perfectly suited for the video age. He became one of the star acts on MTV, and his place in pop music culture was cemented in 1986 with the classic video for Addicted to Love

By the late 90s, my interest had waned a little and like many I was shocked when he died suddenly in 2003 when he was just 54. In recent years however, I rediscovered his music and began to fully appreciate what an outstanding talent he was.

Today, 18 years after his death, his legacy shines bright and his extensive back catalogue stands him out as one of the best vocalists of his generation. Not only did he have a great voice and an astonishing vocal range, but he had great taste. Perhaps more than anything, he had a unique ability to seek out little known songs and reinterpret them in an entirely fresh way, that made them his own.

And when you look back at his recordings, you soon realise he was the master of many genres: whether it be reggae or R n B, rock or new wave through to jazz and the blues. Indeed, being the shapeshifter he was, there wasn’t much he didn’t cover.

So just who was Robert Palmer?

Despite becoming a big star, it appears he was also a very private man. When I came to research his life there was no biography and just a few articles. There were quite a few promo interviews, but in terms of actual facts there were many contradictions and it was hard to know what was true and what wasn’t.

Childhood

Alan Robert Palmer was born in Batley, West Yorkshire in 1949 to Anna and Leslie Palmer. His father was in the Royal Navy and the family moved to Malta when he was just three months. Growing up on an Mediterranean island, he’d listen to the American Forces Network. The first record he bought and the one he admitted was the most influential in shaping his singing style was Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads.

He was twelve when his family returned to England, settling in Scarborough, the largest holiday resort on the Yorkshire coast. His father was based at RAF Fylingdales and his mother ran a guest house. They still live in the town, in the house he bought them when he became wealthy. His brother, Mark, followed his father in joining the RAF, but a military life was not for Robert, he had other ideas.

Palmer went to Scarborough Boys’ High School, leaving when he was 16 to study art at Scarborough School of Art & Design. He gave up on the idea of a career in art and went to work at the Scarborough Evening News. Journalists there remember him as a skinny teenage technician, with bleached hair, in the photographic department — until police found the stub of a cannabis joint in a raid on his bedsit and he lost his job.

Bandlife

But his heart was in music, not journalism. At 15 he had begun taking guitar lessons and was already singing with The Mandrakes, named in homage to his favourite book, William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch.

One day a blues band called The Alan Bown Set found itself without a singer for a show at the Scarborough Spa, borrowed him for the night and kept him. Until then, he was Alan Palmer, but he changed to Robert to avoid confusion with the name of the band.

Palmer moved to London (living in the basement flat of 35 Dennington Park Road West Hampstead) where he joined the 12-piece jazz-rock fusion band Dada, which featured singer Elkie Brooks. The band lasted a year, after which the pair formed the rhythm and blues group, Vinegar Joe.

Taking their moniker from the nickname of the caustic US General Joseph Stilwell, the band recorded three albums for Island; Vinegar Joe (1972), Rock n Roll Gypsies (1972), and Six Star General (1973). Unable to achieve commercial success, they split in March 1974 and Island signed Palmer to a solo deal.

Going solo: The 70s

Recorded in New Orleans, his first solo album Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley, 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, 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.

1975 saw Palmer relocate from London to New York’s Greenwich Village and release his sophomore album Pressure Drop in November 1975. Recorded at Blue Seas in Baltimore and in Los Angeles, it once again featured members of Little Feat as well as respected Motown musicians, The Muscle Shoals Horns, and Barry White’s arranger, Gene Page, conducting a large string section.

Infused with Palmer’s interests in reggae and rock music, rather than any commercially successful songs, the album gained notoriety for its cover art featuring a Graham Hughes photograph of a naked girl on a balcony. He toured with Little Feat to promote the album, but it only reached a lowly 136 in the US charts.

The follow-up album, October 1976s Some People Can Do What They Like, was recorded at Clover Studios in Los Angeles, but once more it proved to be another commercial failure.

His next effort, 1978s Double Fun, was recorded at The Hit Factory and Media Sound in New York and at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia.

The album gave Palmer his first Top 20 hit in United States with Every Kinda People, a Caribbean–influenced track that became a staple of easy–listening radio. The song was written by former Free bassist Andy Fraser, who recorded his own unreleased version which Palmer heard.

Palmer’s next album 1979s, Secrets, was another artistic departure, concentrating on pure rock. Recorded at Compass Point, it gave him his second Top 20 single with Moon Martin’s Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor).

The 80s

The 80s saw Palmer find an increasing amount of commercial success. His self-produced sixth album Clues, recorded once again at Compass Point, featured Talking Heads’ drummer Chris Frantz and Gary Numan.

It generated hits on both sides of the Atlantic, beginning with the pulsating, radio-friendly single Johnny and Mary, the first time Palmer had attempted baritone.

Subsequently, Johnny and Mary was used as the signature tune in advertisements promoting Renault cars throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

The album’s other hit single was Looking for Clues, the video for which aired on MTV’s first day of broadcasting, on 1 August 1981.

The success was repeated with the release of 1982s Some Guys Have All The Luck from his live/studio album Maybe It’s Live. Palmer’s version has a significantly altered melody and lyrics in comparison to other versions of the song.

In 1989, Palmer recalled “I was working with Moon Martin when I wrote Some Guys. I played it to him and a few days later he said he’d just heard someone singing it in the studio across the road, which seemed impossible since I hadn’t finished it myself! What happened was that I must have heard it subliminally, I think it was on Australian radio, and just hadn’t realised. The only thing I remembered was the title line.”

In April 1983, Palmer’s seventh album Pride was released. Recorded at Compass Point Studios in Nassau and the Farmyard, Little Chalfont, England, although not as commercially successful as Clues, it featured the title song and his cover of The System’s You Are In My System, with The System’s David Frank contributing keyboard tracks to the latter song.

Palmer would later admit the album was “a bit introverted and inside itself”.

On 23 July 1983, Palmer performed at Duran Duran’s charity concert at Aston Villa’s football ground, Villa Park, where he struck up friendships with members of Duran Duran that in late 1984 spawned the supergroup The Power Station.

Formed with Duran Duran’s John and Andy Taylor and Chic drummer Tony Thompson, their debut album was recorded mainly at the New York studio for which the band was named, with overdubs and mixing at Compass Point. The band scored three U.S. Top 10 hits, including Communication and a cover of T. Rex’s Get it On.

In 1985 Palmer decided against continuing with The Power Station and over a period of three months at Compass Point recorded his eighth solo album. He brought in 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.

Although just 31 minutes long, 1986s Riptide went on to become Palmer’s biggest selling album. It featured the self-penned US No 1 single Addicted to Love which later won him a Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal performance.

The video for Addicted to Love was directed by the British fashion and society photographer Terence Donovan.

Palmer appears in the video backed by a group of blank-faced, red-lipsticked fashion models playing guitars. However, he was dismissive of his role in the success of what has been called ‘arguably the defining video of the 1980s’: “I just showed up and mouthed the words for 15 minutes.”

In 1988, Palmer again returned to experimenting with his next self-produced album Heavy Nova, this time with bossa nova rhythms, heavy rock and white-soul balladeering. The title is a mix of heavy metal and bossa nova.

At the time, Palmer said he was more satisfied with this record than anything he’d done before. All the tracks were written on acoustic guitar and the album was recorded at Logic Studios in Milan and Compass Point in Nassau.

The album’s big single, Simply Irresistible certainly lived up to its name. Sonically reminiscent of the Power Station, it’s one of Palmer’s most commercial songs. And he repeated the success of Addicted to Love with the video. Directed once again by Terence Donovan, it featured a troupe of swaying female models. This time however, there were more of them and they were styled in the manner of Patrick Nagel, whose artwork features on the iconic cover of Duran Duran’s Rio.

Simply Irresistible reached No 2 in the US and was Palmer’s last Top Ten hit there. In 1989 it also earned him his second Grammy. The ballad She Makes My Day also was a hit in the UK, peaking at No 6.

The 90s

Renowned for his diverse mixture of styles, Palmer expanded his range even further on his 10th album, 1990s Don’t Explain. Recorded in Milan at Logic Studios, it featured a reggae version of Bob Dylan’s I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, in a collaboration with UB40, that secured a No 6 placing in the UK, and the Marvin Gaye cover Mercy Mercy Me.

Also in 1990, Rolling Stone named him “Best Dressed Male Artist”.

Two year’s later, his jazz-infused album Ridin’ High was a tribute to the Tin Pan Alley era.

Palmer’s twelfth studio album 1994s Honey was recorded once again at Milan’s Logic Studios. It received mixed reviews. Although it failed to produce any hit singles in the US, it did spawn three modest UK hits: Girl U Want, Know By Now and You Blow Me Away.

In 1995, Palmer reunited with other members of The Power Station to record their sophomore album. Bassist John Taylor eventually backed out of the project, to be replaced by Chic’s Bernard Edwards.

The album Living in Fear was released in 1996 and Palmer and before the band had begun touring Edwards died suddenly and unexpectedly, of pneumonia in Tokyo, where he’d just played a show with Chic. That same year, Terence Donovan died by suicide aged 60.

Rhythm & Blues was Palmer’s thirteenth studio album and his first new album of material in five years. Released in 1999, it was recorded at Compass Point Studios. The album only reached No 118 in the UK, and didn’t chart at all in the US.

The 2000s

The next few year’s saw Palmer in hiatus. His next album, 2003s Drive, was Palmer’s first blues album and mostly featured cover songs including ZZ Top’s TV Dinners.

It was co-written with his 22-year-old son, James, a drummer, and recorded at Logic Studios in Milan as well as at his home studio in Lugano. It had been getting good reviews and looked like the start of a comeback. Sadly, it was not to be and this video is the last he ever made.

Private life

Outside of music, Robert Palmer led an extremely private life. Although a celebrity, he tended to keep himself out of the newspapers and magazines. As such, little information is available about what he did when he wasn’t recording or touring and when some appears it’s hard to substantiate.

As far as I can tell, he was married twice and had five children. He married his first wife, former model Shelly Putnam in 1972 and they had three children, Anthony, Anna and Martin. By 1976, the family, who had been living in New York City, relocated to Nassau, Bahamas, where they moved into a house directly across the street from Compass Point Studios.

The marriage didn’t last and he and Shelly divorced in 1978. Palmer had met Susan Eileeen Thatcher, an art student, backstage at his concert in Pittsburgh. They married in 1979 when she was 19 years old.

They had two children, Jane who was born in 1980 and a son, James.

Concerned about the rising crime rate in Nassau, in 1986 Palmer moved his family to a former mill-house in Lugano, Switzerland, on the Swiss/Italian border. He acquired a much-admired wine cellar and built a home studio. Palmer made regular trips across the border to Milan where he would record many of his albums and buy the suits he became famous for.

In 1993, he became a naturalised citizen of Switzerland. His marriage to Susan Palmer lasted until 1999, when she requested a divorce.

His last relationship was with Mary Ambrose.

His last-ever interview — with Christine Talbot — was recorded on 24 September 2003 at Ronnie Scott’s club in London’s Soho.

Death

Just two days later, Palmer went to Paris with his young girlfriend, Mary Ambrose. They were staying at the luxury Warwick Hotel just off the Champs-Elysees when around 2am on Friday, September 26, 2003, after a relaxed night of dinner and a movie, he collapsed and died from a massive heart attack. He was 54.

Ironically, just weeks earlier. he’d been given a clean bill of health following a check-up. Palmer loved cigarettes and malt whisky, which contributed to his gravelly vocals. A chainsmoker, some claimed he smoked 60 Dunhills a day.

It was only after his death that 26-year-old Mary Ambrose acknowledged that Palmer had a secret addiction. She told The Mail on Sunday that he would often leave her alone in bed at night while he indulged in his greatest passion — building model trucks and aeroplanes.

Burial

Robert Palmer is buried in London, England. Although there was a Memorial Service in Lugano, Switzerland, he was interred in a private cemetery in London. This was done at the request of his family.

His parents, Anna and Leslie Palmer, his brother, Mark Palmer, and four of his children, James, Jane, Anna and Tony reside in England, and didn’t want to have to travel to Lugano, Switzerland, to visit his gravesite. The location of the gravesite remains private. Only Palmer’s closest friends and family were invited to his funeral and know the location of his grave.

The Rumour

In 2010, after journalist Ian Halperin claimed a close friend of the late singer had confirmed the affair, there was a rumour circulating that he had a secret relationship with Princess Diana

Halperin said: “It was an extramarital affair that could have hurt a lot of people, the friend said. Diana was in love with Robert and wanted to spend every second with him.”

Apparently, the affair was the final straw in Diana’s marriage to Charles. Two years later they divorced.

The couple were said to be so besotted with one another that she inspired his 1988 hit Simply Irresistible and was the inspiration for his 1994 album Honey.

When in London, Palmer always stayed at the St James’s Club, a short distance from Diana’s Kensington Palace home.

Halperin even suggested that Diana became pregnant and had an abortion. “She went to a private clinic to avoid the biggest scandal ever in Britain,” he said. “They never slept together again because Diana was terrified what Charles would do to her.”

In February 2014, Palmer’s former bandmate Elkie Brooks, insisted the affair could have happened, telling the Daily Telegraph, “Knowing Robert, I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened. I wouldn’t put it past him. Not at all.”

Postscript

In 1973, Dougie Thompson, who played bass with Palmer in the Alan Bown Set, joined Supertramp, followed a year later by another band member, sax player, John Helliwell.

After Palmer’s death, Rod Stewart began using the Palmer-style arrangement of Some Guys Have All The Luck, which he had released in 1984, in his live concerts as a tribute, with live female backup vocalists and a horn player wearing identical dresses, similar to Palmer’s signature music videos.

In 2014, Todd Terje recorded a downtempo version of Johnny and Mary featuring Bryan Ferry on vocals.

Susan Palmer is now a successful artist living in Sedona, Arizona, where she owns her own art gallery.

Mary Ambrose died in London in 2005. She was twenty seven years old and apparently had left behind two young sons.

After 26 years, Christine Talbot still works for ITV Yorkshire as a main presenter for its flagship news programme ITV News.

Peter Sutcliffe, the notorious Yorkshire Ripper, died on 13 November 2020 at the age of 74. He rarely corresponded during his 40 years in prison, but in one of his last ever letters, he wrote to Christine Talbot.

Also in 2020, Every Kinda People was chosen as the ‘anthem of North Yorkshire’.

In 2021, Renault used a reinterpreted version of Johnny and Mary for its E-TECH launch commercial featuring Swedish singer Hanna Hägglund.

The last word

I thought this YouTube comment was the perfect epitaph for Robert Palmer:

“Cool, talented and classy. He painted from a broad pallette, and was great at any style.”

Put it another way, he was simply irresistible!

About the author: Based in Sussex-by-the-Sea, on England’s south coast, Gary is a creative writer and image-maker. He specialises in out of the ordinary portraits of musicians and people with interesting faces, as well as photographing some of the world’s finest flowers and gardens. With no concerts or major events taking place during lockdown, Gary has turned his attention to creatively capturing the landscapes of West Sussex. On the writing side, he has also penned deep dives into some of his favourite songs beginning with Bryan Ferry’s ‘These Foolish Things’ ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials and most recently, ‘All The Young Dudes’ by Mott the Hoople.

Creator of images that are out of the ordinary, reviewer of live music and live events and interviewer of interesting people