Born Robert Allen Palmer, January 19, 1949, in Batley, Yorkshire, England; died after a heart attack, September 26, 2003, in Paris, France. Singer. British rocker Robert Palmer was firmly entrenched in the vintage American soul style early in his career. He later enjoyed a streak of 1980s hits that owed much of their appeal to the stylized MTV videos that accompanied them. "With his suavely grainy voice and songs like 'Addicted to Love,' 'Bad Case of Loving You' and 'Simply Irresistible,' Mr. Palmer presented himself as a pop Romeo," noted New York Times writer Jon Pareles. "The 1986 video clip for 'Addicted to Love,' which showed Mr. Palmer backed by a band of deadpan models in little black dresses, cemented his image."
Palmer was born in England in 1949 but spent much of his childhood living on the Mediterranean island of Malta, where his father served as an intelligence operative attached to the British Navy. His interest in music was spurred in part by American Forces Network broadcasts, an English–language radio service for United States troops stationed in Europe which featured an intoxicating mix of American soul, R&B, and jazz.
After the family returned to England when Palmer was 12, he began taking guitar lessons and joined his first band, the Mandrakes, three years later. In 1968, he became the singer for the Alan Bown Set, and a year later joined a jazz–rock group called Dada. That band morphed into the unfortunately named Vinegar Joe, which nevertheless enjoyed some minor success as a compelling live act, thanks to Palmer. Yet the singer eschewed the rock lifestyle that brought many of his peers down in the early 1970s. "I loved the music, but the excesses of rock 'n' roll never really appealed to me at all," Los Angeles Times writer Dennis McLellan quoted him as saying. "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."
In 1974, Palmer released his first solo record, Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley, whose Helmut Newton–esque cover photograph of the singer and an attractive female emerging from a tunnel near Heathrow Airport established his image as the alluring, elegantly dressed gentleman rock star. The work was recorded in New Orleans with top musicians, but failed to score any major hits. He did nominally better with his next release, Pressure Drop, a 1976 collection of tracks with distinct reggae overtones. By then Palmer, his wife, and children were living in New York City, but decamped to the Bahamas in 1978. His next effort of that year, Double Fun, yielded his first Top 20 hit in United States with "Every Kinda People," a Caribbean–influenced track that became a staple of easy–listening radio for years.
Palmer returned to the grittier side of rock with 1979's Secrets, and he had another hit with "Bad Case of Lovin' You (Doctor Doctor)," a cover of a Moon Martin song. In the early 1980s, he teamed with Gary Numan to write some songs, but Palmer's records during this era were critical and commercial flops. It was only when he joined the supergroup Power Station in late 1984, whose line–up included John Taylor and Andy Taylor from Duran Duran, that Palmer began to gain transatlantic fame. The group's releases, "Some Like It Hot" and the T. Rex cover "Bang a Gong (Get It On)," were massive hits in 1985, but Palmer had assumed the project was just a lark and was uninterested in touring to capitalize on the unexpected chart success. Instead he went to work on another solo LP titled Riptide, also released in 1985, which gave him a No. 1 hit with "Addicted to Love" and a Grammy Award for best male rock vocal performance.
The video for "Addicted to Love" caused a stir when it first aired on MTV, and remained on the music channel's heavy–rotation list for months. It featured a slickly suited Palmer in front of a passel of nearly identical models, each of whom wore tight black dresses and sported blood–red lipstick. Palmer's "band" nominally played instruments or otherwise detachedly gyrated to the music, and feminists criticized the video as blatantly sexist. It had been shot by a highly regarded fashion photographer, Terence Donovan, who reprised the look in two other videos for Palmer, "I Didn't Mean to Turn You On" and "Simply Irresistible." The latter song earned him his second Grammy Award in 1988.
Palmer went on to release a slew of other solo LPs, but none attained the chart success of Riptide or its successor, Heavy Nova. His last record was the blues–tinged Drive in 2003. By then Palmer, divorced for a number of years, was living in Switzerland with his longtime girlfriend, Mary Ambrose, who was featured on the cover of his 1994 album, Honey. In September of that year, he traveled to England to film a television documentary about his musical career called My Kinda People, and was staying at a Paris hotel with Ambrose when he died of a heart attack on September 26, 2003. Just two weeks earlier, Palmer had undergone a medical checkup and was pronounced in good health. He is survived by Ambrose, his parents, and a son and daughter. Tributes from the many musicians who knew and respected him poured in when news of his death emerged. "He was a fabulous singer," longtime friend Sting told People. "A gentleman. And underrated."
Chicago Tribune, September 27, 2003, sec. 2, p. 10; E! Online, http://www.eonline.com/News/Items/0,1,12576,00.html?tnews (September 29, 2003); Los Angeles Times, September 27, 2003, p. B20; New York Times, September 27, 2003, p. A25; People, October 13, 2003, p. 94; Times (London), http://www.timesonline.co.uk (September 26, 2003); Washington Post, September 27, 2003, p. B7.
— Carol Brennan