Thursday, December 27, 2007

Sneaking Robert Palmer Thru the Rock Era

This is the 2nd of a 3-part posting on Rock icon Robert Palmer. See previous story for continuing storyline.

The story continues; During the period between the 1970's and the 1980's, music was very much a fabric of life for Pop Culture. FM Radio proved to the essential pipeline for the movement while new publications offered literary support. Cassette players armed with dual speakers were a must for your vehicle combined with an essential traveling case full of new releases. Times were good during this era as I remember traveling down the highway with a group of friends in my buddy's brand new van. I recall sitting in the rear of the truck and firmly planted in a bean bag with the ceiling vent open and smoke pouring-out of the roof in what resembled a scene from a Cheech and Chong movie. It was 1974 and we were on our way to a canoe trip on the Buffalo River in The Ozark Mountains when my buddy Ray King slipped-in a brand new cassette by vocalist...Robert Palmer.
It was Palmer's first solo release on Island Records when suddenly the focus became centered on the music blasting out of the speakers. It appeared for a moment that time stood still. I glanced around the van and no one on board was talking while everyone began bobbing their heads in unison. It was like we'd previously rehearsed this jester as a group and now given our cue to nod our heads. The first song pouring out the speakers was "Sailing Shoes," a song previously recorded by Little Feat. Next came the song "Hey Julia." And then the ultimate killer, "Sneaking Sally through the Alley." Wow! Three stellar tracks that sounded funky, soulful and flowed together to make a single entity. Yet all three had enough rock fusion for me to grab the cassette liner notes in search of musician's credits. But inside the cassette package there was nothing listed, no information about the sessions or credits given. This lack of information on the album left me puzzled and sent me on a extended mission to investigate.

After a lengthy search and based on this influential album, the following information surfaced; The title song "Sneaking Sally Through the Alley" was written by noted New Orleans producer Allen Toussaint. Plus, the song was recorded first by the great Lee Dorsey. Toussaint's talent as a songwriter and producer were continually in demand. He was also involved in some of the production for this album while his own Sea-Saint recording studio was used for several sessions. There were also rumors that Little Feat played on Palmer's solo album but come to find out that only guitarist Lowell George participated in the recording. But make no doubt, his tasteful influence is felt throughout this fine album. In addition, Toussaint recruited a New Orleans mainstay by bringing in the rhythm section of The Meters consisting of Art Neville (keyboards), Leo Nocentelli (guitar), George Porter (bass), and Joseph Modeliste (drums). The recording session appeared routine until Palmer's soulful voice quickly jelled with The Meters R&B groove. Legend has it when band members heard his voice they stopped and asked "What did you say your name was again?". Those parties played on tracks # 1 and 3.

Track # 2 was recorded with UK musicians Jim Mullen (guitar) and Jody Linscott (percussion) who may have overdubbed on additional tracks. The musicians on track # 4 on this album are undetermined.

Tracks # 5, 6, 7, & 8 are with the rhythm section from New York consisting of the great Cornell Dupree (guitar), Richard Tee (piano), Gordon Edwards (bass), and Bernard Purdie (drums).

Credits on this album were resolved sometime later by Robert Palmer and former Vinegar Joe bassists Steve York who also played harp solo on "Sneaking Sally Through the Alley."

By 1975, Palmer's solo career was further established when he released his second LP, "Pressure Drop." This album displayed his keen interest in reggae music infused with rock. Plus, the album's cover began his long identification with sex appeal and the promotion of his youthful looks. The album featured yet more Allen Toussaint and Lowell George compositions together with a Pete Gage (Vinegar Joe) song. Later that year Robert Palmer opened the Little Feat tour to promote the album.

Yet, Robert Palmer's body of work had just begun as his long and successful relationship with Island Records would span over two decades. His next album in 1976 titled "Some People Can Do What They Like" continued to set the trend of using the same players as featured on his first two albums. Plus, his skill as a writer of ballads became apparent. A short period later and after moving to the Bahamas, Palmer's appreciation of Caribbean influenced music was highlighted in his commercial breakthrough album titled "Double Fun." This 1978 album is recommended for everyone's library and produced the Andy Fraser penned hit single "Every Kinda People". This marked Palmer's most successful release to date by charting at #16 on Billboard's chart. "Secrets" was released in 1979 and recorded at Compass Point Studio in Nassau, Bahamas. The album produced the hit single "Bad Case of Lovin' You" (Doctor, Doctor) which became one of Palmer's signature tunes while reaching #14 on the U.S. charts. "Secrets" also produced additional hits while the LP was very deep with artistic influence. Yet, Robert Palmer was just rolling up his sleeves with much more to follow.

In 1980, Robert Palmer's album "Clues" developed into the latest trend of music with the fusion of electronic pop and synthesized experimentation. Despite it's lack of commercial success, it was indicative of Palmer's music, which in many cases was ahead of it's time. The album contained "Johnny And Mary", "Not A Second Time" and "Woke Up Laughing". The next album was "Pride" and released in 1983. Again, Robert Palmer was ahead of his times while the LP produced the memorable "You Are In My System." In early 1984, Robert began his realisation of the development of being a part of a 'supergroup' when he collaborated with John Taylor and Andy Taylor of Duran Duran and drummer Tony Thompson on the production of 'The Power Station'. This Capitol Records release produced the songs "Bang a Gong-Get It On" and "Murderess".

1985 was a triumphant year for Palmer as he released the album "Riptide". Almost immediately a groundswell of interest began to develop. The LP produced the monster #1 single "Addicted to Love." The song was originally recorded with Chaka Kahn sharing lead vocals but due to contractual issues with her record company, she was removed from the track and the rest is history. This time Robert Palmer's good looks and rock production video was a perfect fit for MTV as the album hit # 8 on the Billboard chart. The album also produced the Earl King penned song "Trick Bag". Plus additional hits such as "Hyperactive", "Woke Up Laughing","I Didn't Mean To Turn You On" and "Disipline Of Love".
The flood gates were open when in September of 1986 Robert won Best Male Video Category at the annual MTV Video Music Awards. Later, Robert won the Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male Category at the 29 annual Grammy Awards.

The Island Records marketing team guided by a crafty promotion director named Phil Quartararo who brought the goods home at radio and in turn rewarded all his team members contributing to this successful project with Platinum Record awards for their efforts.

Phillip Rauls and Robert Palmer share a smile over a well deserved team effort. Robert Palmer and Phillip were reconnected on the "Riptide" album project for the first time since the Vinegar Joe days back at Atlantic Records.

Next posting: Robert Palmer's EMI Years and beyond

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

A Look Back on Legend Robert Palmer

This is a posting that is particularly special to me because it's about one of my favorites and also because of the extended time period that it covers. Plus, it reveals my respective association with one of Rock Music’s finest artist, Robert Palmer (1949-2003). But first, please let me reinforce the proclamation that these first-hand stories are not about me. They are about the timely experiences as well as the special places in which they occurred. I’ll be the first to admit that when most of these episodes transpired, I was just a middle-management promotion executive who happened to be so lucky to be assigned to represent such great talent. How fortunate I was to be a field rep and work with Rock’s finest and not have to experience the caged environment of working in a home office of a big corporation. This unparalleled freedom allowed me to fly under the radar as a marketing specialist and promote my favorite artists with passion. All while flying by the seat of my pants and allowing natural experiences to prevail. These stories express my magic carpet ride through Rock history and I enjoy sharing them. I hope you can appreciate.

This is a three-part story on Rock legend Robert Palmer. As the story begins, let us turn back the clock to 1972. The scene opens when a mail person enters my office to deliver the morning mail. However he didn’t look too pleased and displayed a smirk on his face as he made numerous trips to deliver several armloads of records and magazines. Perhaps to him I appeared to be a slacker or long haired hippie who indulged himself in receiving postal nonsense. After all, it was a turbulent era, a time filled with chaos and a generation gap so big that you could drive a semi through. As I went through the mail, my favorite publication was in the bundle and posted there on the cover was news from afar. The publication was a music weekly named Melody Maker and it was the British equivalent to the U.S. version of Billboard Magazine. The front-page headlines proclaimed in bold print “MELODY MAKER’S GROUP OF THE YEAR – VINEGAR JOE.” Being a stern supporter of music trends that developed in England, I further investigated the article which was written by leading journalist Chris Welch. Come to find out, the article revealed that Vinegar Joe’s debut album was on Atlantic Records. That got me excited as Atlantic was my employer at the time. Plus they were a leader in the British Rock movement. As I further scanned, I noticed the band’s U.S. tour itinerary that included none other than my hometown of Memphis.
Further details in Melody Maker listed Vinegar Joe’s tour dates through the Southern states as they were the opening act for another British newcomer, Wishbone Ash. This combination of two unestablished bands did not represent your everyday ticket rush to the box office. But never the less, Vinegar Joe had been given a small opening for a big opportunity. In those days most of the smaller tours featuring groups who did not have an established hit record, the purpose of the tour was to expose them to the general public for publicity and marketing purposes while sometimes the record companies would underwrite the band's expenses in an effort to offset any loses occurred at the gates.

Based on the strength of the article, I convinced a senior executive at Atlantic to allow me to get involved with the band. After some reluctance, my supervisor finally agreed as I was given the opportunity to tour with the group to set-up FM Radio and underground press interviews. By the early 70's and on special occasions, Atlantic would allow their maverick promoters to utilize their lobbying skills by freelancing with their newer artists. Plus at the time, the after concert meet-and-greets had become a new found popularity with young broadcasters and up-and-coming journalists. Mixing business with pleasure within those confines would often ignite a spontaneous chain of media results. But confidentially and being truthful with these developing circumstances, the home office in New York considered this tour as a yawner as Atlantic was about to unload tons of new releases on several of their major artists. There were dozens of these small tours constantly taking place with a number of Atlantic artists. It was during these secondary tours the home office brass often referred to me as a “Groupie” because of my desire to tour with the unknown bands. But I didn't let that oversight deter me as there were plenty of indications supporting my objectives. During that same period I was absorbing myself with reading material from a new underground rag called, Rolling Stone Magazine. However, back at the home office, it seemed that major emphasis was being focused exclusively on the publications Billboard, Cashbox and Record World. Yet, no company representative from my department was actually assigned to call on what they considered as the “Hippie Press.” This oversight left me puzzled. As you had it, the general consensus from some corporate officers was they thought these publications were operated by a bunch of guys who smoked dope all day and burned their draft cards. That maybe true but the direction of concern at the time was focused on Top-Forty Radio. Also I might add, several of my colleagues and myself took on the additional responsibilities to inform our managers of the vital importance of Melody Maker and it's impact upon the global stage. So, off to meet Vinegar Joe I went.

Vinegar Joe’s vocalist was a sassy young beauty named Elkie Brooks (above) who had created a huge following throughout the British Isles. Her husband Pete Gage was the guitarist in the band and acknowledged as a foremost bandleader. Next, there was a handsome lad who was positioned on the far side of the stage and a mere backup singer and tambourine player by the name of (above) Robert Palmer. Despite Palmer's low profile and background status, his soft eyes and silky smooth vocals were very much appreciated by everyone all the way to the back row of the audience. When the Southern leg of their U.S. tour began, Elkie Brooks, Pete Gage and I flew in advance of the bands travel arraignments to set-up their forthcoming evening's performances with pre-show interviews. After visiting several radio stations, the band's album experienced moderate success as it received airplay at WRAS-FM in Atlanta, WWOM-FM in New Orleans, WORJ-FM in Orlando and WBUS-FM in Miami. However, several days into the tour and after long hours of a grueling schedule, I sensed that the tour was not producing the magic needed to capture an American audience. This is not to say that Elkie Brooks and Peter Cage or Robert Palmer didn’t bust their asses or meet expectations. It was just the fact that without a hit record only small crowds attended their concerts plus they were only the opening act for a mediocre headliner, Wishbone Ash.
After a convincing Vinegar Joe performance at Ellis Auditorium in Memphis combined with a Bar-B-Q dinner at the famous Rendezvous Restaurant, both bands, Vinegar Joe, Wishbone Ash and myself (above) were invited to a party at the infamous location known in prominent rock circles as ‘3744 James Road.’ It was a plush location resembling a Southern style mansion and fashioned with tall white columns stretching out over the front porch. From the long driveway entrance you could view a fashionable porch swing and rocking chairs suitably fitted for the setting. As we drove up to the house, it appeared we were approaching a scene from the movie "Gone With The Wind." This was the residence of several industry notables and their families; WMC-FM 100 disk jockey Jon Scott, MCA Records' Bruce Bowles, and a local RCA Records’ rep named Phil Rush. As most Rock and Roll parties generally go, people were staged all over the entire house, the kitchen, living room, entrance stairwell, and yes, the front porch. The sweet fragrance of imported cannabis filled the air combined with handfuls of Dr. Nick’s Quaaludes that were passed out as party favors. Throughout the night, loud music played while the stoners pulled motorcycle wheelies in the drive way. All while entertaining all the special party guest. But as the clock ticked-on well into the evening, guess who got sick and blew chow all over the kitchen? It was about that time that I got well acquainted with a sick Robert Palmer and drove him back to his hotel in downtown Memphis. No one told me that an Atlantic promotion man had to pull baby sitting duties.

But Robert Palmer was only a back-up singer in the Brit's version of a R&B band. As good as Vinegar Joe was, especially live on stage, the unit was unable to capture their magic on record.
After three respectable albums on Atlantic, the tightly knit band hit a crossroads.

After several unsuccessful U.S. tours, Vinegar Joe disbanded in 1973. At that time Robert Palmer and Elkie Brooks pursued a solo careers. Palmer landed with Chris Blackwell's Island Records which was distributed by Atlantic Records. There he experienced a successful solo career with numerous chart records. Elkie Brooks soon signed with Atlantic's former European manager, Frank Fenter, who had relocated to Macon, GA to help establish Capricorn Records with partner Phil Walden.

Editors note: The location of the party in Memphis mentioned in this posting became such a popular hangout for Rock bands that it became the title of a noted album; "3744 JAMES ROAD" by the GROUNDHOGS

Next Posting: Palmer's influence on Pop Music; "Sneaking Robert Palmer Thru the Rock Era"

Photo of Robert Palmer & Elkie Brooks by Gered Mankowitz