Deep Blues: Missing Robert Palmer (A Critical Tribute)

Robert Palmer, photographed by Cherie Nutting
Photo of Robert Palmer by Cherie Nutting

Ten years ago today (November 20), the music critic Robert Palmer died at the age of 52 from complications due to liver disease.

Best known as the chief pop music critic for the New York Times (a gig he held down for more than a decade), Palmer achieved more in a relatively brief career as a critic than many will in a lifetime: author of several highly regarded books (including 1981’s Deep Blues, long considered one of the classic studies outlining the origins of rock & roll); screenwriter and music director of various music-based films; record producer and musician; ethnomusicologist and scholar.

Palmer’s first love was the blues, but his scope as a music critic was endless, as evidenced by the small sampling of available NYT articles way at the bottom of this feature. asked several critics colleagues and fans of Palmer to share their thoughts about the man on this special anniversary. (Longtime readers of Palmer will be pleased to note that contributor Anthony DeCurtis is presently compiling a long overdue collection of Palmer’s writing.) If you would like to add some words about Palmer and what his work means to you, give us a shout we would be happy to publish more tributes down the road.

Many thanks to all contributors: Stephen Davis, Anthony DeCurtis, Nelson George, Alan Light, Jon Pareles, Brad Tolinski, and Steven Ward.

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“Drop everything and go to Jajouka…”

By Stephen Davis

In 1972, I was the music editor at the Phoenix, the alternative Boston weekly based in Cambridge, Mass. Our chief music columnist was Jon Landau, who ran the (extremely influential) record review section of the Hunter Thompson-era Rolling Stone magazine.

Late that year, Landau moved to New York, where he assumed the title of Music Editor at the magazine’s new Manhattan office. He took with him Stu Werbin, the Phoenix’s best pop writer. I stayed in Boston, and Jon gave me his job as review chief at Rolling Stone, where I became an Associate Editor, reporting to Jon. (My friend James Isaacs took over for me at the Phoenix.)

To this day, the only thing I have in common with Bruce Springsteen is that we are, in Bruce’s words, “an invention of Jon Landau.”

Landau taught me how to do the job assign the reviews, hire a telephone answering service, edit the reviews, Xerox them, and send them off special delivery from the Central Square post office in Cambridge to Sarah Lazin at the paper’s San Francisco home office. This was the era of Super Fly, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Goats Head Soup, T-Rex, Catch-A-Fire, Ziggy Stardust, Alice Cooper, Last Tango in Paris, Greetings from Asbury Park, Houses of the Holy, and a lot of other magic beans. We rock critics had a great time being the secular priests of it all.

I inherited a stellar stable of Original Rock Critix from Jon Landau, who had made them all into low-level rock stars in their own communities: Paul Nelson, Lenny Kaye, Nick Tosches, Lester Bangs, Landau himself, Ralph J. Gleason, Chet Flippo, Jim Miller, Greil Marcus, Ed Ward (both of whom had held the review editor position before Jon and me), R. Meltzer, Bud Scoppa, Stephen Holden, Ben Gerson, Lester Bangs and several others. (I never understood the cult worship of Bangs, who wrote well, but who I thought had zero taste, and zero insight into almost anything worth consideration. I met him later in Jamaica, and he just seemed like a blob to me, a victim of his own confused opinions).

Jon Landau’s big gift to me was Bob Palmer. Bob was the real deal, an avant-garde rock ‘n’ roll musician from Arkansas, who could whip out his clarinet and actually jam with the musicians he was writing about. He hung out with everybody in that era, from the Rolling Stones to David Bowie to William Burroughs. When I was in New York to meet with my writers in the winter of ’72-‘73, my first stop was always Bob Palmer’s cozy pad on Charles Street in the West Village, where he would serve tea and reefer with his girlfriend Tyson and their huge ginger cat. The next knock on the door might be the dealer next door, or Gato Barbieri, or Don Cherry, or some village idiot who could talk about the original assassins of Hassan I’Sabah all night, and then all day too if you were still awake.

My main gift from Bob along with the brilliant pieces about Gato, the Stones, Archie Shepp, Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, and many others I published was the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Bob had followed Brian Jones’s trail to the old village in the Djebal hills of northern Morcocco, and published his findings in Rolling Stone in ’71. A year later, he famously took Ornette Coleman to Jajouka, where Ornette and Bob jammed and recorded with the village’s celestial band of panic faith healers. Whenever I visited Bob in those days, he kept insisting that I drop everything and go to Jajouka, hang out, and learn to play the flute. This seemed a little far-fetched to me, but a year later I lived in Jajouka for three months, during which I was tutored daily on the seven-hole cane flute by men who had played it for five thousand years.

They’re all long gone now, and so is Bob Palmer. I miss him. When Brion Gysin, who “discovered” Jajouka, died in 1986, Bob Palmer wrote in The New York Times (where he had a distinguished and valuable career) that the best conversation in the world had died with Gysin. I still feel that way about the wonderful musician and writer Bob Palmer.

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Finding the blues everywhere

By Nelson George

One of the reasons I became a music critic was my frustration with the reviews of r&b, funk and disco artists in the major music publications of the 1970s. I felt that rhythm, which is the heart and soul of this particular musical culture, was under-appreciated, misunderstood or ignored by the overwhelming white music “experts” of the time.

Then I began to see the work of Bob Palmer appear in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and various other publications. He was the first person who really “got it.” Sure, he wrote about lyrical themes and melody, but he knew you couldn’t really love gut bucket blues without celebrating the beat. In fact Palmer could find the blues everywhere, which is why his writings on rock and soul always had a depth I found inspiring as a young writer. He saw deep into the Southern core of western popular music and then traced it back, via the slave ships, to Africa.

As a black writer in a white dominated writing world, Palmer was a touchstone that said the criticism of this music could be as precise, soulful, and color-blind as a backbeat.

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Absolute mastery of 20th Century music

By Alan Light

I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. Sometimes it’s hard to recall the days before the Internet; as much as I complain about our digital times, it sure makes it easier to find out about, and hear, new music and I can only imagine how much more open the world is now for a Midwestern teen. But as my own music obsession grew through my high school years, life often resembled a scavenger hunt. I’d catch a fleeting reference to a new band (or an old band I didn’t know), in a magazine or a club listing or (rarely) on the radio, and then try to decode who it was, whether I would care, and how actually I might go about hearing it. There was a lot of guessing, a lot of hanging around used record stores, a lot of pooling resources with a few like-minded friends.

Most important, though, was my family’s subscription to the New York Times. Fortunately, my parents are only first-generation Cincinnatians my mom transplanted from Long Island via Manhattan, my dad from Montreal and so they knew that there were other, better sources of information than the local media. And in the years of my adolescence, the lead music writer at the Times was Robert Palmer.

Having access to Palmer’s writing gave me direction in my listening, and then, later, in my own writing. His range and taste, his encyclopedic historical grounding, and his precise, clear language were striking, astonishing. Reading his work day in and day out, even from a distance of a few hundred miles, presented a road map for how to listen and how to think about music. His descriptions of sound were evocative, free of jargon, full of context. Palmer’s criticism for the Times and, as I looked further, in Rolling Stone and in the masterful Deep Blues and in numerous, always-insightful liner notes established a sensibility and perspective I have aspired to in all the years since. (As for his own music, I was thrilled to turn up a copy of the Insect Trust’s Hoboken Saturday Night album in one of the aforementioned used record stores, but could never quite move past curiosity and interest to true enjoyment but what can ya do?)

I only met Bob a few times, in passing, in the offices of Rolling Stone, when I was a young writer there and Anthony DeCurtis brought him back into the record review section after an absence of many years. Mostly I remember him mailing in his reviews, which were invariably typed on the back of press releases it’s hard to imagine a greater disparity between the words on one side of a sheet of paper and those on the other side. This was the early 1990s, when many older albums were being reissued on CD and put back into print for the first time in decades, and I was elated to read Palmer’s thoughts on someone like Blind Willie Johnson (who I had heard of, but never heard), direct from his own typewriter.

There was nothing showy in Robert Palmer’s writing, no pyrotechnics. It takes a little work on the part of the reader to understand what is so rare in his work, and I assume that’s why he doesn’t have the recognition or reputation that some other pioneering rock writers do. What he had instead was an absolute mastery of 20th century music blues, rock, jazz, country, and, of course, world music, long before others were even thinking about such a thing and the ability to fuse these different strands and make connections that no one else could see. There was a crystal clarity to his work that remains a very real inspiration to me an effort to find the words that most closely expressed what he thought, and that most perfectly captured what he heard.

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Sucked into Deep Blues‘ pages all over again

By Brad Tolinski

Recently, I was interviewed by a website devoted to rock journalism and the writer asked a basic question: “What do you look for in a music journalist?”

My response was simple, but I stand by the general sentiment: All I ask of my writers is to be entertaining, informative, and coherent. It’s quite sad, really, but in my 20 years of editing I’ve found only a small and precious handful that consistently delivers those three things.

So here’s my highest compliment: Robert Palmer was the most entertaining, the most coherent and the most informative music journalist with whom I’ve ever worked.

I first contacted Robert in the late 1980s after I was given a copy of his ’81 masterpiece Deep Blues. The book knocked me sideways. It was everything I thought music writing should be meticulously researched, serious, funny, exciting and deeply humane. But what impressed me the most was how clearly he understood how instruments are played and just how difficult it is to play them well.

I knew immediately that Guitar World and Robert Palmer would be a match made in heaven, but it took some time to screw up the courage to call him. Guitar World, after all, was not in the same league as some of his previous employees, which included The New York Times and Rolling Stone.

My first conversation with Robert soothed all my insecurities. He was aware of Guitar World and seemed enthusiastic about the idea of talking directly to musicians. In retrospect, I think he was also bemused by my unabashed enthusiasm and, perhaps interested in reaching a new and youthful audience whose only experience of the blues might have been Stevie Ray Vaughan and Led Zeppelin.

Robert took every assignment very seriously, but I soon learned he was not particularly good with deadlines. Once I figured that out, it was very easy to work with him. If I wanted him to write a longer piece I would simply make sure that the idea was an evergreen and be happy when it eventually floated through the door. His masterpiece for us was his September ’96 piece on the history of Texas blues, where he argued that the Lone Star State was as much the “cradle of the blues” as the Mississippi delta.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get nearly as much as I would’ve liked from him. Our association started towards the end of his life, and his declining health kept him from being a truly prolific contributor. We did, however, have enough time to establish a wonderful professional friendship, and I’d like to think our relationship meant something to him. On a practical level, he could depend on Guitar World for work when he felt up to it. On a deeper level, his work for our magazine represented his bridge to a new generation of readers who desperately needed his uncanny ability to look at music history through a distinctly modern lens.

During the last few weeks of his life, I gave Robert a call. I knew he wasn’t feeling well, but we kicked around a few ideas for future stories. I couldn’t tell you what they were. It was too long ago. But I remember he did mention how much he enjoyed writing for Guitar World. Robert knew our whole staff worshiped him, and he knew it would mean something to tell me that. It did.

By coincidence, a few weeks before I was asked to write this piece, I had just finished re-reading Deep Blues. Initially, I was just peaking through it to double check some facts on the life of Muddy Waters, but before I knew what was happening, I was sucked into its pages all over again. When I read it back in the ’80s I thought it was the best book ever written on the blues. Here in the year 2007 I still think that.

In the end, the best tribute to Robert is to read him. Then read him again. Then pass it on.

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Liked to talk and did it well

By Anthony DeCurtis

Having recently read through all of Bob Palmer’s published work that I could find for an anthology that I’m editing, I’m stunned by how consistently smart and passionate he was. His interests and talent were such that, if you read Bob, you hardly needed to read anyone else. But if you’re on this site, you probably know that already. He is simply the best writer about music that I’ve ever encountered, and a model and inspiration for me.

It’s probably worth mentioning here what a pleasure he was to work with. I was his editor at Rolling Stone for about five years in the early 1990s. Anyone who becomes an editor quickly learns who’s floating on their reputation; who’s being carried by their editors; who’s gifted, but a pain in the ass, and who can deliver the goods and be a decent person to boot. It was incredible to read the terrible drafts many “renowned” writers would turn in; their sense of themselves often existed in inverse proportion to the quality of what they produced.

None of that was true of Bob, whose writing was unfailingly clean, focused, unpretentious, eminently well-informed, gripping and right on the money. Even more astonishing, he was possible to edit. If you had suggestions, he would listen and work with you. He was completely without pretense.

For those reasons, without my really thinking about it, he became my standard. Every time I found myself arguing with some intransigent hack who couldn’t bear to have his (they were always male) prose tampered with, I would think, “Right. I have to waste time arguing simply to get you to make the most obviously necessary changes, but Bob Palmer is perfectly cooperative and open-minded.” Ultimately, of course, it was about confidence. Bob was so sure of his ideas that he didn’t feel threatened by the ideas of others.

Mostly, though, I loved talking to Bob. We would speak on the phone regularly when he was living in Memphis, Little Rock and New Orleans in the ’90s. I still have one of his address cards in my rolodex on “Ferndale Congo Road” in Little Rock, an address he loved for its inimitable combination of fake suburban chic and African edge. Welcome to the modern South, and the sensibility of Bob Palmer. I’ll leave it to others to ponder the meanings of his “Barracks Street” address in New Orleans.

Like so many Southerners, Bob liked to talk, and he did it well. He spoke in a slow drawl that belied the lambency of his mind. It was as if he had all day to describe his experiences with the likes of Muddy Waters, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, the Rolling Stones, Ornette Coleman and many other musicians, all of whom viewed him as their creative equal.

While gathering pieces for his anthology, I’ve had many opportunities to talk about Bob with writers, musicians, record executives and friends. Each of those people seemed to have found a different aspect of his writing most impressive. That’s because Bob wrote about so many different types of music so well. The more I learned about him, the stronger his work seemed. Like all the music he loved the most, it’s built to last.

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Teacher who didn’t need a classroom

By Jon Pareles

There were two things I always admired O.K., envied about Robert Palmer, who brought me on as a freelancer at the New York Times and, six years later, left me his job there.

One was his absolute ease and naturalness as a writer. Back in the typewriter days, I remember watching him after a show calmly sitting down and batting out the five paragraphs of the review that would run soon afterward just about unedited in the Times. There was no hesitation, no backtracking, no moving passages around or scratching them out. (As you may remember, typewriters did not do cut-and-paste without actual scissors and adhesive.)

Of course, the review would read in the paper as if Bob was your longtime friend talking to you about what he had just seen, with that mixture of enthusiasm and erudition that made him so approachable but so quietly authoritative. He had the whole review in his head when he started, beginning to end an organized mind, though it was not reflected on his desk at the office.

The other thing was that as far as I could tell, he had a phonographic memory: the ability to recall and cross-reference the vast amounts of music he had heard. He just happened to know which region in Africa had a drumbeat like something in a Brazilian song, or which Eric Clapton guitar lick suggested a certain Indian raga, or how well his friend Ornette Coleman’s style would mesh with the reeds and drums of Jajouka trance music from Morocco.

That fine-grained cross-cultural knowledge would have been the pride of any academic musicologist, but Bob never flaunted it. He just used it on occasion to shift perspective, to point out the cross-currents and intersections, the traces of history in the music.

Like good critics in any discipline, Bob was a teacher who didn’t need a classroom. It made perfect sense that when he decided to leave behind the grind of daily journalism he turned to teaching at a university, Ole Miss, which also happened to be across the river from Bob’s old Memphis stomping grounds.

Time spent with Bob was always instructive. On one of the rare evenings when he or I weren’t out listening to music, we and our then-girlfriends had dinner together and went back to his apartment. Bob ended up playing DJ, of course, and while I only remember part of the night’s playlist, it was pure Palmer. There was a new reissue, probably Japanese, of the Five Du-Tones, a whoop-and-holler late-1950’s doo-wop/R&B group from Missouri. “Shake a Tail Feather” was the one song a few aficionados remembered, but Bob rightly dropped the needle onto an even wilder would-be dance craze, “Woodbine Twine.” Something in that song reminded him of music from Chad, in Central Africa, as he dug into a boxed set. There was some speaking-in-tongues free jazz from Albert Ayler, and some New York guitar clangor was it Live Skull? Theoretical Girls? and some of Gil Evans’s elegantly contoured, harmonically abstruse big-band arrangements. Bob didn’t spell out the links, but they were good segues.

He had durable taste. The music he praised, from Sonic Youth to Milton Nascimento to Ornette Coleman (who played “Here Comes the Bride” at one of Bob’s weddings) to R.L. Burnside to La Monte Young, still sounds great. With his ear for the African diaspora, he was one of the first critics to understand, early on, the importance of hip-hop (and for Bob the connections to talking blues, the dozens and griot songs were almost too obvious). Trendiness didn’t sway him. Like his friend Lester Bangs, Bob was after some passionate primal yawp, wherever he found it.

Years later I isolated one parameter of Bob’s taste. He was drawn to music that existed outside the well-tempered scale: that compromise with (or betrayal of) the natural harmonic series, a compromise built into keyboards and fretboards. Bob loved the way that blue notes bend, the twang of country and rockabilly, the microtonal inflections of Indian and Arabic music, the nerve-buzzing overtones of those New York guitar bands and the wop-bop-a-lu-bop of R&B and its gospel foundations. Much of his favorite music happened to be the province of untrained or outcast musicians inventing systems for themselves, just because they sounded right.

Bob understood and respected serious musicianship. He was a virtuoso on, of all things, the jazz clarinet. But he had no use for mere technique or for calculation and contrivance. He preferred something raw and untamed. In an interview Bob did with the producer Sam Phillips, he approvingly quotes Phillips another Memphis character saying, “The fundamental thing to me is that spirit and fervor. The music has to have a feel: Can I touch you some way or the other? If it’s there, it will come out.”

In other words, it had to be natural. Bob had that feel.

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Told me about the backbeat

By Steven Ward

One glance at, and a reader can see that I’ve interviewed tons of rock critics and music writers over the last eight years. Most of those were done by e-mail, some over the phone. There is only one music writer I have ever interviewed face to face Robert Palmer. And that was long before existed.

Interestingly, Palmer was the first rock writer I had ever interviewed in my life. The year was 1995. I was working at a small weekly newspaper in south Louisiana my first full-time job after college. Palmer’s new book Rock & Roll: An Unruly History had just come out and I knew Palmer was living in New Orleans at the time. Even though I was a general assignment news writer, I talked the Arts & Entertainment section editor into a piece on Palmer’s book. After getting the go ahead, I traveled across Lake Pontchartrain to meet Palmer at a coffee shop at the edge of the French Quarter.

I walked in and Palmer was sitting down already waiting for me. He was dressed in baggy black pants, dark sunglasses, black tennis shoes and a huge untucked khaki shirt over a black-t-shirt. The baseball hat on his head was also black. It had the words “Sam Cooke’s Night Beat” on it a more appropriate message for the talk we were about to have could not have been conjured up.

After I asked pointless fanboy questions about the Rolling Stones, Yoko Ono, and Jerry Lee Lewis, Palmer calmly and quietly told me about the important role of New Orleans in rock and roll a city I grew up in and the place he currently called home.

He told me about the backbeat and he told me about the drumming of Earl Palmer. He told me that the funk of James Brown would have been impossible without Earl Palmer’s New Orleans drumming. He told me about how he learned more about rock music from stomping in Southern juke joints than listening to records.

He told me about John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders and Ornette Coleman. He told me how much he loved the sound of the electric guitar and African drums. I could have sat there with him for hours and hours.

It got late and it was time for us to leave. As I walked out of the coffee shop, I noticed he was still sitting there. I asked him if he needed a ride home. He said he did and walked with me to my tiny green Hyundai hunched over and crawled inside. I drove him home just a few blocks away from the coffee shop. He said thanks and I said good-bye.

Robert Palmer was and is the best music writer I have ever read in my life. Nobody could write about the way music sounds better than Robert Palmer.

I will never forget him for a thousand reasons.

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Selected New York Times Articles by Robert Palmer:

(Loads more New York Times reviews written by Robert Palmer are available in the NYT archives.)

Further reading about Robert Palmer:

Books by Robert Palmer:

deep blues unruly history jerry lee rocks


9 thoughts on “Deep Blues: Missing Robert Palmer (A Critical Tribute)

  1. Generous to a fault, Robert Palmer walked it like he talked it. I still remember him stumbling into my wedding, Oct. 4, 1981, with his then-girlfriend (were they married at the time?), fellow rock critic Debra Rae Cohen. The two had just come from an all-nighter with Rod Stewart and were still dressed in the clothes from the day before. Robert took out his clarinet and serenaded the crowd from the dance floor, channeling his wild Insect Trust days as people nudged one another and wondered, “Who is that guy?” Well, he’s the rock critic for the New York Times, I laughed. There’s a picture of Bob, instrument in hand, in my wedding book. Aside from his graciousness, great stories and amazing insight as a writer, that is the image I will always hold of him. Playing clarinet at Club El Morocco for my wife Jill and I on our wedding day….

  2. I’m not exactly sure why it’s taken me so long to write something here about Bob. I owe him a lot. Today I live in the south because of Bob, and the connections I made with musicians in Mississippi thanks to him took my life on a radically different path than it was on — deeper into a life making music. Anthony DeCurtis’ new collection of Bob’s writing is likely the dam buster. It has caused me to reflect more deeply on my friendship with Bob and on his gifts for the first time in years. I think that Bob’s early departure from life stunned me. And in some ways still does. He had a lot more to offer everyone.
    I was a fan before I was a friend. I read Bob in the Times and elsewhere when I was an aspiring music journalist, always inspired and captivated by his ability to relate the specific details of sound — perhaps the most difficult aspect of music writing, but seemingly never a challenge to Bob. Truly, he set the bar for modern music journalism in many ways.
    I discovered his book Deep Blues just as I was getting deeply into the genre and — thanks to Bob’s insightful writing — it became my Bible. Occasionally I had the joy of receiving his pristine copy when I was an editor at Musician — always penetrating, funny, revealing, and clean as a diamond.
    But we finally met as the Deep Blues movie and soundtrack were being released and immediately hit it off over a mutual mesmerization with Sonny Sharrock, R.L. Burnside, Ornette, Junior Kimbrough, Joy Division, Sonic Youth and more. And within a few hours he was giving me the necessary phone numbers and contacts for traveling to Mississippi and Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint, which at the time was the hottest place for music in Mississippi, and perhaps one of the best spots in the world, even if it was still something of a secret.
    Over the next few years my wife Laurie and I were able to spend time with Bob and JoBeth in New Orleans and Boston (where we lived then) and in Mississippi, where I had the joy of spending two weeks with Bob and a slew of Fat Possum artists at a series of amazing recording sessions and ultimately furthering my blues and music education in ways a kid whose family crawled out of the Pennsylvania coal holes had never imagined.
    Bob and JoBeth were a great couple, intellectually and emotionally engaged with each other and the world. And while Bob was an intellectual to the bone, he was also down-to-earth and welcoming to absolutely everyone I saw him encounter. There was nothing elitist about Bob. Ever.
    I left Bob’s memorial service at Tramp’s in New York City deeply sad, and I still carry some of that sadness. Bob’s world was never small, although I feel the world at large is smaller for his absence. He was a good friend and mentor, he lived life fully if not nearly long enough, and I still miss him and am thankful to have known him. These days I play about eighty shows a year, and in the case that keeps my road Les Paul I carry a sheet with three names that I like to look at for a moment before every gig for reflection and inspiration. One of them is Bob’s. Thanks, man. Wish you were here.

  3. I’m a first time visitor to this site… not a rock critic, and I confess, I had no idea who Bob Palmer even was until I came accross this facinating tribute. Here’s the deal – I decided to buy some old records in Little Rock, AR last year to begin a collection of my own. I realized immediately that I had stumbled onto something very special. It turns out to be some of Bob Palmers old record collection.

    Most of the albums are “dj copy only… private use only… audition copy…” etc. Many had press releases and promo packages inside, half a dozen albums which had never been opened, and a few hand-written record reviews on the back of press releases. I found the name Robert Palmer hand written on a few album covers and started researching him. I didn’t realize the influence he had on so many, and I feel honored that my first record purchase is somewhat legendary.

    Thanks Steven Ward and others for enlightening me.

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