Robert Palmer

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Robert Palmer was one of America's most famous music critics from the '70s to the '90s, particularly via his position as the New York Times' first full-time writer and pop critic, which he occupied between…
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Robert Palmer was one of America's most famous music critics from the '70s to the '90s, particularly via his position as the New York Times' first full-time writer and pop critic, which he occupied between 1976 and 1988. He wrote several books on rock and blues, the best and most important of which was Deep Blues, a valuable overview of how the music evolved from country acoustic forms to electric urban forms in the 20th century. Palmer's involvement in music took several guises; he was most successful at writing, but was also a musician and recording artist, a teacher, a record producer, and a writer, music director, and consultant for film and television documentaries.

Palmer grew up in Arkansas, where he quickly developed a love of both White and Black roots music despite the segregated conditions of his environment. As a teenager he became a professional musician, playing his saxophone in rough juke joints. Already he was exhibiting a catholicity and eclecticism of taste, performing jazz, country, R&B, Duane Eddy and the Ventures. Palmer moved to New York in 1967 where he embarked on careers in both writing (at first for Go magazine) and music, as alto saxophonist and clarinetist for the Insect Trust. This band, way too eclectic to categorize or market, made a couple of albums drawing from folk, soul, psychedelic rock, jazz, and more, disbanding around the early '70s. In the early '70s, Palmer became a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, and several years later assumed his high-profile position at the New York Times. Palmer's Times writing lacked the color of the best rock journalism, which can be probably be ascribed at least as much to the paper's serious, stodgy format as Palmer himself. However, Palmer did know his music, and although versed in ethnomusicology, was able to write about rock in ways that were both understandable to the general reader, and diligently structured enough for a daily establishment to print. He was also of a generation that had grown up with rock from a young age; prior to the '70s, rock criticism, especially at daily papers, was sometimes inappropriately assigned to older writers with neither a grounding in, nor even an affection for, the music. Palmer also maintained more or less equal interest in contemporary sounds and popular music history. As a historian, his major contribution was his book Deep Blues, the most enjoyable (though not by any means a complete) history of major aspects of American blues. Palmer wrote several other specialized books that were not nearly as well circulated, including A Tale of Two Cities: Memphis Rock and New Orleans Roll, Baby That Was Rock and Roll: The Legendary Leiber and Stoller, and volumes on the Rolling Stones and Jerry Lee Lewis. Palmer also taught courses on American music at several universities, and was writer and music director for the documentary films The World According to John Coltrane and Deep Blues (he also narrated and produced the soundtrack for the latter, which was of course based on his book).

In the '90s, Palmer devoted a lot of time to promoting Mississippi blues, particularly as the producer of several CDs for Fat Possum, which specializes in the kind of electric juke-joint blues that is too raw for even the more commercial-minded independent blues labels to handle. He was also the chief advisor for a ten-part television series on the history of rock & roll, which was broadcast in the U.S. (on PBS) and the U.K. (on the BBC). He wrote the series' companion book, Rock & Roll: An Unruly History. This was related to, but did not duplicate exactly, what was covered on the television programs. Both the series and the book, however, suffered from a curiously incomplete and fragmented scan of important rock performers, mini-genres and trends. What Palmer covered in the book, he covered fairly well. But it was pretty unbelievable that a television series purporting to be a history of rock & roll barely mentioned, or ignored, important figures like Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, the Smiths, and many more. Despite Palmer's reputation, the book should be treated (as Palmer does make clear in the introduction) as a look at some of rock's more important aspects, not as a comprehensive history of the music. Shortly after the broadcast of this series, Palmer became seriously ill with a liver ailment, and died in late 1997.