In 1980, music journalist Robert Palmer was invited to drop by the sessions for John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy in New York. When Palmer arrived, Lennon was adding background vocals to “(Just Like) Starting Over.” Palmer noted that Lennon had sung his parts perfectly in key. Lennon, impressed by Palmer’s ear, said, “You’ll do.”
As Lennon learned, Palmer — who died in 1997 of complications from liver disease at 52 — led a life immersed in music. He was an author (of Deep Blues, a history of Mississippi Delta music), a record producer, a documentary filmmaker, a college professor, even a horn player. But Palmer was foremost a critic equally skilled at writing about John Contrane, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Philip Glass — and his work has been anthologized for the first time in Blues & Chaos: The Music Writing of Robert Palmer.
Compiled by Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis, Blues & Chaos collects revealing interviews with Eric Clapton, Jerry Lee Lewis and William S. Burroughs; liner notes for box sets by Led Zeppelin, Ray Charles and Bo Diddley; and in-depth stories on the history of Texas blues and the early years of the Band. Palmer was so prolific that DeCurtis spent years tracking down thousands of old clips. “Bob deserved that treatment,” says DeCurtis, who was Palmer’s editor at RS in the 1990s. “This is somebody who really believed that music could take you to another world.”
Rolling Stone editor Ed Ward recruited Palmer to write for the magazine in 1970, which he did for the rest of his life. In 1981, Palmer became The New York Times‘ head pop critic, introducing readers to everyone from Sonic Youth to blues-guitar great Otis Rush. In 1988, Palmer left the Times and returned south — to Mississippi and later Louisiana — to teach and also to deal with addiction to cocaine and heroin. Fighting hepatitis C, he fell ill in 1997 and died while awaiting a liver transplant. In a sign of the regard with which Palmer was held, Patti Smith, Allen Toussaint, Alex Chilton and others played a series of benefits to help pay his medical bill.
“He talked the talk,” says Robbie Robertson, who met Palmer in Arkansas in the Sixties. “He would look further inside of what you were doing, and he knew where things came from. It was so moving to me that somebody knew what well you got your water from.”