we were stirring Dixieland and surf music, rockabilly and R&B, pseudojazz
and honky tonk country and western into a big gumbo.”
That’s how Robert Palmer described his start in the early 1960s
in small, sometimes rough local clubs across Arkansas. In those days,
Palmer played saxophone and clarinet with local bands. No one knew then
that those gigs would launch the distinguished career of a musician, writer,
critic, and historian.
When Palmer died in 1997, Rolling Stone headlined its tribute, “America’s
Pre-eminent Music Writer Dead at 52.”
A Renaissance Man
That music gumbo he made in his early years, abetted by the vast and unique
perspective he acquired over his lifetime, created the Robert Palmer who
became a nationally acclaimed critic of all types of music. He made broad
historical and cultural connections in music that redefined – and
sometimes eliminated – existing musical categories.
As a student at Little Rock University (now the University of Arkansas
at Little Rock), Palmer was editor of the campus newspaper and a self-described
“campus radical.” He graduated in 1967 and began his journalism
career at the Arkansas Gazette.
Palmer later wrote about music for both scholarly and popular publications,
everything from Rolling Stone and Atlantic Monthly to the Journal of American
Folk Lore and Ethnomusicology.
His love for rock ‘n’ roll, combined with an encyclopedic
knowledge of music, prepared him for his role as the first popular music
critic for the New York Times. Palmer once said rock ‘n’ roll
was “so much more vitally alive than anything we had heard before
that it needed a new category.”
A Music Mark
As respect for Palmer’s voice grew, he enjoyed a prolific career,
teaching, writing books, working on music documentaries and television
programs, producing records, and much more. While teaching at Brooklyn
College in the early 1970s, he served as the first senior research fellow
of the Institute for Studies in American Music. Palmer also taught at
Yale University, Carnegie Mellon University, Bowdoin College, and the
University of Mississippi, among other schools.
Palmer’s books have focused on the music of the greats, like Jerry
Lee Lewis and the Rolling Stones. He wrote and co-directed the award-winning
film, The World According to John Coltrane, and served as chief consultant
on the highly acclaimed 10-part public television mini-series Rock &
Roll: An Unruly History, produced by WGBH in Boston and the British Broadcasting
Company. Palmer’s last book, “Rock ‘n’ Roll: An
Unruly History,” was written to accompany the popular series.
“Deep Blues,” perhaps Palmer’s greatest contribution
to music literature and a classic among books about the blues and blues
people of the Delta, inspired the 1991 film of the same name. Palmer,
who wrote and narrated the film, leads viewers on a musical pilgrimage
from Beale Street to the North Mississippi hill country. This documentary
led to the “rediscovery” of several all-but-forgotten artists.
The film ends with Palmer remarking that “it seems incredible, but
as we anticipate the coming millenium, the blues itself is more visible
than at any time in its history.”
Palmer died at what should have been the prime of his career. But in his
52 years, he made an incredible impact on music, both as an artist and
as a writer.