Tony Moss and Steve Smith Q and A re: Robert Palmer…
-When did you meet Robert Palmer, and what were the circumstances of the meeting? Was he still with Vinegar Joe at the time?
I met Robert when my band (Smith Perkins Smith-the 1st American band signed to Island Records) played with VJ at Leicester University in 1972. Elkie Brooks was his fellow vocalist and married to their guitarist Pete Gage and they Elkie and Robert shared the vocal duties. VJ was a rock band with ambitions above their talent level in my opinion. I remember thinking that the material was weak and better suited to Elkie rather than Robert. I also thought he was potentially a great singer but in the wrong band. We all shared the same dressing room and love of Scottish whiskey.
-What was your opinion of the way his talents were being utilised within Vinegar Joe? I’ve heard some vague things about Elkie Brooks and Robert being involved in something of a power struggle in the group (whether real or invented by the press). Was there tension that led to his exit into a solo career?
Make no mistake, this was Pete’s band and he was also their producer and tastemaker. I think when you are married to one of the lead singers that probably had a big part to play in their demise. But also VJ never made a hit record and they were mainly a live band. The records they made on Island didn’t sell, so I think Island lost enthusiasm for the act. Normally that was the writing on the wall for a band. I saw it happen time and time again, and Chris Blackwell loved Robert because he could see the huge potential of his talent, as I could.
-Although you and Robert came from different backgrounds, did you share a love of the same kinds of music? Any specific musical commonalties you can recall?
We were both black men trapped in white bodies! I came from Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama and had worked on all the Atlantic and Stax R&B records with people like Sam & Dave, the Staples Singers, Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett to name a few.
Robert was brought up in Yorkshire and the Northern Soul music craze was hotter there than in Memphis and Muscle Shoals I’m told. I had the credibility he sought in a contemporary working relationship plus the fact that he and I were born within a month of each other meant that we worked as equals, and because we shared similar musical tastes. I was mixing an album I’d produced on Chris Jagger for David Geffen’s new label Asylum at the Island Studios when Chris Blackwell dropped by and listened. I’d made some good records with Chris in Muscle Shoals that he loved (Jimmy Cliff’s ‘Many Rivers to Cross’ and ‘Sitting in Limbo’ and parts of ‘The Harder They Come’ soundtrack). He obviously liked what he heard because Chris asked me if I could produce for Island who would I like to work with. Everybody knew each other on the label and I knew Robert was destined for a career after VJ, so I asked if I could get together with Robert and see if we had the right chemistry and ideas to work together, and it turned out that we did.
-You’ve previously mentioned that you were explicitly asked by Chris Blackwell who you wanted to produce, and that you “immediately said Robert Palmer.” What was it about his talent that made you so intent to work with him?
I knew talent when I saw it and Robert was being wasted in VJ. It was part of his apprenticeship so to speak. He had a great voice, was very good looking and had a dress style that was more Savile Row than Carnaby Street. As long as we could set up the right creative environment for him to record in with the right songs, I know we potentially could make great music.
-How soon after it was determined that Robert would make a solo album were the musicians chosen for Sneakin’ Sally Thru the Alley? Did it then, or does it now, strike you as a bit ambitious to target The Meters and Lowell George to back an artist that at the time must have had mostly a cult following?
I knew I could assemble sessions with the best players available and that Robert would be up to the challenge. Was it ambitious? It could have been if we weren’t all pros to be honest, but you don’t go through 5 years in of stressful sessions in Muscle Shoals with hundreds of recording sessions and NOT know what you are doing. (Try to think about this…..the shame and humiliation to set up a mike or to get ready in time to record the perfect take of the classic ‘Respect Yourself’ by the Staples Singers or ‘Freebird’ by Lynyrd Skynyrd…..you get what I mean?) I had a world class engineer in my dear friend Phill Brown who’d cut his teeth at Olympic and Island Studios doing everything from the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin, T-Rex, Pink Floyd, Cat Stevens and too many more numerous to mention…..check out http://www.tape.demon.co.uk/index.htm) so I knew we’d be able to cut the mustard with anybody in the world. At the time we were confident and ready to work with the best talent we could find.
I turned Robert on to Little Feat’s Dixie Chicken when we were doing pre-production on Robert’s album and said that I’d love to ask Lowell George to play on his record.
-You’ve previously mentioned that Lowell was familiar with Robert from his time with Vinegar Joe. Did The Meters know Robert’s work, or Lowell’s? How was the chemistry in the studio when all of these amazing musicians “collided.”?
One of the best sessions I ever did……or Lowell. At this point nobody was rich from making music. Most people did sessions to earn extra money. When we arrived in NO the Meters had never heard of Lowell or Robert, but they knew I was from Muscle Shoals. So hopefully there was some built in respect for a fellow Southern music man, but I doubt it. Not only was the music so inspired but at lunch everyday Leo and George would introduce us to some of the best neighbor food joints in New Orleans. I because addicted to Oyster Po’Boys as a result.
-This was Robert’s first solo album, and I imagine it was being met with some high expectations from the label, rock press, and fans of his work with VJ. Did you sense any nervousness from him…was there a feeling that the stakes were high?
There were huge expectations about his debut album for sure. Robert was always a cool customer and never gave it any consideration to his credit. The label adored the record and knew they’d struck gold with Robert.
-Prior to your arrival in New Orleans, was there already a specific plan for what material you would be recording? Or did you start from a longer list and add and subtract, etc.?
We did pre-production in London and had a laundry list of songs we wanted to record when we knew where we’d be recording and with whom we’d be wording with. But in all situations you cut and paste and improvise as you engage with the studio dynamics. Sailing Shoes was unplanned as was Sneaking Sally through the Alley but we were having so much fun we were willing to go off piste and try anything.
-How much input did Lowell have on the arrangement of “Sailin’ Shoes”? It’s so different than the Little Feat version?
It was 90 % Lowell and 10% was the Meters. I heard the opening bars as we began to rehearse in the studio and went ballistic knowing that it was far superior to the Little Feat version (after all it was seriously funky!), told them all to keep the tempo up and let me go record a demo so we could all hear a playback. Well the 2nd take is what is on the album. From start to finish it might have taken 20 minutes. These guys were so good that it came together perfectly. I remember George Porter asking Lowell if it was a new song, so obviously the guys from New Orleans had never heard of Little Feat, so it was nice to see how great musicians and the creative process can work when ever musician make ‘room’ to make the others sound good……and everything played is the minimum to make the others sound great.
-One of the most distinctive and memorable characteristics of the album is the linking of the first three tracks, inasmuch as it is now hard to hear one without wanting to hear all three! What was the genesis of the idea to link these tracks?
The genius was a large block of hash and…..just kidding. I was a massive Beatles fan and of George Martin their producer. I was lucky enough to get to know George later on but he was my role model as a record producer. And the things he’d done segueing tracks together on Sgt Pepper’s and Abbey Road were very clever. And I thought the strongest songs we had to work with were SSTHA and Sailing Shoes, so it was obvious that I had to make them work together. All I was trying to do was to give Robert as dynamic an opening to his recording career by announcing that this guy was a serious player and you (the audience) better sit up and take notice.
-“Blackmail” is the only Lowell George/Robert Palmer co-write that has ever seen the light of day. Do you know what the process was for the writing of this song…was it a song that one man started and the other completed?
No. They went to our hotel, ordered room service and came out with this.
-Was Allen Toussaint present for the recording of either the title track or “From A Whisper To A Scream,” and how present do you remember him being during these sessions as a whole?
Allen owned the studio and had an office there so he was in and out the whole time. I asked him to present ‘Whisper’ to the musicians and he played it for us on the acoustic piano so we could learn the chord sequence. We changed the key to accommodate Robert’s best vocal range and then funked it up Lowell and Meter’s style until I was happy with the arrangement.
-“Through It All There’s You” sounds like a jam…whose decision was it to include it in all its 12-plus-minute glory? Any hesitation from anyone, during the era that gave us Tales From Topographic Oceans and Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, about devoting one-third of the album to the track?
Robert loved this. It was his idea of pure funk. It was done totally live and without a single overdub. Since it’s the last track on the album we left it that long because (a) it would get lots of US airplay because (B) disc jockeys’ could put it on the radio and then go for to the loo or grab a slice of pizza as it played.
-Was there a sense when the sessions were completed that you had done something special? Were you happy with the album? Was Robert? What were the commercial expectations for the album on Island’s part, and were they met?
We loved making the album, and both Robert and I were proud that we’d been given the opportunity to do whatever we wanted to do and were never told what to do by Island. Chris Blackwell and Island trusted us to go and do whatever w0000e wanted without ever interfering.
When the album was released we had high expectations for its US reception. Capital Records were the US distributor and frankly they did not promote or market the album well. There was a power struggle at the company at the time and Island was not a priority, so the album received little support from Capitol. In the UK it was a critical hit and sold well. More importantly it helped to establish Robert as a major talent. The bottom line is that I am still collecting a royalty check on this record after 35 years. So I’d say it worked.
-Was there an understanding from the moment you left Sea-Saint Studios that you would be making another album? Was there a sense of building on what you had begun with Sneakin’ Sally Thru the Alley, or was there more of an intent to change/expand the sound?
We knew we’d nailed it and that Chris and Island would love this record. There was never a question about that to me or Robert. We didn’t lose any sleep worrying what anyone thought because we knew how good and innovative it was. And Robert wanted to make another record with me and see how far we could stretch one another.
-Obviously there was a history with Lowell that made working with Little Feat something of a natural on Pressure Drop, but whose idea was it to incorporate the L.A. musicians, to work with the Muscle Shoals guys, and to incorporate the Gene Page string arrangements?
Basically most of those were my choices. I wanted to record Little Feat so that was a no brainer since Lowell invited us to record with them when they camped out in Baltimore to record ‘Feats Don’t Fail Me Now’ and I was thrilled to do part of the record with what was my favorite band. And Robert loved working with them. At some point there was serious talk about Robert replacing Lowell but we’ll save that story for another time.
By the time we made the 2nd record the material we chose dictated how we would record it. For instance the songs Robert was writing lent themselves to the LA session players we wanted, and the major reason was the excuse for us to work with James Jameson (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Jamerson). James played on virtually every Motown hit session ever recorded and was the most brilliant bass player I’d ever worked with, and I worked with Duck Dunn from Stax fame and David Hood from the Muscle Shoals guys. James could not play the same thing twice in a row and every time you did a take you were left completely gobsmacked by how great this guy was.
I wanted to go back to Muscle Shoals to work with the MSS guys and see if we could make better versions of some of the same songs as we’d recorded in Baltimore. But by the time we left Baltimore with Little Feat we’d run out of songs, and I tried to record Fine Time again to see if we could better it. The MSS guys told me I was crazy because the Little Feat version was so tight, and they said I should keep that. I asked Barry Beckett to overdub his Wurlitzer on the track and it worked perfectly so that’s all the Muscle Shoals work on the record..
The Gene Page string arrangements were because we were fans of his work with Barry White and others and he was also great for the lush tracks we’d produced.
From where I sit after all this time, it seems Island USA (Capital) dropped the ball on Pressure Drop big time. I thought there were two #1 singles on the album and they again failed to distribute and market the singles and album adequately.
-Was there any hesitation on the part of anyone about the disparate sounds at play on Pressure Drop, as opposed to the more consistent musical feel of Sneakin’ Sally? Was it a conscious decision to broaden the palette or more a case of Robert wanting to work with the best musicians, no matter the style?
Pressure Drop should have been 2 different albums…..In retrospect; it should have either been a Little Feat backed album or a Gene Page/James Jameson record. Both styles were fine for Robert but they did not mix well. Mojo Magazine recently called Pressure Drop one of the 50 Best Island Albums of all time but I’d disagree. It was fish and fowl to be honest and I wish we’d made it a Part 1 and Part 2…..
© Steve Smith 2009