Going Deep

By  |  February 16, 2017
Still from “The Hand of Fatima” (2009), directed by Augusta Palmer. Illustration by Augusta Palmer and Hongsun Yoon Still from “The Hand of Fatima” (2009), directed by Augusta Palmer. Illustration by Augusta Palmer and Hongsun Yoon

Because the house on Durwood Road did not have air-conditioning and because three seasons in Little Rock seem to be mostly summer, Bob Palmer was practicing with his bedroom window open. He sucked on the reed of his Army Band Selmer saxophone and wondered if he might someday sound like Stan Getz on the albums his dad played. No, he’d never sound like Getz, but he didn’t have to. He just had to sound like what he sounded like, and he was still figuring out what that was. He had time. He was only in junior high. His little sister, Dorothy, said he sometimes sounded “like an elephant with its trunk caught in the door. Scree! Scree!” He didn’t mind the comment. It didn’t necessarily sound good, but what did “good” mean? It was sound. And sound was interesting.

Bob had studied the photos in DownBeat, knew every sax player’s individual embouchure, knew how the mouth and breath controlled the vibrations of the reed, which colluded with the curves and keys of the horn and finally confected a sound. His mind catalogued. That’s what it did. When he was barely able to talk, he amazed his parents by naming the makes and models of cars parked on the streets as they drove to the nursing home on Sundays where his father played piano for the old folks. His parents asked him how he knew the cars, and he said, “By their hubcaps.” Before long, he would begin a lifelong fascination with other spinning circles: record albums.

That afternoon in his room, Bob ran through some scales, noted the notes he missed, noted what was interesting about the miss, and started again. On his next pass he bent the missed notes a little, stretching them out like the taffy in the perpetual-motion taffy machine at the state fair. He heard some neighbor boys playing in the yard. He made some more elephant and taffy sounds, blowing them out the window and into the hot Arkansas air. Before he finished his next warbling scale, a spray of water came back through the window and soaked him. He paused, water dripping from his horn and face, then he blew again and the note didn’t bend but sloshed. That was cool. He’d made an interesting sound, and somebody had heard it—and responded. 

 

From around 1970 until his early death in 1997, Robert Palmer’s byline signaled perceptiveness, erudition, clarity, and authority on a wide range of music—jazz, blues, rock, punk, minimalism—though he hated to funnel it into discrete categories. He wrote regularly for Rolling Stone, Penthouse, Guitar World, and just about everywhere else that covered music; the New York Times appointed him the paper’s first full-time pop-music critic in 1981, the same year Palmer’s masterpiece appeared: his fourth book, Deep Blues. At a time when few were listening to and even fewer were studying blues music, Palmer’s “Musical and Cultural History” is a marriage of serious appreciation, journalistic investigation, and critical rigor, in which he traces the genre’s hazy origins from West Africa to the Delta and makes an ironclad case for the transcendence of the music and poetry that emerged from the suffering and trials of African-American life in the South. “The fact of the matter is,” he writes, “Delta blues is a refined, extremely subtle, and ingeniously systematic musical language. Playing and especially singing it right involve some exceptionally fine points that only a few white guitarists, virtually no white singers, and not too many black musicians who learned to play and sing anywhere other than the Delta have been able to grasp.” Thirty-five years on, the book is a staple on syllabi for dozens of courses on American music in universities here and abroad and is continually at the top of Amazon’s best-selling blues books.

In a documentary film based on Deep Blues, produced in 1990 with support from the Eurythmics’s Dave Stewart, Palmer makes an unconventional but wry and appealing Virgil as he takes us through a Delta landscape full of poverty, violence, and backbreaking work (he describes Nelson Street in Greenville, Mississippi, as having “crack houses and other modern amenities”). Whether strolling Beale Street in oversized aviator sunglasses and a SUNN SYSTEMS t-shirt or walking through fields with a lime-green baseball cap covering his shaggy hair on his way to R. L. Burnside’s house, Palmer is genial, knowledgeable, funny, and welcome everywhere. 

Jon Pareles, who succeeded Palmer as pop-music critic at the New York Times, credited him with a “phonographic memory: the ability to recall and cross-reference the vast amounts of music he had heard,” and Brad Tolinski of Guitar World wrote that “Robert Palmer was the most entertaining, the most coherent and the most informative music journalist with whom I’ve ever worked.” Palmer was that rarest of critics: an accomplished and innovative musician, a scholar who wrote prose that was accessible to the masses, a journalist who believed in getting stories straight from the source, a champion and producer of neglected blues masters, and a friend welcomed into the homes of the biggest rock stars of his day.

Palmer published six books in his lifetime; his shorter music articles and liner notes were collected in 2009’s Blues & Chaos, edited by Anthony DeCurtis. Across his writings we learn what fascinated the author, who he spent time with, and, most important, who he spent time listening to. Only occasionally do we learn about the man behind the critic. Where did Bob Palmer, the man who showed us where the blues came from, come from?

 

About the time Palmer was beginning to play sax, Little Rock schools were a boiling cauldron of turmoil. When he was twelve, the 1957 integration crisis at Central High School played out in the community and in the national media. Every day, the front pages of the city’s two daily newspapers, the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette, carried new images of angry white protesters; national TV news programs arrived to capture the voices and violent actions. Bob’s father, Robert Franklin Palmer Sr., taught at West Side Junior High School, and at home there were “a lot of discussions,” as Dorothy (now Dorothy Palmer Cox) remembers, “about the rightness and wrongness” of events in the community during that turbulent time. In 1958–59, Governor Orval Faubus closed all high schools in the city for what would come to be known as the “Lost Year.” The Arkansas Gazette won two Pulitzer Prizes for its coverage of the conflict, including its editorials decrying the white mobs that stood opposed to educational opportunity for Bob’s black peers. To a young man with a horn and with a sensitivity to language, both music and journalism must have seemed like fields where he could register a primal yawp of protest.  

Hall High School, opened in 1957, had been planned after the Brown v. Board decision as a refuge from integration for whites who lived in the upper-class part of town; the Palmers’ stolidly middle-class neighborhood nearby fell in that district, too, and Bob matriculated in 1960. He joined the Warrior marching band and learned to play the clarinet. He loved listening to records, but nothing beat the frisson and ephemerality of live shows, so some nights he would climb out his bedroom window and make his way downtown to Robinson Auditorium to hear black singers like Jackie Wilson or Sam Cooke, of whose show he later wrote, “we weren’t just captivated, we were utterly entranced and illuminated.” Promoters commonly booked back-to-back performances, the earlier one, by custom, for white audiences and the later one for blacks. “I was the first white kid to start showing up at all the black shows,” Palmer told an NPR interviewer in 1995. “I was such a novelty, nobody thought to stop me.”

Two other young jazz fans were in the marching band: Fred Tackett, who played trumpet but was also a talented drummer and guitarist—Bob initially met Fred because he had played in Bob’s dad’s band—and drummer James “Killer” Matthews, so nicknamed because he was “such a gentle fucking soul,” says Tackett. They would meet at each other’s houses, and Palmer would discourse on the avant-garde end of the jazz spectrum (John Coltrane, Archie Shepp). Tackett turned Palmer on to Cannonball Adderley, whose motto they took as gospel: “Hipness is not a state of mind. It’s a fact of life.” At school assemblies they played free jazz until the administrators begged them to play rock & roll. They decided to start a jazz appreciation club, and, as Tackett remembers, “This one girl decided she’d be in the club with us, and Bob gave her a test, a written jazz test to get her in the group. I was going, ‘Are you out of your mind? Are you going to make her write an article about Charlie Parker or something?’” Standards. Bob Palmer was upholding standards.

Even though integration had been the law of the land for eight years, Palmer’s Hall class still had only one black student (a young woman named Gracetta Thompson). By night, he was feigning sleep, sneaking out with his sax or clarinet, and joining Tackett and Matthews in gigs at rough road houses outside the city limits, such as Beverly Gardens and the Top Hat Club. Tackett, who was voted “Most Talented” as a senior and went on to play guitar for Little Feat and work with Boz Scaggs, Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, and dozens of other artists, says about those clubs, “They were buckets of blood. You literally played in cages with chicken wire, the whole nine yards.” 

Tackett had already been attending shows in the clubs on the African-American commercial strip of 9th Street, where friendly proprietors let him in the back door to lurk and listen next to the craps table and where he introduced Palmer to some of the black musicians. They also played with mostly black bands at the white venues (where the integrated band was often a point of contention), like the South Main Businessmen’s Club. (Of that establishment, the judge who eventually closed it commented: “Apparently all you need is a gun and a [criminal] record to be a member.”) Palmer once narrowly escaped an exchange of gunfire at the club. He also learned from experienced black musicians who played there, like bandleader, tenor saxophonist, and Sun Records session man Mose Reed, whom Palmer called “my first real teacher.” Informed by the injustice he had witnessed as a young student in Little Rock and moved by the urgency of the music—he wrote in Rock & Roll: An Unruly History that Little Richard’s “feral howls first hit the pop charts . . . only weeks before Rosa Parks . . . refused to yield her seat to a white man”—he threw his lot in with those who had suffered. “By the time I was 15 or 16,” he told John Sinclair in a 1993 interview, “I decided that white people in Little Rock were just totally poison, so I started playing pretty much with Black bands.” 

After high school, Palmer enrolled at Little Rock University (now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock), where he continued studying and playing music, but also began turning more to writing and literature, as an English major and editor of the student newspaper, the Forum. In a recorder class early on, he met Walter Henderson, a trumpet player who was one of the few dozen black students at the university. “He was crazy about Ornette Coleman,” says Henderson, who went on to play with Buddy Guy, the Four Tops, and the Chicago jazz collective AACM. “Bob was very much the kind of guy who extended himself, including extending a friendship to me as a black person.” Engaged in social causes, Palmer became involved with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in Little Rock in 1966 and was one of the organizers of a nineteen-person march in opposition to the war in Vietnam, a stand made more courageous by the small turnout in a small city, where, when your name appears in the paper for such a thing, people who don’t agree with you know where to find you. Dorothy remembers the night some vandals ripped out the family’s mailbox and threw a piece of it through a plate-glass window at the house on Durwood.

The pattern of intellectual and academic accomplishment and experiential learning continued during college. “He was a very research-oriented guy,” says Henderson, “and at the same time, way cool.” Palmer often hitchhiked over to Memphis to immerse himself in the music scene there. He worked doing odd jobs for Chips Moman, who had recently left Stax to open American Sound Studio and was producing songs for Neil Diamond, Joe Tex, and Aretha Franklin. Palmer published some of his first journalism during this time, hanging around the studio and interviewing the musicians who came through. 

He also became friends with Bill Barth, who was rediscovering old blues musicians like Skip James. “Barth had learned all this guitar stuff from Skip James that nobody else could play,” Palmer recalled in the interview with Sinclair, “you know, because it was in weird tunings and everything.” The old blues masters moved him, not only because he thought their work had been unjustly neglected, but also because “the deepest blues asks its listeners to confront their joys, their sorrows, their lusts, and, above all, their mortality,” as he writes in Deep Blues. In 1966, Palmer joined Barth and others (hippies, most of them) in founding the Memphis Country Blues Festival (later simply the Memphis Blues Festival). There, he began to undertake the work of studying, listening to, and thinking and writing about the blues that would inform his magnum opus.

 

The professional story of Robert Palmer the rock critic begins in 1969 following his move to New York after college. He wrote for a small music magazine called Go. He continued to play sax and clarinet, joining a “bluesy, jazzy eclectic band,” as he once described it, called the Insect Trust, made up of some friends from New York and Memphis, including Barth. After the band broke up in 1970, Palmer began to write for an emerging magazine called Rolling Stone, mainly about jazz. 

His imagination was both restless and relentless, his life sometimes as chaotic as his prose was crystal clear. In her excellent documentary The Hand of Fatima, his daughter, Augusta Palmer, describes him as being “entirely absent for the first twelve years of my life” (she was born in 1969) and movingly depicts the cost of his decisions on his fractured marriages and relationships. “His life was music,” Augusta says in the film, “and that didn’t always include me.” She retraces his travels to Morocco, where he played with the Master Musicians of Joujouka and celebrated the Rites of Pan with Ornette Coleman, “with the screaming and shrilling of hundreds of hill tribesmen in trance overlaying the elemental ritual music,” he wrote. Augusta says now that her father believed “music has the ability to change consciousness,” but the peripatetic search for that high must often have seemed like running away. DeCurtis, the editor who brought Palmer back to Rolling Stone in 1990, says about that time, “I was sort of like his keeper in a funny way. . . . After a while, anybody who wanted to reach Bob came to me. Bob wasn’t always easy to find.”

To the end of his life, Palmer continued to dive deeply into the blues. He moved to Mississippi in 1987 and produced records for CeDell Davis, Junior Kimbrough, and R. L. Burnside for the Fat Possum label. (In the Oxford American’s first Southern Music issue, in 1997, Palmer wrote that Burnside’s juke joints “were as famous for the level of violence as for R. L.’s outstanding music, which rolled out of his jacked-up guitar amp in dark, turbulent waves.”) Then he impulsively moved back to Little Rock, upon meeting and falling immediately for JoBeth Briton, a music scholar and writer. They later relocated to New Orleans, and she became his widow when he died of liver failure in 1997 at age fifty-two. 

 

On the tenth anniversary of Palmer’s death, the website rockcritics.com (“rock critics talking to, about, and with each other”) solicited testimonials from colleagues about Palmer and his work. Nelson George, “as a black writer in a white dominated writing world,” takes inspiration from Palmer’s understanding that “you couldn’t really love gut bucket blues without celebrating the beat.” Alan Light writes that “his descriptions of sound were evocative, free of jargon, and full of context.” In the introduction to Blues & Chaos, DeCurtis notes that Palmer’s writings “may well be where he created the best, most gripping version of himself.” 

There, he is educator, elucidator, explainer, experiencer. In Deep Blues, he wrote on Charley Patton in juke joints: “In these situations, the talk was incessant and boisterous. The sound of dancers’ feet was loud and percussive on board floors, muffled but still rhythmic if the floor was packed earth. Potent white lightning flowed freely, and some drank more noxious concoctions like Canned Heat—Sterno strained through a handkerchief.” On Howlin’ Wolf: “Wolf’s rasping voice sounded strong enough to shear steel; this music was heavy metal, years before the term was coined.” On Bo Diddley, in liner notes to the 1990 anthology The Chess Box: “a singer with steely chops who can shout with the best of them, cut off his phrases as percussively as he chokes his guitar, handle blues shadings and more complex gospel colorations with equal aplomb, project an instantly identifiable personality and sense of humor, and still hit every note with a full-bodied sound and squarely on the head.” 

Mike Keckhaver, longtime Little Rock musician and coeditor of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas Music, remembers Palmer as friend and artist: “I’d get a call out of the blue and discuss some new musical discovery. . . . When I played with him it was all improvisation. . . . Some of the stuff that came out of that horn was transcendent. He really taught me a lot about paying attention to the sound you’re getting more than the notes you’re playing. . . . He was probably the least self-aggrandizing famous person I’ve ever known.” It’s something repeated over and over by those who remember Palmer’s sweeping intelligence, his likeability, his generosity, and his enthusiasm. 

“He was a sweet kind of guy,” says Henderson. 

“Such a nice guy,” says Benny Turner, a friend of Briton’s and onetime Little Rock music booker, “to be as famous and as respected as he was and to be so unassuming and unpretentious.”

“We all loved him,” says Yoko Ono, in Augusta’s documentary. “He was the conscience. He was the superb intelligence in the music world.”

People who love music loved Bob Palmer.

In the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University, the Robert Palmer Collection, which is still being processed, contains 8,000 albums (a fraction of his collection, many of which were lost in a Little Rock flood), 900 books, and 250 interviews on cassette. Among the many photographs in the archive is an undated snapshot from high school. He’s probably about fifteen years old, the age when he was beginning to sneak out to see shows and play in clubs. He’s sitting on the fender of a big 1950 Plymouth. The car has a dented nose and a crooked vanity plate on the front that reads KOKY LITTLE ROCK, for the city’s African-American radio station where Al Bell (later of Stax) was a deejay. Young Bob Palmer is wearing skinny slacks, pointy shoes, and black-frame glasses. He has a glass of something in his right hand and is gesturing with his left, almost as if he is conducting. It’s hard to tell, but his eyes look closed. You can’t help but imagine that music is playing. He looks happy.  


“One of These Days”  by CeDell Davis (with Robert Palmer on clarinet) is Track 12 on the Visions of the Blues Southern Music Issue CD.

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Jay Jennings is a senior editor of the Oxford American. He is the author of Carry the Rock: Race, Football and the Soul of an American City and the editor of Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany.