Too Good To Be True: Robert Palmer’s Secrets at 40

The dapper don of soulful artpop closed out the 70s with a hit album

“Too Good To Be True” sleeve art, 1979

After the succession of seminal breakout albums like Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley, Pressure Drop, Some People Can Do What They Want and Double Fun, some artists might have found it a challenge to come up with a follow-up. Not Robert Palmer.

Although Palmer established a template with those earlier efforts — one that gained him a keen cult following and ongoing appreciation for his reggae rhythms and a decidedly assertive vocal stance — it was his fifth solo album, the somewhat cryptically titled Secrets, that not only changed his musical direction but also brought him a pair of modest hits. Those two songs — the Moon Martin penned rocker “Bad Case Of Lovin’ You (Doctor Doctor)” and an able cover of Todd Rundgren’s “Can We Still Be Friends” — helped inscribe his name on the pop charts.

 

 

Ironically, the album scored better in the States, peaking just inside the top 20, than it did in his native U.K. where it stalled outside the top 50. Nevertheless, it did well in a number of other countries as well and helped established Palmer as a formidable international star.

Truth be told, it had been a long climb for Palmer just to reach that point. He gained early notoriety when he stepped in for a departing Jess Roden in the Alan Bown Project, a band of modest consequence, in 1969. Dada, a sprawling ensemble that included singer Elkie Brooks and her husband Pete Gage, followed, but the fact that the group was a somewhat unwieldy 12 piece fusion outfit didn’t help their chances for success. He found firmer footing with Vinegar Joe, which found him reunited with Brooks and Gage and led to three fine albums prior to their break up in 1974.

Nevertheless, Palmer gained assurance and some degree of notoriety at the helm of Vinegar Joe, making his transition into a solo sojourn both easy and obvious. Indeed, his first actual emergence on the pop charts came with Double Fun, the album that yielded his initial solo success courtesy of the single “Every Kinda People.” Nevertheless, it took it took Secrets and its two accompanying singles to solidify his reputation as a chart champ. As a result, “Bad Case of Lovin’ You (Doctor Doctor)” became a prime part of his repertoire, while also giving Martin, its author, some much deserved attention that had evaded him on his own.

 

 

The remainder of the songs on Secrets added to the albums allure, particularly the soulful “Mean Ol World,” penned by Free bassist Andy Fraser, the same man who wrote the earlier “Every Kinda People.” Other highlights included “Woman You’re Wonderful,” “Love Stop” and “Too Good To Be True,” each an example of Palmer’s developing skills as an intrepid interpreter of other people’s songs.

In truth however, Secrets was only an early step forward towards greater achievements that awaited Palmer in the future, notably the two chart toppers he’d achieve later with the hypnotic hits “Addicted To Love” and “Simply Irresistible,” as well as those he later rendered with Power Station, the super group of sorts he formed with former members of a then-defunct Duran Duran. His efforts were eventually rewarded with a pair of Grammys for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, two Brit Awards for Best Make Solo Artist and, natch, an MTV Video Music Award.

Sadly, Palmer fell victim to a heart attack in September 2003 at the relatively young age of 54. Thankfully, he left behind a lingering legacy, one which owes a debt to Secrets’ success.

 

 

 

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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