Friday, 30 April 2010

Recorded in New Orleans in 1974, Robert Palmer’s first solo album Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley filtered the music of Little Feat through the funk fusion of The Meters in a mixure of original material and songs by Allen Toussaint and Lowell George. That’s an impressive blend of influences reflected in an outstanding album.

Rear View: Robert Palmer "Sneaking Sally Through The Alley"

Sneaking Sally

Robert Palmer is probably best known for being Addicted To Love, but for a while Hughesy was addicted to Palmer's first solo album Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley.

I'm not, however, entirely sure how I came by it. I know where I bought it (a short-lived and long gone import shop in Brisbane's Adelaide Street on the site occupied by the Myer Centre) and I can guess that the purchase was prompted by the presence of Lowell George and The Meters and the fact that the album was produced by Allen Toussaint.

Apart from the fact that the album was released some time in 1974, I'm not entirely sure when I bought it. I was probably, however, in straitened financial circumstances, given the fact that 1974 was the year I went on study leave to finish my degree, and I couldn't afford to buy too much.

I'm reasonably certain that exposure to the early Little Feat albums, Allen Toussaint's horn charts for The Band's Rock of Ages and Dr John's In The Right Place had more than a little to do with the decision, but beyond that, not much is clear in the recollection department.

It certainly had very little to do with Palmer's stint in Vinegar Joe, given the fact that their recording career kicked off in 1972, by which time I wasn't spending as much time as I had been in the ground floor treasure trove that was my mate Eric's record collection. I certainly don't recall him raving about either Vinegar Joe or Rock'n’Roll Gypsies, though he may well have owned copies thereof.

I knew of Vinegar Joe, though, and would have been able to identify Elkie Brooks and Palmer as the band's vocal duo. Deep immersion in the English music press does that sort of thing to you.

So, to cut a long story short, I have no idea what prompted me to ask to hear a track or two off the album in that import shop, but I know what happened when I did.

Two words: Sailing Shoes.

I think it took all of three seconds to persuade me to hand over the requisite price, as The Meters launched into their own adaption of that wonderfully funky lurking groove that was one of Lowell George's trademarks (Little Feat's Rock & Roll Doctor is another example). Incredibly funky, great tear your throat out vocal, a complete package that's worth the $US 9.98 they'd be charging over at Amazon if Australian consumers could actually buy MP3s there, on its own. It was lurking there on iTunes when I wrote the original version of this, but has since disappeared, along with the equally worthy follow-up, Pressure Drop.

Seriously, it's that good.

Just as good is the perfectly segue into Hey Julia, a Palmer composition that rhymes Julia, peculiar and fool ya along with eyeses, surprises and materializes. Tasty. By this stage you're in bonus territory if, like me, you're of the view that Sailing Shoes is worth the price of admission on its own.

The segue into Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley isn't quite as seamless, but it's bloody close, and the three tracks represent a one-two-three combination punch that few other recordings can match. Interestingly, tracks one and three are backed by the Meters and the intervening Hey Julia has backing from Scots guitarist Jim Mullen (ex-Vinegar Joe and Pete Brown's Piblokto) and percussionist Jody Linscott, presumably recorded in London rather than New Orleans or New York. Very tasty multilayered vocals in there too.

After those three, there's a drop off with the languid intro to Get Outside, recorded in New York with Cornell Dupree (guitar), Richard Tee (piano), Gordon Edwards (bass), and Bernard Purdie (drums). Palmer, his manager or producer Steve Smith certainly knew how to pick their backing musos.

The same rhythm section provides the baking for Blackmail, a Lowell George/Palmer co-write, a tale of deceit that could well be the flip-side of Dixie Chicken.

The Meters - Art Neville (keyboards), Leo Nocentelli (guitar), George Porter, Jr. (bass), and Joseph 'Zigaboo' Modeliste (drums) are back at the start of vinyl side two for How Much Fun, a glorious romp through the possibilities of carnal excess. There's a funky wah wah guitar intro to From A Whisper To A Scream, a sublime little package with Allen Toussaint written all over it.

Finally, there's the twelve minute workout that's Through It All There's You, which boasts another slinky groove from the New York rhythm section and a wonderfully laid-back feel. Great way to wrap up an album that should've put Palmer right up there with the best of the highly rated British R&B vocalists.

Unfortunately it didn't sell as well as it should've, and while its successors continued in much the same groove with many of the same elements (The Meters and Toussaint were notably absent) it was some time before Palmer got the recognition he deserved.

The follow-up album, Pressure Drop, was notable for introducing me to the works of Toots and The Maytals (thanks to the title track) and the presence of Little Feat and Motown bassist James Jamerson. My copy of that one seems to have disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and long term lack of a turntable has meant that it's been years since I heard Secrets or Clues.

That’s an issue that needs to be addressed.

In the Top Thousand:
The whole album!