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Gambit Weekly The Power of Funk

Robert Palmer recorded a masterpiece years ago in New Orleans

By Rich Collins

SEPTEMBER 22, 1997:  During the past decade, a new generation of music fans has discovered Robert Palmer's seminal white-boy funk disc Sneaking Sally Through the Alley. Although the album never graduated from cult status when it was released in 1974, it has earned steady airplay on rock radio in recent years thanks to its exuberant blend of New Orleans funk beats and classic rock emotion. The disc, which was recorded in New Orleans, New York City and Palmer's native England, is most famous for "the trilogy," an epic jam created by fusing the title track with the tunes "Sailing Shoes" and "Hey Julia."

It's no wonder Sally is so damn funky. To create the album's signature sound, a fresh-faced Palmer collaborated with a dream lineup of musicians that included members of the Meters and the late Lowell George, the slide-guitar genius who masterminded Little Feat's boogie attack. In addition, the disc's title track was written by Allen Toussaint, and it was partially recorded at Toussaint's Sea-Saint studios, one of the funkiest places on earth.

Palmer says he was inspired to do the record in town with these players because he had become fascinated by the music of the Meters, Dr. John and other local groups.

"Since I was such a fan of their music, my writing was in that category," says Palmer. "When I felt I had enough material and experience to cut a solo record, I went to the record company and said that I wanted to cut with the Meters and another group that I worked with in New York. Within a week, I had started in New York and worked with a rhythm section there, and then met up with Lowell George and the others at Sea-Saint."

The tunes "Sneaking Sally" and "Sailing Shoes" were cut in town. "Hey Julia," meanwhile, was performed entirely by Palmer back in England after the local sessions were over. The idea to blend the songs came about after the fact. Once it was all put together, Palmer knew he had something special -- if not necessarily accessible to the masses.

"To a certain extent [I knew it was good]," he says, "but you've got to understand that's still a cult record. I never broke out of that status. I don't know if to this day it sold more than 750,000 copies. I knew what I'd done, knew I was jumping in the deep end. If that was good, then I was going to stick with it, and if it wasn't, I'd stick with real estate."

Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli toured with Palmer's group a couple of years after the sessions, but then the New Orleans connection faded. Palmer has come through town occasionally since then, but his various projects have kept him busy elsewhere.

Robert Palmer (left) and pals appear
Monday at the House of Blues

Those projects included recording a series of discs that proved Palmer to be a musical chameleon. He had hits, including "Every Kinda People," "Bad Case of Loving You," "Addicted to Love" and "Simply Irresistible," and he had enough misses to earn jabs from critics who thought his efforts more sleek than substantial.

One of Palmer's many musical experiments was a 1980s "super group" called Power Station. The band, which also included John and Andy Taylor of the incurably British Duran Duran, has reformed this year to release an album and embark on a small tour that makes a stop Monday (Sept. 22) at the House of Blues.

The whole process is just for fun, says Palmer, although he teamed up with his old pals (minus John Taylor) with the stipulation that the recording process for Power Station's second album be more organic than the first.

"I wasn't prepared to be involved unless the band got together and wrote a dozen songs before we went anywhere near the studio," says Palmer. "The first time out, they already cut the tracks and I had to work out something to go with the music they'd cut. That was murder."

Palmer says this album, Living in Fear, is a different story. And the live show, which features the Uptown Horns from New York City, captures the best of it along with tunes from the first record and several Palmer staples.

An all-star jam with the Meters is probably out of the question.

Showtime 9 p.m. Tickets $22.

What do Stevie Ray Vaughan, Junior Brown, Eric Johnson and Cowboy Mouth guitarist John Thomas Griffith all have in common? Next month, Griffith will join his peers in the Texas Guitar Hall of Fame established by the Dallas-based Buddy magazine.

Griffith, who was born in Lubbuck, Tex., hopes to attend the Dallas induction ceremony, which should be a big jam session, but the Mouth tour schedule may not allow for that. His absence won't mean he isn't excited about the recognition, however.

"I am really psyched," says Griffith. "I never thought I'd get something like this. It's made me think more of doing a follow-up solo album (to 1988's Son of an Engineer). Now I have a little more gumption."

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