Music: Some guys have all the luck

Robert Palmer is the boy from Batley who made it big. A new album, a wardrobe full of smart suits and a sumptuous international lifestyle - his only worry is whether he'll have to loosen his belt.
Robert Palmer quite possibly thinks he's it. But that's OK because, in a way, he's right. A native Batley boy, he has made judicious use of his fine voice (a baritone, he can also sing tenor or falsetto, a whopping range), eclectic musical tastes (Detroit rhythm, reggae, bossa nova, techno-kraut) and debonair demeanour, to establish an unassailable place in the rock canon.

Some contend that Palmer was cheated of the status he deserved - the average Joe probably knows him for mid-Eighties stomps such as "Addicted to Love", a memory prompted by the notorious video of long-legged, possibly lobotomised, guitar-wielding lovelies. Still, he has the respect of his peers, a sumptuous lifestyle with a home on the Swiss-Italian border, and a new album recorded in Capri. This would all tend to make you slightly pleased with yourself.

As might the fact that at 50, and despite a recent claim that "Good living has blurred my once-taut outline", Palmer is on powerful form. He demonstrated this at a showcase in February where, in a room of Thai-food-chomping sales managers, he delivered maximum Bob. Backed by a gospel choir, he mixed new tracks with gems from the past but, not surprisingly, it was the raunchy, sex-beast stuff that went down best - rock from a time before Loaded or FHM but somehow prefiguring them: GQ with its tie loosened and its shirt undone. Palmer, in trademark suit, sweated the show like the soul man he is, rending his hair and grimacing. His hand movements, however, were ornate and geisha-like, and his well-shod feet so tiny they might once have been bound.

A few days later, in his hotel room, I get to see it all close up. Not known for his love of the press, Palmer is sitting at the table smoking sternly and, at 10.30am, is half-way through a pitcher of Bloody Mary, having waved away tea or coffee with a curl of the lip. He clearly has the constitution of a tank, but there is, indeed, a cragginess to his playboy looks. In an Armani two-piece and wire-rimmed glasses, he has the air of a slightly malevolent, if louchely stylish, doctor.

If there is a fault he'll admit to - though in Palmer's view it's more of a quality - it's intolerance. "I'm intolerant of incompetents and ignorance. That's one thing I recognise about my age; I used to suffer fools, but I won't now." It's this that makes some think him arrogant. He isn't, quite. Nevertheless, his self-assurance has been his lodestar. Having studied comparative religion, he believes, as you would, in a composite god. Where does he look for reassurance? "To my inner harmony." He indicates his chest and laughs, as if it's obvious. "That's where God is."

Though born in Yorkshire, at three months old Palmer's family moved to Malta, where his father worked in naval intelligence. A solitary boy, he would accompany his parents to the glamorous balls of the international expatriate community. Here, and on American Forces radio, he heard Lena Horne, Sinatra and Nat King Cole, and soaked up a soigne approach to life. He became obsessed, for example, with the uniforms of the Italian naval officers - "They looked happening" - and grew fanatical over the neatness of his school wear.

It wasn't vanity, he now insists. "I've always been fastidious about clothes Psychological thing, I suppose. I don't like to get dirty." (The globe-trotting Palmer, by the way, has an accent that blends Batley and Los Angeles - Michael Parkinson goes Valley Girl. Or perhaps it's Alan Bennett. Of a recent tour of the States, where he was again depressed by messiness: "St Louis was - whoah! lt'd gone downhill, it was scruffy...") Years later, when he began performing, the immaculate Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding were his arbiters of taste. Plus a suit is a disguise and, he claims, he is painfully shy. Finally: "It's what you do, not how it looks." A sigh. "And thank God I never got tied up in any silly fashions - I nearly mentioned Bryan Ferry, but he had a feather boa, didn't he? - and had to look back and die of embarrassment."

The family returned to England, where the weather came as a nasty shock, and at 12 Palmer began guitar lessons with "a little old lady who burned a paraffin stove. First tune was `The Girl from Ipanema'." After school there was a stint at art college, but the curriculum "didn't encourage artistry", and he left to develop his R&B tastes. At 19 he got his first professional singing job; and he met his wife Sue, a fabric designer, on Slough station.

"I was taken by her style. Silver boots and silver mini-dress. The Sixties, y'know?" You just introduced yourself? "Well, she was also reading a science fiction book, and I'm a sci-fi fan."

Palmer is a private man but, despite the humping, grinding mid-period hits, in which the quest for random sex is brainlessly urgent, his personal life has been famously settled. It's quite a shock, then, to discover that the couple divorced more than 10 years ago.

But back to 1973, when he was spotted singing with Elkie Brooks in Vinegar Joe by Island records' MD Chris Blackwell. Blackwell flew him to New Orleans and set him up to record his debut album with those legendary funk stalwarts, The Meters. "To begin with, there was a definite impression of, `What's the white boy doin' here?' Ten minutes into the session, we hit a real big pocket and it got hot. The drummer stood up and said: `Hey, what's your name?' From then on, we rocked." The result, Sneakin' Sally through the Alley, was a cult success but, despite sophisticated follow-ups, the gorgeous singles from them - "Every Kinda People", "Johnny and Mary", "Looking for Clues", "Some Guys Have All the Luck" - did only moderately well.

It was joining the lumbering Power Station, with Duran Duran's John and Andy Taylor, that brought Palmer worldwide stardom in 1984; the album he made when he left, Riptide, was his first number one, powered by "Addicted to Love" and its incendiary video . Two years later, Heavy Nova continued the video formula ("Simply Irresistible", "I Didn't Mean to Turn You On") that so many found offensive, and went platinum.

Subsequent albums came and went unnoticed. It almost didn't matter - he'd been able to bring up his kids in the Bahamas, then move to the chocolate-box town of Lugano - but Palmer has his pride. Thus, a new label and his first LP in five years. Called Rhythm & Blues, it mixes romance with solid grooving, one or two eccentricities, a lost jewel from Little Feat's Lowell George and a cover of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get it On". Is he pleased with it?

"Some of it's blatantly erotic," he snorts. I wonder whether he tries to be provocative. "Just being honest." A shrug. "First thing anyone notices about somebody is what sex they are." When he's not working, Palmer likes to read, or irritate his teenage son and daughter by cranking up Motorhead or Rannstein. ("German goth band... wooh, they're fantastic.") He keeps his cigarette case full, except when he's performing, and remains a bon viveur ("And then it's another belt-hole. For whom the belt holes..."). He always claimed not to do drugs, and though now he'll say "Ah - I just never admitted it", he doesn't need them, anyway.

"I didn't used to be able to sit down... I thought that unless I was running around I'd vanish. Now I'm real good at relaxing. Light a fire. Put the slippers on. Watch TV." He looks up. Even talking about slippers, he's suave. "It's such a buzz doing that."

`Rhythm & Blues' is released on 12 April, The single, `True Love', is out Monday. Robert Palmer tours the UK in April