Robert Palmer, gravel voiced, smooth and addicted to style, dies at 54

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The Independent Culture

Robert Palmer, the singer best known for his sharp suits and for creating an iconic pop video, died yesterday from a heart attack. He was 54.

Palmer, who attributed his distinctive voice to his chain-smoking and love of malt whisky, died early in the morning in Paris where he was on a short break with his partner, Mary Ambrose, after recording a programme for British television.

For many, the highlight of his three decades in the pop world was the sexually charged video for the single "Addicted to Love" in 1986, in which he was backed by a group of models dressed identically in black, wearing red lipstick.

The single was a huge success, went to number one in the United States and earned him a Grammy, while the glossy video gave a huge boost to the emerging video music channel MTV. It became a defining image of the decade and sent a powerful message to the rest of the industry that the music video was now an art form in its own right.

Elkie Brooks, who shared lead vocals with Palmer in the 1970s blues rock band Vinegar Joe - in which he first came to public recognition - said yesterday that she was "devastated" by the news.

"Robert was a star - he was a great writer, a fabulous musician and a great singer. And he was stunning looking," she told the BBC. "Robert was always one that wanted to be different, wanted to be trendy - from the way he looked to the music. He wanted to be a step ahead."

Palmer also collaborated with Duran Duran on a cover version of "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight". In a statement, the band said last night: "We are absolutely devastated to hear of Robert's death. He was a very dear friend and a great artist. This is a tragic loss to the British music industry. Our thoughts and sympathies are with his family and his partner."

Palmer had been in Paris to record a programme for Yorkshire Television, called My Kinda People, on his musical influences. Mark Witty, the producer, who last saw Palmer over lunch two days ago, said: "I was devastated. He was a man at the top of his game. He was fit as a fiddle especially for a man of his age. He looked remarkably young for 54, there wasn't a line on his face."

In the programme, which has been put on hold, Palmer paid tribute to artists such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Little Richard.

Palmer cultivated the image of the sophisticated playboy with homes in the Bahamas and Lugano in Switzerland - from where he would visit Milan for his clothes.

He was born in Batley, Yorkshire and never lost his accent or the northern work ethic. When only a few months old, his family moved to Malta, where his father, who worked for the Admiralty, was stationed, but he returned to Scarborough when he was 12.

He left school at 16 to become a graphic designer and his first performances came soon afterwards, when joined the Alan Brown Set.

In interviews, Palmer said that his parents were amazed that their introverted son wanted to become a singer.

"They laughed when I said I would be standing out front and singing because I'd been so shy," he said. "When I started, I used to hide behind the amps and perform with my eyes shut. But I knew I could sing."

Palmer remained a somewhat static performer onstage, but his powerful voice and ability to interpret other people's songs led to him being spotted by Island Records boss Chris Blackwell while he was singing with Vinegar Joe.

Palmer got a better haircut and was re-invented as a mid-Atlantic, white soul lounge lizard, complete with the suits and half-naked women draped across the album covers.

His first success came with "Every Kinda People" in 1978 which reached number 53, although it got to number 15 in the US charts. In 1982 he had his first top 20 success in the UK with "Some Guys Have All The Luck", a cover of an old Persuaders number, which reached number 16. During the 1980's he formed the Power Station with John and Andy Taylor from Duran Duran and Tony Thompson, the drummer with Chic.

In recent years, and despite increasing deafness, he continued to make records and tour but was more celebrated abroad rather than at home.

Palmer was unconcerned. "People don't know what to write about me because all I do is work," he said to one interviewer. He released his last album, Drive, in May.

Palmer split up from his first wife, Sue, in 1993. The couple have two children, James and Jane.