Renowned music critic and record producer Robert Palmer, whose recent bout
with liver disease rallied musicians such as Patti Smith and former Big Star leader Alex Chilton to perform benefit shows in his honor, died Thursday
morning in New York of complications from the illness. He was 52.
The author of Deep Blues had been fighting a severe case of hepatitis
that he contracted in 1985, and from which he suffered a relapse several
years later. He was first admitted to Little Rock's University of Arkansas
Medical Center in August, but was soon transferred to New York's
Westchester County Medical Center to await a donor for a potentially
life-saving liver transplant. Doctors were hoping for a single donor to
provide both a liver and kidney to reduce the chance of rejection.
Palmer is best known for the seminal genre-study Deep Blues, which
traces the history of that music from the Mississippi Delta in the early
years of this century up to Chicago in the post-World War II period. He
set a precedent as the New York Times' first full-time rock 'n' roll
writer, and served as chief pop critic for the paper for more than a decade
in the 1970s and '80s. Most recently, Palmer authored the book Rock &
Roll: An Unruly History , the companion to the PBS series of the same
name, for which he served as chief consultant. In addition, he was a
long-time contributing editor at Rolling Stone, wrote and directed
the award-winning documentary The World According to John Coltrane
and taught courses on American music at Yale University, Carnegie-Mellon,
Bowdoin College, the University of Mississippi and Brooklyn College.
Music critic Greil Marcus, a contemporary and long-time friend of Palmer's,
recently referred to him as "one of the few distinguished pop music critics
to come out of the South. His background in Arkansas, both as a fan and
as a teenage rock 'n' roll musician, has always informed his writing and
yet he never writes down to people who have no musical training."
Although in later years, Palmer questioned whether the music he loved still
held the measure of danger it once did, he never doubted its transcendental
qualities. "I do continue to believe in the transformative power of rock
and roll -- a power that can only be accessed by the individual listener,"
he wrote in 1995. "It's my contention that this transformative power
inheres not so much in the words of songs or the stances of the stars, but
in the music itself -- in the sound, and above all, in the
In 1992, Palmer collaborated with Eurythmic Dave Stewart on a film
documentary based on Deep Blues. The movie and its soundtrack
introduced the world at large to such Mississippi northern hill country
masters as Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside. Palmer went on to produce
albums for the Fat Possum label by Kimbrough (All Night Long) and
Burnside (Too Bad Jim), whose rawness proved to many listeners that
the blues was still a thriving and vital art.
"Everything I learned, I have learned from Palmer, just from being around
him," Fat Possum owner Matthew Johnson told Blues Access earlier
this year. "He's one of the brightest people I ever met."
Palmer, like many musicians and writers, did not have health insurance. The
past few months saw several benefits launched around the country to cover
the costs of his transplant. Patti Smith played a benefit show for Palmer
in late October at C.B.G.B.'s in New York, while alternative-rock pioneer
Alex Chilton and legendary writer/producer/musician Allen Toussaint raised funds at a show in New Orleans, La. Kimbrough and Tony Joe White paid tribute along with a host of other
musicians at a benefit in Palmer's one-time home of Oxford, Miss.
Palmer's widow JoBeth Briton has established the Robert Palmer Fund for
Artists' Aid in her late husband's honor. She has asked that in lieu of
sending flowers, mourners make a donation to the fund (c/o Augusta Palmer,
155 Lafayette St. 3C, New York, NY 11238).
"Bob and I were both so uplifted by the tremendous outpouring of love,
support and generosity from friends all over the world," Briton said in a
statement. "It was Bob's wish -- and my hope -- that people will continue
to band together to help one another in times of need. This fund is being
started in the hope of beginning that process, as well as to celebrate
everything Bob did while he was here."
A memorial service will be held for Palmer on Nov. 23 at the Tramps club
(51 W. 21st St.) in New York City from 2 to 4 p.m. [Fri., Nov. 21, 1997, 9 a.m. PDT]