Happy 45th Anniversary to Robert Palmer’s debut solo album Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley, originally released in September 1974 (specific date N/A).
If you mention Robert Palmer today, the first thing you think of is the influential music video for his song "Addicted to Love." Because of the heavy airplay on MTV, the song became an international sensation and the signature song of his career. The downside of this success is that his early work tends to get overlooked.
Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley is his debut album and probably the most underappreciated work in his discography. In 1974, after a three-year stint in the British rock/R&B band Vinegar Joe, Palmer left the group and signed a solo deal with Island Records. His next task was to search for session players for the album.
The quest took him to New York City and New Orleans to find these musicians. Palmer stated to Fred Shuster of the L.A. Daily News in 1996, "Here was this white English kid coming to New Orleans and New York to work with bands I had only heard on vinyl. I first knew Stuff (guitarist Cornell Dupree, drummer Bernard Purdie, keyboardist Richard Tee and bassist Gordon Edwards) when they were called The Encyclopedia Of Soul, the seminal New York Rhythm and Blues band. They had been on loads of records and still had that raw edge. So, I jumped in the deep end and asked if they would be up for some sessions. They didn't know me from Adam and, at first, they wouldn't even say hello. But eight bars into the first tune, Purdie turned around and said, 'Sir, excuse me, what did you say your name was?' From then on, it was great."
Palmer struck gold in New Orleans, where he managed to wrangle the Meters (comprised of drummer Zigaboo Modeliste, bassist George Porter Jr., guitarist Leo Nocentelli, and keyboardist Art Neville) and Lowell George of Little Feat into the fold. Palmer wanted to capture a funkier sound relative to the music that he had previously made with Vinegar Joe and it doesn't get any funkier than having this incredibly accomplished group of musicians backing you up.
Throughout his career, Palmer proved to be an excellent interpreter of other people's material and he did not fail to deliver on Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley. Even though his career went off in many different directions, his solo debut album was a sign of great things to come later.
Sneakin' Sally opens up with one of the best three-song sequences heard on any album. "Sailing Shoes,” penned by Lowell George and originally performed by Little Feat, kicks things off into high gear. This version is more uptempo and funkier (with a huge assist from backing vocalist Vicki Brown) than the original, which leaned towards the more bluesy and slower end of the pool. "Sailing Shoes" flows seamlessly into the second track of the trilogy, the sublime but clever "Hey Julia", written by Palmer and highlighted by the vocal interplay between him and the aforementioned Brown (“Hey, hey Julia, you're acting so peculiar / I know I'd never fool you in a million years / A horn section you resemble and your figure makes me tremble / And I sure would like to handle what's between your ears”).
The final piece of the opening trilogy is the title track "Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley,” penned by New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint and originally sung by Lee Dorsey of "Working in a Coalmine" fame. Backed by the Meters with Simon Phillips on drums and Lowell George on slide guitar, this song is one of Palmer's best vocal performances of his illustrious career. The power and confidence of the then 25-year-old singer leaps off the vinyl and into your eardrum. After the three-song opening, you're buying the water Palmer is selling. Despite the fact that "Hey Julia" was recorded with different musicians, these three songs mesh together perfectly.
Track four, the Palmer penned "Get Outside,” may come off as a letdown, but I view it as a welcome interlude. The slow and deliberate opening is reminiscent of a Little Feat song and continues that groove throughout with a key assist from backing vocalist Brown: “If you can't decide what you wanna do /If you can't stand / what people say to you / If you can't see when your eyes are open wide / If you ask yourself what you’re doing and there's no reply / Get outside / Get outside / Get outside.”
As you play "Blackmail" and "How Much Fun,” the former co-written by George and Palmer and the latter by Palmer himself, you can't help but wonder what a supergroup of the Meters, Little Feat and Palmer would have sounded like if they stayed together for several albums.
The seventh track is a cover of Toussaint's "From a Whisper to a Scream,” and the band lays in for this and lets the rhythm section of Modeliste and Porter, Jr with George's slide guitar take center stage with Palmer's vocals. The slow buildup and the eventual fade is vintage Toussaint, but the entire band does not disappoint. He is truly one of the great songwriters of his generation (“I've seen more tears fall from your eyes / Than all the showers of April / I took kindness for granted / As if it came with the wallpaper”).
"Through It All There's You,” written by Palmer, is the eighth and final track of the album. Normally, I would consider a 12:17 song a self-indulgent mess, but oddly enough it works when you have this assortment of musicians plus Steve Winwood on piano backing you up. The track was pretty much like a jam session that just kept going. Palmer told The Daily News, "There was no reason to stop. We were just cueing the sections by numbers, which is how they do it in New Orleans. You know, 'Go to the three section!' You'd just keep going until somebody woke up, basically."
Despite being recorded in three different studios in three different locations (New York, New Orleans, and Nassau), Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley is a cohesive album that is solid all the way through. While it does help to have the particular musicians that played on this record, it was Palmer's performance that delivered an excellent debut album. I only wish I had listed it in Albumism's list of the greatest debut albums.