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By Larry Nager - The Commercial Appeal - November 1, 1992

Robert Palmer is responsible for what could be the slowest media blitz in publishing history.

In today's age of packaging, when it seems every book about music comes with a CD and matching film or video, Palmer's ''Deep Blues'' package has been 11 years in the making.

In 1981, Palmer explored the music of Memphis and the Delta in his book Deep Blues. A decade later, in 1991, the Deep Blues film, directed by noted documentarian Robert Mugge, debuted. Now, his ''Deep Blues'' CD is finally arriving in stores.

There's even a ''Deep Blues'' tour, as the Delta juke-joint musicians from the film follow it as it opens around the country, playing clubs in various cities. There's no Memphis showing, but Friday and Saturday, Roosevelt 'Booba' Barnes will be at Doe's Band Box on Beale.

Palmer, 47, is best known as the former pop music critic for The New York Times from 1976 to 1987, when he decided he'd had enough of New York and returned to his Mid-South roots. He recently left Olive Branch, Miss., for his hometown of Little Rock, where he lives in a small cabin outside of town.

But though he grew up across the river, his love of the blues developed in Memphis, as Palmer helped produce the Memphis Blues Festival from 1966 to 1969.

By 1969, the festival had grown to three days, attracting such rock luminaries as Johnny Winter, who agreed to play for just $50 simply to be part of the event. Palmer recalled proudly that while the rockers were paid $50, ''we paid the older blues singers a lot more.''

The event was covered by Rolling Stone, Blue Horizon Records of England recorded it and the blues helped put Memphis on the map once again.

But when Palmer returned to Memphis in 1988, he found Beale changed. The film presents Palmer on Beale criticizing the state of Memphis blues.

''I feel sort of funny about that,'' Palmer admitted in his gentle Southern drawl. ''Because what ended up getting edited in the movie seems like a real put-down and it wasn't really intended to be. I spent my growing up years around here. In 1965, I worked for Chips Moman in American Studios, and Beale Street then was the old Beale Street. The point I was trying to make was there was a neighborhood there and they bulldozed it out of existence.

''And I do think that at the point the movie was being made it seemed to me there wasn't really as much of a black blues presence as there is now. It seems to have developed quite a bit.''

Backing up Palmer's words is the fact that Barnes and other Delta bluesmen are frequent performers at Beale clubs and festivals.

Palmer's rock connections have helped him spread the blues to such superstars as U2, when Bono and bassist Adam Clayton took a driving tour of the States and Palmer brought them to Junior Kimbrough's North Mississippi juke joint. Another blues fan, former Eurythmic Dave Stewart, got the Deep Blues film project off the ground and offered the ''Deep Blues'' album a home. The soundtrack was remixed at Stewart's home studio and is being released through Stewart's label, Anxious, distributed by Atlantic.

It's a soundtrack in name only, said Palmer, as only eight of the 15 songs on the CD appear in the movie. The rest, he added, are alternate, superior takes or just different songs entirely. The disc features Lonnie Pitchford, R. L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Big Jack Johnson, Frank Frost, Jessie Mae Hemphill and the duo of Jack Owens and Bud Spires.

''My favorite thing of these Deep Blues-es is definitely the soundtrack CD,'' Palmer said. ''I was able to work on recording that music on a level of technology and expertise that a rock star can command, and I think that's real important.

''I have a real problem with the way a lot of blues records sound these days. I have more of a real raw-edged funky-sounding, fatback grit sort of thing in my mind. To me, it often comes out of the studios seeming very sort of cold. It's not on fire the way the music is in the juke joints, and the whole point to me of the movie and the CD is to try to capture what actually goes on with that music on its home territory, local clubs and front porches.''

Palmer has recently released another film project, The World According to John Coltrane, a tribute to the life and work of the revolutionary jazz saxophonist who died in 1967. It includes such rare footage as performances of Naima and My Favorite Things taken from a Belgian TV show. Released in Japan and Europe, it has yet to be seen in the United States.

Palmer, who began his musical career playing clarinet and flute with the arty rock band the Insect Trust, hopes to trade his word processor for the recording studio, at least for now.

He has a production deal with the new Mississippi blues label Fat Possum, owned by Peter Lee, editor of Living Blues magazine. A Kimbrough album is scheduled for release this month; Palmer will produce a Burnside set next spring. He's also been working on ''Blues Master'' reissues on Rhino, one on Delta blues, the other on Elmore James. And there's even an Insect Trust reissue in the works at Rhino.

But Palmer's first love remains the blues that he helped promote in Memphis when he was barely out of his teens.

''The blues I'm really devoted to is the kind of blues that gets played in a juke joint on Saturday night, and that music has always really been pretty much on the fringe. And really, the thing that makes me happiest about this whole thing, the artists in that movie, most of them were pretty much on the poverty line when we shot that movie in 1990, and today, they're just gigging like crazy.'' 

With the growth of the blues in the Delta and the proliferation of such home-grown festivals as the Memphis Blues Festival, the Beale Street Music Festival; the Helena, Ark., King Biscuit Festival; Greenville, Miss., Delta Blues Festival and the new Robert Johnson Memorial Festival in Greenwood, Miss., Palmer says the current blues revival is the biggest ever.

''There seems to be just a lot of interest across the board in the music,'' he asserted. ''There are people like Robert Cray, who's a pop star, and then these people like R. L. Burnside or Junior Kimbrough, who are working and actually getting out to a wider audience now.''

The music of the latter, the real folk blues played within the Delta communities for the members of those communities, was thought to be on the way to extinction. But Palmer says it's alive and well.

''Everybody's been saying that that's going to die out or it is dying out or it did die. I've been hearing people say that since 1960, right?

''But it doesn't show any signs of dying out. R. L. Burnside has seven sons who all play guitar or bass and they're going to be graduating to their own bands.''

And, as goes the deep blues, so goes Deep Blues. The film is turning out to be a surprise hit, Palmer said.

''I had figured maybe a week in this city and that city and then maybe HBO and then into videocassette. But uh-uh; it's still going fairly strong in theatrical bookings. It's going into 20 cities in the next couple of months.''

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