Phoebe Snow: Singer and songwriter who gave up a successful career to care for her disabled daughter

Best known in her native US for "Poetry Man", the jazz-tinged love song she wrote about an affair with a married man, Phoebe Snow possessed a formidable contralto voice, with a four-octave range, and a bluesy, smoky, soulful quality that, along with her curly hair and olive skin meant she was sometimes thought to be black, when she was in fact Jewish.

Her 1974 eponymous debut became a classic of the singer-songwriter genre and earned her a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist alongside Bad Company, Johnny Bristol, David Essex, Graham Central Station and the winner, the film composer Marvin Hamlisch. Many industry insiders attending the ceremony in March 1975 felt Snow should have won, but she was happy enough just to be there, and to see Aretha Franklin, one her main influences, perform.

By then, the delicate "Poetry Man" and her delightful first album were on their way into the Top 5, and, after opening for Jackson Browne and Paul Simon, she seemed destined to be a mainstay of jazz and adult contemporary radio stations, which had started to feature the easy shuffle of "Harpo's Blues", another deceptively dark highlight from her debut. In the summer of 1975 she graced the cover of Rolling Stone and was back in the US Top 30 with a stunning, soaring guest appearance on "Gone At Last", a collaboration with Simon and the gospel group the Jessy Dixon Singers, from his No 1 album Still Crazy After All These Years.

Snow took her pregnancy, by boyfriend Phil Kearns, in her stride. But in December 1975, she gave birth to a girl, Valerie, who suffered from asphyxia and was put in intensive care.

Over the next three decades, Snow rejected pleas to place her child in an institution and devoted most of her time and energy to her. Though Valerie's eyesight and hearing had been badly affected and she couldn't speak, she did recognise her mother and enjoyed her singing. Snow never regretted her decision to sacrifice her career and care for her daughter who defied medical expectations and died in 2007.

However, Snow struggled with self-esteem and weight issues, and a music business desperate to pigeonhole her. "I'm not a natural gorgeous person," she reflected. "I mean, if I'm gonna look presentable, I have to work at it." To support her daughter, she recorded advertising jingles and commercials in a voice so distinctive she could only do a handful a year.

Snow was not only a sensitive singer-songwriter of disarming honesty, but also a supreme interpreter of other people's material, as she demonstrated on P.S. and I Can't Complain, the two albums of covers she released in the nineties. Indeed, she scored her only UK hit in 1979 with a wonderful version of Paul McCartney's "Every Night", from the Beatle's 1970 solo debut that she reinterpreted for Against The Grain, the last of her four Columbia albums.

Born in New York in 1950, she grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey. Her father, who worked for Viking Press and subsequently as a pest controller, was a frustrated performer, and struggled to come to terms with her precociousness. But her mother, a dance teacher, saw her daughter's talent and bought her piano and dance lessons.

Never a popular girl at school, in her mid-teens she began playing guitar and seeking solace in the blues of Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters, the rock music of the Yardbirds and Jimi Hendrix, and the soul music of James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone. In the late 1960s she enrolled at Shimer College, a liberal arts school in Chicago, but dropped out and went back East. She made regular forays into New York's Greenwich Village and started performing at coffee houses like the Bitter End, first as simply Phoebe, and then as Phoebe Snow after an elegant woman featured on advertisements she had seen on boxcars in the train-yards near her New Jersey home as a child. "'Phoebe Snow', in letters five or six feet high. I said, when I grow up, I'm going to be using that name!"

At first, she was a reluctant vocalist and hid behind her acoustic guitar. "The thing that helped me come to terms with performing was an anxiety, a desperation for acceptance. There was never enough positive motivation in my life." She grew in confidence thanks to a relationship with a jug-band musician named Charlie Parker who played harmonica with her. He also gave her a love and understanding of jazz that coloured her singing and fed into her songwriting. Parker died after an overdose of prescription pills in 1970, and she wrote "Harpo's Blues" and "I Don't Want The Night To End", two compositions haunted by his memory.

In 1972, she was discovered by Denny Cordell, who had made his name producing Procol Harum and Joe Cocker, then relocated to the US to launch Shelter Records with the renowned session musician and solo artist Leon Russell. Cordell signed her and produced her debut with Dino Airali and Phil Ramone, calling on the cream of New York musicians – tenor saxophonist John "Zoot" Sims, organist Bob James – to frame her exquisite voice. Though Snow would ask Ramone to produce four of her subsequent albums, she felt Airali and Cordell had pushed her in a jazzier direction than expected.

"Back then, I was an acoustically-oriented artist. Honestly, 'Poetry Man' wouldn't have been my first choice," she said of her signature song. "I was very, very smitten with a married man, who was older than me. The first person I played it for was my mother. She was like: 'What's that about? What do you mean? He went home to see his wife? I have to know what's going on here. Who are you sleeping with?'"

Within a year of its July 1974 release, Phoebe Snow sold half a million copies. "The first record was so pure and guileless. Its success was unexpected, it was not touched by a thousand opinion makers," said Snow, who began resenting the svengalis of the music business. She left Shelter under a cloud and signed to Columbia. "I was terribly spoiled and I thought I couldn't do anything wrong. I was also desperate to make tons of money because of my responsibility to my daughter. And there was no longer any joy in making music."

In May 1979, she guested with her friend Linda Ronstadt on the television show Saturday Night Live, performing memorable versions of the Betty Everett hit "The Shoop Shoop Song (It's In His Kiss)" and The Roches' "The Married Men" that seemed to hint at a comeback. But she cancelled her contract with Columbia and, the following year, declared bankruptcy.

In 1991, she participated in the New York Rock And Soul Revue, a series of concerts and a live album masterminded by Steely Dan's Donald Fagen, which saw her duetting with Michael McDonald, Boz Scaggs and Charles Brown. In 1994, she appeared at the Woodstock 25th Anniversary festival with Thelma Houston and CeCe Peniston, billed as The Sisters Of Glory, and with them recorded the gospel album Good News In Hard Times. In 2003, she issued Natural Wonder, her first album of original material in over a decade, followed by a live album in 2008. She died of complications from a brain haemorrhage she suffered in January 2010.

Pierre Perrone

Phoebe Ann Laub (Phoebe Snow), singer, songwriter and guitarist: born New York 17 July 1950; married Phil Kearns (marriage dissolved; one daughter, deceased); died Edison, New Jersey 26 April 2011.

Comments