Phoebe Snow’s success comes after great sorrow
For the first time in 31 years, Phoebe Snow has plenty of opportunity to pursue her singing career, and she’s already got a solid album to show for it: “Live,” on Verve Forecast.
But what would be a cause for celebration in most people is for Snow a reason for despair. Her newfound freedom is not freedom at all but a consequence of her daughter’s death. Born in 1975, with severe brain damage that resulted from, Snow says, “multiple birth injuries” and not expected to live more than a few years, Valerie Rose died last year.
“She was the only thing that was holding me together. … My life was her, completely about her, from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed at night,” Snow says.
In February 1975, Snow’s “Poetry Man” hit No. 5 on the pop singles chart, riding on a singing voice that was like snowflakes and fatback. Ten months later, Valerie Rose was born, and Snow made a critical decision: She would not institutionalize the baby. She would care for her at home and not worry about her singing career.
Snow still had one, but only in fits and starts.
“It was very, very tight,” she says, over the phone from her home in Bergen County, N.J. “I did commercial jingles. They paid well. Stouffer’s, General Foods, Hallmark … When they ran for extended lengths of time, I made good money.
“Occasionally I put an album out, but I didn’t like to tour, and they didn’t get a lot of label support. But you know what? It didn’t really matter because I got to stay home more with Valerie, and that time was precious.”
There were some musical highlights during that period. She sang on Paul Simon’s hit “Gone at Last” and toured with him. Over a half dozen albums, she put her stamp on soul classics like “Shakey Ground,” “Love Makes a Woman” and “Mercy, Mercy Mercy.” She performed at the Woodstock 25th anniversary festival in 1994, as part of a soul act with Thelma Houston, Mavis Staples and CeCe Peniston. Snow was recruited by Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen to participate in the New York Rock and Soul Revue, which took her, Charles Brown, Michael McDonald, Boz Scaggs and others on tour and into the Beacon Theatre to record a rollicking live album in 1991. “I guess I was the token female,” she says.
But Snow never really got the full shake her powerhouse pipes deserved.
She was born Phoebe Ann Laub in New York City in 1952, and raised in Teaneck, N.J. She transformed herself into Phoebe Snow after seeing the name, an advertising creation, emblazoned on freight trains that passed through her hometown.
Snow took guitar lessons as a preteen, but “didn’t adapt very well,” she says. “I wanted to sing. I would experiment with singing, but thought, ‘Ooooh, I’m not a very good singer.’ I was nervous about it, very insecure.”
She persisted anyway, and as a teenager auditioned for a jug band. The leader told Snow she was too good for the band, and decided to take her on as a project.
“He was very precocious,” she says. “He sort of coached me and took me around to clubs that had amateur nights.”
One was the Bitter End, in New York’s Greenwich Village. At that time, the early ’70s, the club was presenting people like James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
One night Snow was scheduled to follow a guy named Bruce Springsteen.
“He had just been signed to Columbia, and John Hammond, who discovered Bruce Springsteen and so many other greats, was there,” Snow says. “Interestingly, Bruce was playing keyboard, not the guitar. I was standing to the side with people who were saying, ‘Ah, he’s not that great.’ Actually, I thought he was great. He played four or five songs at the keyboard that sounded almost like Joni Mitchell songs.
“At the last minute, they changed the order and put me like four people behind him. I went outside and started crying. I was crying my eyes out. Bruce came out and gave me a big hug. I was sobbing, saying, ‘How did you get John Hammond to sign you?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get signed, too.’ ”
And so she was, very soon after. Her first record, “Phoebe Snow,” came out in 1974, and showed off her songwriting chops on a selection of tunes that spanned blues, jazz and folk. Hit-bound “Poetry Man” took the record to No. 4 on the album charts, introducing the singer to millions of people who undoubtedly assumed she was black.
Born to Jewish parents, Snow nevertheless doesn’t rule out the possibility. “I used to say to my mom, ‘Mom, everyone thinks I’m black.’ She said, ‘Well, you’re not.’
“A friend was over recently, and I said, have you ever seen pictures of my dad? He passed away in 2005. She said, ‘Oh my God, he looks black!’ I said, ‘I know!’
“I’ve heard there’s a DNA test where they check your mitochondrial DNA. You get a cheek swab, and they can break down your entire genetic heritage. I’m gonna have to take that test.”
Outward appearances aside, there’s no question that Snow’s voice is well inside the tradition of female soul-gospel shouters that reaches from, well, Duffy today back through Aretha Franklin to Mahalia Jackson. But Snow is also prone to taking operatic leaps four or five octaves above her normal register, which is, she says, a dramatic soprano.
Since the ’80s, she’s taken lessons from classical singers. “Now I’m with this guy who’s just brilliant,” she says. “He told me that when I was ready I should get a few arias prepared, and I’ll blow people’s minds.
“My hat is totally, humbly off to operatic vocalists. I don’t know how they do it. Oh, my God!”
Yet, when it comes to her own listening, Snow says she always comes back “to the original R&B;guys, James Brown, Sam Cooke. I was just listening to the original group Sam Cooke was in. What were they called? The Soul Stirrers? They were so good I almost fainted. A lot of that Baptist stuff is so powerful. Tremaine Hawkins, Aretha … that’s the stuff I really grew up listening to.”
From a religious standpoint, though, Snow embraces neither Judaism nor Christianity. She’s a Buddhist, a practitioner of the Nichiren Shoshu style, whose practitioners chant “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” as a meditation tool. She says her practice is the main thing keeping her going after the death of her daughter.
“When Valerie died, I thought I would rail against my religious practice,” Snow says. “I questioned it at first for obvious reasons. But then my faith deepened. I became much more devoted. I found, almost … I’m trying to find the right word to describe it … sanctuary.”
Does raising a special-needs child give Snow any insight into Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate who has a Down syndrome baby?
“Well, gee, I wasn’t expecting you to ask me that,” she says. “I saw the baby. He’s very portable now. I’m sure she and her husband are reading about Down syndrome, trying to get educated. I hope when he’s not portable anymore and becomes a person they’ll be just as devoted to him as they are now. It’s hard work. It’s very challenging.”
Though Snow says she’s “really concerned about the future of this planet” and believes “some idea of a knight riding in on a white charger who’s going to fix everything seems a bit unrealistic,” she’s excited about history being made by the first African American candidate to make it to a general presidential election.
“I think it’s outstanding that this is happening. I’m praying for him. I pray for everybody. I’m just a praying kind of gal.”
Phoebe Snow: 8 p.m. Fri. Napa Valley Opera House, 1020 Main St., Napa. $40. (707) 226-7372, www.nvoh.org. 8 p.m. Sat. Kanbar Hall, Jewish Community Center, 3200 California St., San Francisco. $62-$68. (415) 292-1233, www.jccsf.org/arts.
To see Phoebe Snow perform, go to www.phoebesnow.com or YouTube.
E-mail David Rubien at email@example.com.