Phoebe Snow, most likely my favorite popular singer of all time, has died. Certainly, she’s the one I’ve loved and admired the longest (36 years!). As cotton is supposedly the “fabric of our lives,” just so Phoebe Snow has been interwoven throughout the warp and weave of my life’s musical tapestry — ever since her vocal energy rose above the relative mediocrity that was FM radio at the time and changed all that I knew about popular music.
She was born Phoebe Laub to white Jewish parents in July 1950. (I make a point of saying “white” only because so many people assumed she was African-American. She wasn’t — but from an early age she immersed herself deeply in Gospel, Blues, Jazz, and R&B in ways that would affect her musical styles all her life.) She burst onto the scene as an accomplished singer-songwriter with a self-titled album at age 25, and it was clear from the very start that the power, range, agility, color and expression of her vocal style were as inimitable as they were unique.
That first album contained several great tracks (both her original songs and covers), but it was her iconic song “Poetry Man” that catapulted her to fame, climbing to number 5 on the Billboard Pop Chart and claiming number 1 on their Adult Contemporary list. Other of her songs from that album, notably “Harpo’s Blues” and “Either or Both,” were equally classic.
“Sometimes this face looks so funny that I hide it behind a book.
Sometimes this face has so much class that I have to sneak a second look!
What I want to know from you, when you hear my plea:
Do you like or love either or both of me?”
–Phoebe Snow from “Either or Both”
I was fortunate enough to see her in concert at Chapel Hill as part of her tour promoting that album, and it was an unforgettable experience, a vocal tour-de-force, a high-powered non-stop journey through styles and repertoire — the likes of which I have not witnessed since. She was phenomenal.
But almost as soon as her fame peaked, she withdrew from the limelight to take care of her baby daughter, born brain damaged and not expected to live. Throughout the ensuing years, a string of 14 albums came out at infrequent intervals, but she would never take herself away from her beloved Valerie Rose to do the touring and other requirements of “stardom.”
Those of us who adored her were constantly hungry to hear new things from her, and the albums (even without the live concerts) were wonderful offerings. The closest she came to equaling the “hit” status of her first album was in 1989, with the release of the gorgeously produced Something Real. Three mighty songs came from that album: the wistful-to-spine-tingling-in-under-4-minutes “If I Can Just Get Through the Night” (which reached number 13 on the Adult Contemporary chart), the yearning title track “Something Real” (it rose to number 29), and the atmospherically haunting “We Might Never Feel This Way Again.”
She appeared on albums of and sang duets with Paul Simon (“Gone At Last”), Bobby McFerrin (“You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me”), and Ladysmith Black Mambazo (“People Get Ready (There’s a Train a-Coming)”) – and we were thrilled. We even were happy to hear her singing the theme songs to Bill Cosby’s spin-off television show A Different World (“I know my parents love me; stand behind me come what may…”) and Rosanne Barr’s show, as well as various TV ad jingles that still make me want to buy Stauffer’s (“Nothing comes closer to home”), Hallmark, AT&T and even General Foods International Coffee (“Celebrate the moments of your life”).
For someone who wasn’t supposed to live beyond infancy, Valerie Rose surprised the world and lived a love-inspiring life (affirming the total efficacy and power of maternal devotion) until 2007, when she died at age 31. Phoebe’s constant, never questioned dedication to Valerie’s well being, became her own life — gladly and without reservation. Alluding to that, a dear friend of mine in Michigan wrote to me today, noting that “It says a lot about who she was.” Absolutely.
After a predictable period of intense grief, in 2008 and 2009 Phoebe (at the urging of friends) came back to music, resuming concerts, appearing on television, and planning for a new album in 2010. I’ve put some of her best performances and an interview with CBS Sunday Morning below, showing she was still in amazing voice and form. But she was not destined to see it come to fruition. In January of 2010 she suffered a massive stroke, and was invalided until her release to her rest this week.
Thanks for sharing in my catharsis here, and letting me pay my tribute. If you know Phoebe’s work, you’ll understand the genius I’ve been describing. If somehow you don’t, please consider this an invitation to get to know her great talent. I’ve put links below to some of her best performances for all who come to this page.
I invite you to mourn her passing with me by listening to this amazing Call to Faith she recorded with Ladysmith Black Mambazo:
(Seriously, be sure to listen to this with headphones, so you can get all that rich bass underlying the track!)
Some additional links to hear Phoebe Snow’s music:
- The true classic Phoebe: the original version of “Poetry Man” from her self-titled 1975 debut album.
- “Harpo’s Blues,” the other hit from the first album.
- Phoebe and pal Linda Ronstadt belt out “The Shoop Shoop Song” on Saturday Night Live. Yes, that’s a young Paul Schaffer (with hair) back there on keyboards.
- Paul Simon’s duet with Phoebe, performed live on David Letterman. There’s no question that Phoebe completely stole the show. Dave gives her top billing at the end of the song, and tells her, “You’re gonna hurt somebody with that voice!”
- “If I Can Just Get Through the Night” from her 1989 album Something Real Beautifully produced, powerfully sung, and probably my favorite of Phoebe from the 1980’s.
- “Something Real” from the album of the same name. This and the previous song were as close to “hits” as Phoebe had in the 1980’s. They are amazing tracks.
- A live version of “Something Real” from The Early Show on CBS, a little more than a year before her stroke. Yes, she still had it.
- Phoebe’s 9-minute interview on CBS Sunday Morning from 2009. I’m not sure, but this may well have been her final interview.