Phoebe Snow, powerful singer of 1970s hit ‘Poetry Man,’ dies at 60
By Matt Schudel,
Phoebe Snow, 60, a dynamic singer who found early success in 1975 with her hit “Poetry Man” and then retreated into obscurity to care for her disabled daughter, died April 26 at a hospital in Edison, N.J. She had complications from a brain hemorrhage suffered in January 2010.
Ms. Snow emerged from the folk-music cafes of New York’s Greenwich Village with her 1974 debut album, “Phoebe Snow,” which vaulted her into pop stardom. The album reached No. 4 on the Billboard charts, and Ms. Snow was nominated for a Grammy Award as best new artist.
She wrote the album’s hit single, “Poetry Man,” which rose to No. 5 on the pop charts in 1975. Asked to explain the song’s meaning — “Home’s that place somewhere you go each day to see your wife,” she sings near the end — Ms. Snow told a CBS interviewer in 2008: “Well, obviously, I was having an affair with a married man, don’t you think?”
Although she was identified with the singer-songwriter movement of the 1970s, Ms. Snow was defined more by her rich, versatile vocal quality than by her material. She had a clear, supple voice with a range of more than four octaves and had a singing style that embraced folk, jazz, rock, blues and soul all at once.
“I’ve been influenced by every single one of those musical forms,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 1989. “To sit there and say I am this or I am that is limiting.”
Her first album featured jazz musicians Teddy Wilson and Zoot Sims, and her second album, “Second Childhood” (1976), spanned the spectrum from original compositions to Gershwin to Motown. Some later recordings shaded more toward rock-and-roll, and Ms. Snow was known for her powerful live renditions of classic pop and rhythm-and-blues tunes in concert, including Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” and “Piece of My Heart,” made famous by Janis Joplin.
Ms. Snow had two gold records by the time she was 26, appeared on “Saturday Night Live” and recorded duets with Paul Simon and Jackson Browne. She made the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, which pronounced her voice “a natural wonder.”
At the peak of her fame, in December 1975, she gave birth to a daughter, Valerie Rose, who had severe brain damage and other disabilities. Ms. Snow married her daughter’s father, Phil Kearns, but they were divorced in 1979.
Despite advice to place Valerie in an institution, Ms. Snow put her career aside to care for her daughter. As her record sales fell, Ms. Snow repeatedly changed labels and got caught in a protracted series of music-industry lawsuits.
Through much of the 1980s, she fell silent. She recorded a comeback album, “Something Real,” in 1989 and took jobs singing advertising jingles for such companies as Stouffer’s, Michelob, Kodak, Quaker Oats, AT&T, Hallmark, Exxon and General Foods.
“I faded away for a while out of necessity,” Ms. Snow told the Los Angeles Times in 1998. “In hindsight, I missed out on some good or productive years. On the other hand . . . I really made the only choice I could under the circumstances.”
Phoebe Ann Laub was born in New York City on July 17, 1950, and grew up in Teaneck, N.J. (Some reference sources mistakenly give her birth year as 1952.)
Through her mother, a dancer and part of a bohemian New York crowd, Ms. Snow met folk singers Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie at a young age. Her early musical influences included blues singers and Judy Garland, and her first ambition was to become “the greatest woman guitarist alive. I had fantasies about being a female Jimi Hendrix.”
She later said, “I can’t play these guitar lines, but maybe I can sing them. I tried to sing the way a guitar sounds and the way a saxophone sounds too.”
She dropped out of Shimer College in Mount Carroll, Ill., and began singing in Greenwich Village coffeehouses, taking her stage name from a passenger train that rumbled past her New Jersey home on the Erie Lackawanna line.
In March 2007, Ms. Snow’s daughter died at 31. When she began to perform again, Ms. Snow always took a moment to tell the audience about her daughter’s life.
“She was the only thing that was holding me together,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2008. “My life was her, completely about her, from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed at night.”