Phoebe Snow hit the jackpot with her 1974 album and so did her fans. When I heard her incomparable voice and her unforgettable songs, she became a major part of the soundtrack of my life. The drawing of her on her first album cover combined with her amazing sound convinced a lot of folks that she was Black – we all just assumed it at first and of course we couldn’t Google in those days. There was something cool about the widespread ambiguity over her race. It turns out she was a Jewish girl from New Jersey with a natural Jewish ‘fro.
That throaty bluesy voice and those complex heartfelt songs were always swirling around my mind. According to the LA Times, her original musical dream was to be a guitarist.
"I always wanted to be the greatest woman guitarist alive," she told The Times in 1976. "I had fantasies about being a female Jimi Hendrix. I would go to his concerts and watch all the things he did. But I guess I just wasn't meant to be a superstar guitarist."
Taking guitar lessons affected her singing style.
"I finally 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 made the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine and was headed for the big-time, despite her unglamorous looks and allergy to slinky posturing. And then her daughter Valerie Rose Laub was born in 1975 with severe brain damage. Phoebe made what she said was the only choice she really had and more or less retired from public life to take care of Valerie. Not for the year. Not for the decade. But for the 31 years of Valerie’s life. She treasured the time the two of them were together. Valerie died in 2007 and Phoebe jumped right back into performing.
She brought out a “The Very Best of…” collection which I bought on my first visit to the town of Woodstock with my wonderful friend Victoria. I remember it was pouring, but having heard on the radio that the CD was out, I ran down the street when I spied a record store. I never buy things new and I never pay full retail price, but I did that time and it was one of my most worthwhile purchases ever. I’ve played that CD as often as my Marvin Gaye and Willie Nelson. My absolutely favorite cut is “Teach me Tonight” – it’s got an ecstatic intensity that I can’t help screaming along to. (Couldn’t find a YouTube clip of her performing it, but you can find an audio online.)
When I read that she was appearing at one of those community theatres an hour’s drive from Boston, I bought tickets and ran. It was a performance I will never forget. She was just getting her stage chops back in shape. She talked a bit about her “special needs child” (if I recall, she didn’t get specific about her gender). And she sang a glorious mix of her own amazing songs and some classics.
For a couple of years when I was dancing with my dear friend, Anne, we chose Phoebe’s “All Over” for our occasion performances of a Bossanova routine. It’s a velvety, intimate and sensual dance – just like Phoebe’s music. How painful to lose her.
Only today did I find out that in January, 2010, Phoebe suffered a brain hemorrhage and never recovered. She died today.
Here are a couple of clips of her work - not my very favorites, but the best I could locate.
This is "Either or Both" - during her "come-back."
Phoebe Snow and Linda Ronstadt doing "It's in His Kiss" and dancing a cha-cha together towards the end.