Phoebe Snow, (born Phoebe Ann Laub, July 12, 1952 – April 26, 2011). Singer, songwriter, guitarist.

Phoebe Snow was one of the most gifted popular vocalists of the last 40 years. Her trademark voice featured a breathy vibrato, (similar in sound to that of Aaron Neville), as well as a legendary four octave range that could soar from a rich alto into the stratosphere. Her early influences were blues and jazz artists like Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, as well as guitarist Jimi Hendrix. Although she was a gifted blues and folk guitarist, she realized she would never equal Hendrix’s abilities and set out to sound like a guitar or saxophone in her vocal style. Her abilities encompassed many musical styles, including pop, folk, jazz, blues, gospel, and show tunes. Towards the end of her life, she was even studying opera.

Phoebe Snow on the cover of "Rolling Stone"

Phoebe Snow was born into a Jewish family in New York and was raised in New Jersey. She took her stage name from a character used in railroad ads. After starting out in various clubs in Greenwich Village, she was signed to a record deal and released her self-titled debut in 1974. The single, Poetry Man would become her biggest hit and reached the No. 5 position on the Billboard chart. She was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best New Artist. She also sang in duets with Paul Simon and Linda Ronstadt in several appearances on “Saturday Night Live” during its early years. After her debut album, she switched to Columbia Records, where she recorded four albums, beginning with Second Childhood. It was certified Gold and received great critical acclaim for its mix of original songs and covers, including a show tune by Gershwin. She also appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone.

However, personal tragedy occurred at the height of her fame and beginning of her career, which would keep her from reaching the highest levels of success that she deserved. Shortly before the release of Second Childhood, she gave birth to a daughter, Valerie Rose. Complications during delivery caused Valerie to be severely brain-damaged. Although the doctors and most people around her said that Valerie would not live long and should be institutionalized, Phoebe felt her greatest calling was to care for her daughter and brought her home. Valerie lived to the age of 31, dying from a brain hemorrhage in 2007.

The decision to stay home with her daughter had an adverse affect on her career. Although she continued to record at first, her inability to tour and lack of promotion from her record label led to declining sales. She continued to sporadically record and give concerts, but struggled financially and fought many battles with record labels and the hospital staff where her daughter was born. She eventually achieved some financial security from a malpractice settlement and by singing for numerous television jingles. (One of her more memorable commercials was the jingle “Celebrate the moments of your life” for General Foods International Coffees. She often jokingly referred to it as her “biggest hit”.) She sang an a cappella version of the theme for the tv show “Roseanne” during the closing moments of the series final episode. In 1999, she sang for President Clinton and his family at their invitation at Camp David.

Phoebe Snow also sang with Donald Fagen’s New York Rock & Soul Revue in 1991 along with Michael McDonald, Boz Scaggs, and others, where her rendition of the Etta James classic At Lastbrought down the house. She later recorded an album of classic covers and released a couple of albums, (Rock Away and Natural Wonder), that had a harder, rock-oriented feel to them. Phoebe was also a member of the gospel group Sisters of Glory, (along with Thelma Houston, Albertina Walker, CeCe Peniston, and Lois Walden). The group performed at the Woodstock ’94 Festival and for Pope John Paul II’s Christmas concert at the Vatican. They released a single album, “Good News in Hard Times,” which featured Phoebe’s stunning vocals on the Gospel standard “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.”

After Valerie’s death, Linda Ronstadt and others encouraged her to resume her career and deal with her grief by performing. She began to tour and dedicated each show to Valerie’s memory. Her last recording, (on the Verve label), was a live album that featured many of her previous hits, such as “Poetry Man” and “Shaky Ground, as well as a show-stopping performance of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart”. It closed with an emotional rendition of the Rodgers and Hart standard, “With A Song in My Heart,” which was dedicated to Valerie. Ironically, Phoebe herself suffered a stroke in January of 2010 and after months in a medically induced coma, died from a brain hemorrhage. Although many major media outlets are listing her age as sixty, all of her established biographies list her birth year as 1952, making her 58 at the time of her death.

My first exposure to Phoebe Snow’s music was during my college years in the early 80’s. My good friend, jazz pianist extraordinaire Jodi Marshall put on Phoebe’s Second Childhood album and said, “Check THIS out.” I was immediately blown away by her amazing vocal sound, interesting lyrics, and complete musicianship. Her ad-lib solo break on the song No Regretsis still my favorite moment in all of her work. I have listened to that album countless times since and never grow tired of it. Thirty-five years later, it still sound fresh and contemporary. Had the circumstances of her life been different, she would undoubtedly become a household name. Her self-sacrificial love and choice to care for her daughter over her career are perhaps her greatest achievement and a source of inspiration. She only left us a dozen or so albums, which are now treasured even more as a legacy to her great talent.

View a CBS Sunday Morning profile of Phoebe Snow here.

Visit the official Phoebe Snow website (mostly under construction) here or her unofficial fan website here.

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