R.I.P: Phoebe Snow (July 17, 1952 – April 26, 2011)
Snow was raised in a household where Delta blues, Broadway show tunes, Dixieland jazz, classical music and folk music recordings were played around the clock. Her father, Merrill Laub, was an exterminator by trade, had an encyclopedic knowledge of American film and theater and was an avid collector and restorer of antiques. Her mother, Lili, was a dance teacher who had danced with the Martha Graham group at one time. Her mother died after a 12-year struggle with bone cancer. She grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey and graduated from Teaneck High School. She subsequently attended Shimer College in Mount Carroll, Illinois, but did not graduate. As a teenager, she carried her prized Martin 00018 acoustic guitar from club to club around Greenwich Village, playing and singing on amateur nights. Her stage name is the same as a fictional advertising character created in the early 1900s for the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad, a young woman named Phoebe Snow, who appeared on boxcars traveling near her hometown.
It was at the Bitter End club in 1972 that Denny Cordell, a promotions executive for Shelter Records, was so taken by the singer that he signed her to the label and produced her first recording. She released an eponymous album, Phoebe Snow, in 1974. Featuring guest performances by The Persuasions, Zoot Sims, Teddy Wilson, David Bromberg and Dave Mason, Snow’s album became one of the most acclaimed debut recordings of the era. It spawned the Billboard Hot 100 #5 hit single, “Poetry Man,” reached number 4 on the Billboard 200 album chart, won Snow a nomination for the Grammy Award for Best New Artist, and established her as a formidable singer/songwriter. The cover of Rolling Stone magazine followed, while she performed as the opening act for tours by Jackson Browne and Paul Simon (with whom she recorded the hit single “Gone at Last” in 1975). 1975 also brought the first of several appearances as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live, on which Snow performed both solo and in duets with Paul Simon and Linda Ronstadt. During the 1975 appearance, she was seven months pregnant with her daughter.
Legal battles took place between Snow and Shelter Records, and Snow ended up signed to Columbia Records. Her second album, Second Childhood, appeared in 1976, produced byPhil Ramone. It was jazzier and more introspective, and suffered disappointing sales. Snow moved to a harder sound for It Looks Like Snow, released later in 1976 withDavid Rubinson producing. 1977 saw Never Letting Go, again with Ramone, while 1978’s Against the Grain was helmed by Barry Beckett. After that Snow parted ways with Columbia; she would later say that the stress of her parental obligations degraded her ability to make music effectively.
In 1981, Snow, now signed with Mirage Records, released Rock Away, recorded with members of Billy Joel’s band; it spun off the Top 50 hit “Games”. The 1983 Rolling Stone Record Guide summed up Snow’s career so far by saying: “One of the most gifted voices of her generation, Phoebe Snow can do just about anything stylistically as well as technically … The question that’s still unanswered is how best to channel such talent.” However, Snow would now spend long periods away from recording, often singing commercial jingles forAT&T and others in order to support herself and her daughter. During the 1980s she also battled her own life-threatening illness. Snow returned to recording with Something Real in 1989 and gathered a few more hits on the Adult Contemporary charts. Also, Snow composed the Detroit’s WDIV-TV Go 4 It! campaign in 1980. She sang Ancient Places, Sacred Lands on Reading Rainbow’s tenth episode The Gift of the Sacred Dog which was based on the book by Paul Goble and narrated by actor Michael Ansara. It was shot at Crow Agency, Montana in 1983.