More than three decades after her first album was released, singer/songwriter Phoebe Snow is hitting the charts once again. On April 27, the day after her death, more than a handful of her roughly 20 recordings crowded Amazon.com’s top five slots for music sales in categories as diverse as jazz, vocal pop, contemporary blues, soft rock, adult contemporary and more.
It was that diversity that made Snow stand apart from the rest of the crop of mid-’70s singer/songwriters. Her musical sensibility was more grounded in jazz, blues and R&B than in folk or country. Besides her introspective originals, she was equally at home with 1950s-era torch songs like Teach Me Tonight as she was covering soul hits like Do Right Woman. Who knows how many baby boomers were introduced to There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York, without ever connecting it to Gershwin or Porgy and Bess.
Snow sang with a bittersweet edge and understated delivery. As a guitarist, she was inspired by Jimi Hendrix and yearned to match his skills. When those heights proved beyond her reach instrumentally, she decided instead to sing the musical lines she heard in her head. Like the greatest jazz vocalists, Snow aimed to shape her phrases the way a guitarist or a saxophonist might.
Her 1974 debut recording, Phoebe Snow, went to No. 5 on Billboard’s album chart, and earned her a “best new artist” Grammy nomination. The follow-up, Second Childhood, went gold, selling more than 500,000 units. But by then Snow was already working on what she viewed as her greatest accomplishment: caring for her daughter, Valerie, who was born in 1975 with brain damage. Valerie’s life expectancy was predicted to be just a few years, but she lived to be 31, with her mother as her principal caretaker.
Snow largely retired from touring to be a stay-at-home single mom, but continued to write music and record sporadically. Label hopping led to legal problems, and over the years much of her income came from lending her voice to commercial jingles. Snow said legal and financial woes robbed music of its pleasure. But her legion of fans included President Bill Clinton—she sang at Camp David at his request—Paul Simon, Jackson Brown and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan. And her musical abilities were still intact in her last major gig, at New York’s Birdland in 2008.
(Musicians remember Snow below.)
Trumpeter/composer Pamela Fleming leads Fearless Dreamer, a six-piece jazz ensemble, and is an in-demand sidewoman for a range of jazz, rock, reggae and Latin bands. She plays with the band Hazmat Modine at Le Poisson Rouge on May 21.
“I always loved her very unique voice, and Poetry Man was part of the soundtrack of my high school life.
“Decades later, while playing a wedding gig, a singer friend of the wedding family came up to the stage to sit in. I was immediately impressed by how this woman very professionally told the band what she wanted us to do to back her up. She counted off the tune, opened her mouth to sing, and then I knew: Wow! It was Phoebe Snow! You could recognize that voice anywhere! It was an honor to play with her, even for a few minutes.”
Vocalist/composer Fay Victor has released seven collections of jazz, blues and improvisational music. Besides performance engagements and teaching, Fay curates an experimental weekly vocal series through RUCMA and Arts for Arts Inc. in New York City. www.fayvictor.com
“The passing of Phoebe Snow has filled me with memories and sounds of long ago. I discovered Phoebe Snow when I was a kid in the ’70s and her song Poetry Man was an inspiration for my own songwriting, which started not too long after. I thought the melody to Poetry Man had a dreamy and haunting quality, plus she sang it so beautifully. Every time I heard the song, I’d stop dead in my tracks. It’s such a mood-changing tune that pulls you into its universe, carried on her unique and special voice.”
Vocalist/flutist/guitarist Melissa Hamilton counts Tony Bennett among her fans. She has performed with the jazz vocal group The Ritz, singer/songwriter/guitarist David Bromberg, and as a solo artist.
“I was fortunate to hear Phoebe perform live numerous times, and spent hundreds of hours playing her records since the mid-’70s. She gave me a valuable lesson, showing that it’s not size and looks that ultimately matter, it’s musicianship, and she demonstrated more musicianship in 30 minutes than many could do in a lifetime. She could sing any style of music. I recently sang on the upcoming recording Nostalgia in My Square Head by songwriter Malcolm Hunter. One of the pieces is called Snow in Hades about an evening he spent listening to her in a New York nightclub. It was years ago, but it struck him so deeply that he felt compelled to put it in song. The song’s sentiment moved me so that at the end of it I inserted her most famous phrase, ‘He’s a poetry man,’ in her honor. There will never be anyone like her.”
New Jersey native Mary Foster Conklin moved to the Big Apple to pursue an acting career. A gig singing with Art Lillard’s 15-piece Heavenly Band led her to shift gears from show tunes to blues, bop and Latin beats. If you don’t see her onstage, look for her in the Library of Congress archives, digging for obscure gems from the Great American Songbook. Mary can also occasionally be seen singing from Manhattan fire escapes as the Lady in the Red Dress with the Renegade Cabaret.
Phoebe Snow had always been one of my favorite recording artists and I’ve loved her songs since high school. But hearing her sing live was a revelation. I treasure the few times I heard her perform in small clubs in New York. She was a true blues shouter with a voice that just tore the tears out of you.
Nedra Johnson is a multi-instrumentalist singer/songwriter, whose unique guitar style is unmistakably informed by her many years as a professional bassist. Nedra has performed internationally at jazz, blues, pride and women’s music festivals as a solo artist, and with the six (or more) tuba band Gravity.
“Phoebe Snow’s Second Childhood is such good writing, and the production is unbelievable. It’s as deep and powerful as any of my favorite Ferron Foisy CDs, and I don’t say that lightly. I can name half the musicians off the top of my head, that’s how important the record has been to me. I love the lyrics to Sweet Disposition: ‘Warm like the oven in my mother’s kitchen/I’ve subscribed to your religion/Let us share some love.’ ”
Singer Linda Ciofalo is influenced by every one from bluesman John Lee Hooker to Broadway tunesmiths like Rodgers and Hammerstein. She’s an arts in education advocate/activist, and head of the jazz vocal program for the Long Island High School for the Arts.
“Phoebe Snow’s Poetry Man came on the radio during a rehearsal break in my Queens apartment. We didn’t know who it was but as soon as her voice hit the room we all made that wide-eyed knowing glance at one another: This was a special voice. I bought her album and listened to it until I wore the damn thing out. Phoebe’s voice was so soothing and warm with a little yodel catch that made you take notice. Nobody else sounded like that. I learned the song No Regrets from her and added it to my set list. Over the years she was an enigma and fell off and on the radar. I thought she would be a major touring artist but she hated touring and stayed home to raise her disabled daughter. She led an exemplary life in that regard and I have an amazing amount of respect for her in making that singer/mother’s ultimate sacrifice. I did get to see her perform live early in her career and was always happy to learn of a Phoebe sighting at some special appearance and was able to catch her on TV from time to time. I have a blue T-shirt from the Hungtington Arts Festival 1999 where Phoebe opened the series. All of the acts who appeared that year are listed on the shirt and my band was lucky enough to be included on the roster that year. That old shirt will wear out eventually but her music will live on.”