Phoebe Snow was one of Those Voices. Soulful, jazzy, bluesy, tender, sassy — she could do it all, without allowing her sheer vocal prowess to diminish the emotional power of a song. The fact that fans couldn’t get enough of her wasn’t due to an irrational hunger. Snow simply didn’t record very often — after her initial flurry of activity in the mid-’70s, she made only four new studio albums in the last 30 years — and now her unique voice has been silenced.
Snow died this morning in Edison, N.J., from complications of a brain hemorrhage she suffered in January 2010. She was 58.
Snow’s manager, Sue Cameron, said the singer endured bouts of blood clots, pneumonia and congestive heart failure since her stroke.
“The loss of this unique and untouchable voice is incalculable,” Cameron said. “Phoebe was one of the brightest, funniest and most talented singer-songwriters of all time and, more importantly, a magnificent mother to her late brain-damaged daughter, Valerie, for 31 years. Phoebe felt that was her greatest accomplishment.”
Snow first album, the self-titled LP in 1974, contained her biggest hit, the soothing “Poetry Man.” The soothing song found fertile ground at FM radio among other burgeoning hit-makers of the day, from Roberta Flack before her to Janis Ian soon after.
That first record was released through Shelter, Leon Russell’s Oklahoma-based label that also helped launch careers for Tom Petty, Joe Cocker and others. Russell’s partner at Shelter, Denny Cordell, heard Snow in a Greenwich Village club the year before and snatched her up. That same year, he told Billboard magazine about his outlook for Shelter: “The music I’m looking for is that universal music where it makes no difference if the roots are in rock, country, soul, gospel or blues, as long as it has something which transcends those emotions and can appeal to anyone.”
That certainly described Snow. Her vocal talent adapted to genres far beyond the Greenwich Village folk that informed “Poetry Man.” On the records that followed over the next few years, Snow ably delivered standards (“Teach Me Tonight”), soul (“Shakey Ground”), Gershwin (“There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York”) and a lot of her own songs, most of which straddled the boundaries of jazz and pop, presaging an easy-going (but not easy listening) style that later, with similar singers like Diane Schuur, would be folded into smooth jazz.
Versatility is often incongruous with commercial success, and as Snow’s sales dipped she stepped aside. Her daughter had been born in 1975 with hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluid in the brain cavity that inhibits brain development, and required constant care. She died in 2007 at age 31.
“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.”
From 1981 to 2003, she released only four new albums of her own. In the interim, she contributed to many projects with other artists, including Donald Fagen’s Rock & Soul Revue tour in 1991 and a performance at the 1994 Woodstock anniversary concert with Thelma Houston, Mavis Staples and CeCe Peniston.
Before her stroke last year, Snow was planning a new album and had a tour scheduled.
Contributing: Associated Press
Update: Snow’s obits today report her age as either 58 or 60. AP’s report lists Snow’s age as 60. However, every music reference site and book I’ve got says her birthday was July 17, 1952, making her 58. Her official site says 1952, and a Snow fan site reports, “Phoebe was 58. Some of the news reports say she was 60, but 58 is correct.”