May 5 2011
Last week, the extraordinary singer Phoebe Snow died from complications of a severe stroke she had last year. Phoebe and I were pals ever since my wife, Libby Titus, persuaded her to come along on a New York Rock and Soul Revue tour in 1991. We had a number of things in common. We were close in age; we both had an early passion for African-American music, i.e., jazz and R&B; and we were both of the genus North Jersey Jewish Hippie. Species: Neurotic. Also, we each had a sense of humor that was way over on the dark side.
I really liked to make Phoebe laugh because she was my best audience. A lot of people (more every day, it seems) respond to my humor with incomprehension, if not actual abhorrence. With Phoebe, though, it was as if she was a long lost cousin who shared the same family history and the same inside jokes.
Born into an artistic family, Phoebe was exposed to music as a child, everything from tin pan alley to Delta blues. By her teen years, she had become expert at folk and blues guitar. Gifted with a phenomenal voice, perfect pitch and a four-octave range, she developed a completely original style, soulful and austere. She’s probably best known for her early compositions including the1974 hit Poetry Man. The following year, when her daughter Valerie was born with serious brain damage, she famously elected to let the career slide and devote herself to her care. She gradually started performing and recording again and, when Valerie died in 2007, she attacked her grief by throwing herself back into working life.
In the 90s, when she began to study operatic technique, she started to use the full power of her voice to subvert her earlier style by indulging in a kind of willful excess: she channeled the force of her uncontained emotion into an array of screeches and squeals. At the end of a ballad, she knew she could secure a standing ovation with one of her wild, extended improvised cadenzas. She loved playing for the crowd.
Like a lot of ultra-talented singers, Phoebe was subject to bewildering mood swings. She had a rocky childhood, and the fact that she could wipe out everyone else on the stage with one number didn’t make her any less insecure. She was the most energetic hypochondriac I’ve ever come across, searching out alternative doctors and gurus, traveling to Mexico to receive sheep embryo injections, all that stuff. Certainly, she had to deal with some bona fide ailments. But her frequent disquisitions on her medical condition left no doubt that she felt herself to be a prisoner inside her own body, a predicament she usually bore (in public, anyway) with cheerful stoicism. Some years ago, she was staying at our house in the country where we had to rehearse something or other. One morning, she came down the stairs, smiled, pulled up her shirt to expose her abdomen and announced in her knife-edged contralto, “Mold Spores”! For her, that was fun.
That said, when Phoebe bopped in the door, her authenticity and sweet nature always made the room feel just a bit cozier, and anyone who ever saw her perform knows what I’m talking about. She was a mighty spoonful of soul, and I’ll miss her.
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