If I asked for a short list of the greatest female vocalists, I would probably get a variety of answers depending on the person’s musical preference. A jazz lover would probably say Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone, Dinah Washington, or Anita O'Day. If rock is your bias, Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Stevie Nicks, Tina Turner, or Melissa Etheridge might top your list. Someone who listens to pop music might say Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Barbara Streisand, Bette Midler, or Christina Aguilera. If blues is your thing, you might answer Etta James, Ruth Brown, Katie Webster, or Shemekia Copeland. Last but certainly not least would be the R&B divas Aretha Franklin, Mavis Staples, Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan, & Queen Latifa. I tried to include the most popular choices, but I’m certain I missed some great singers. However, you must admit, these ladies would make one heck of a choir.
As I looked through lists of singers, I never seemed to see the name of one of my absolute favorites. So I started to mention her name whenever I spoke to someone about female vocalists. At times I got a confused look, but when someone knew of her, they were passionate! The woman I’m talking about is Phoebe Snow.
After the departure of Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon had the foresight to expose the pop listening audience to reggae, gypsy jazz, Stephane Grapelli, Phoebe Snow, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. His 1975 album, “Still Crazy After All These Years,” introduced me to Phoebe Snow was and the song was “Gone At Last.” I had heard of her before that album because she had a hit song (Poetry Man) around the same time. But I wasn’t riveted until I heard her doing that quasi-Gospel tune with Paul Simon. She was obviously an alto, but
could hit impossibly high notes (I later learned that she had a four octave range). Her power and range were breathtaking.
I wasn’t alone in my opinion because her first album was one of a hit and was nominated for a Grammy. After hearing “Gone At Last,” I had to know and hear more. When I bought the album “It Looks Like Snow,” I was riveted by her version of “Teach Me Tonight.” At least sixty artists have recorded this tune (including Ella, Etta, Frank, & Sarah Vaughan), yet her version had a profound affect on me and still does to this day.
When I first discovered her, I thought she was black, as did many others. But I learned that Phoebe Snow was actually Jewish, born Phoebe Laub in NYC, & grew up in Teaneck, NJ. She got her start playing guitar and singing at open mics in the Village. When I like what I hear, I can be pretty compulsive and bought everything Phoebe recorded. But within a short time, new albums became fewer & farther apart. It seemed as though she just wasn’t interested anymore or that her popularity had run its course. Recently, I found that I was right on both counts, but for reasons I didn’t know thirty years ago. Now her story becomes compelling…
Phoebe was presented with a tremendous personal challenge. The way she responded to that adversity had a devastating affect her career, but I’m certain that she would have done the same thing despite the impact on her career. Her life took an unexpected turn that defined her as a person.
Right after her Grammy success, she gave birth to Valerie Rose who suffered severe brain trauma at birth. Family & medical experts urged her to institutionalize the baby, but she wouldn’t. She was determined to care for her profoundly disabled child. That decision caused her to lose her marriage, money, fame, and damaged her health. The advice she received at the time was based on medical opinions that the baby wouldn’t live very long. It turned out that the medical experts were very wrong. Valerie Rose lived until 2007 and died at the age of 31. Phoebe cared for her that whole time. Burying a child is probably the worst thing that can happen to a person. Valerie's death affected Snow deeply. Her loss is amplified because Phoebe was Valerie's lifetime caregiver. They had a bond that she can only describe by relating that, “We were madly in love with each other.”
I guess that seems pretty unusual to those who have witnessed the immature, self-absorbed behavior of some celebrities. When you open Phoebe’s Website, the first page you see is what is most important to her, the eulogy she read for her beloved daughter. She speaks of Valerie’s courage, strength, & dignity. Now that I know the story, I recognize that Valerie inherited those traits from her mom. The good news is that Phoebe recovered enough to tour again, but her time has passed. After learning of her story, I am more impressed with her than if she had a string of platinum records. I respect her more for what is in her heart than any award she could have displayed on her mantle.