Singer-songwriter Phoebe Snow, whose 1974 hit “Poetry Man” defined her career but not her life, died April 26 at 60.
Snow’s burgeoning singing career virtually ended five years later when she largely quit performing to care for a severely brain-damaged daughter, Valerie Rose Laub, who died in 2007 at 31. Her daughter’s birth and Snow’s breakup with her husband, and then problems with record companies and a fickle public that had lost track of her, kept Snow in financial and artistic limbo for decades, despite several attempted comebacks.
Snow was nominated for best new artist at the 1975 Grammys in the wake of “Poetry Man,” which was on her self-titled debut album that reached No. 4 on the charts. Snow’s songs crossed easily back and forth among the genres of blues, jazz and folk.
In the summer of 1974, Snow’s voice “was everywhere — a contralto grounded in a bluesy growl and capable of sweeping over four octaves on the slightest provocation into a gospel-charged upper range.” She was described as being “as big as Norah Jones, Joss Stone, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan and two dozen other female pop stars all rolled into one” in the days of her greatest fame.
Snow’s 1976 album, “Second Childhood,” achieved gold-record status, but subsequent albums found smaller audiences. She released “Rock Away” in 1981 and “Something Real,” a major but failed comeback attempt, in 1989. Time music critic Jay Cocks gave the album a warm endorsement when it came out: “The record is so real — so immediate — that the feelings described in its ten songs become almost palpable. The rhythms swing easy and rock on request, but the tunes have lyrics so vivid that each becomes an epigram from a broken heart.”
Snow told The New York Times that year that she didn’t like the word “comeback,” even as she knew it would be placed on her album as a label.
“It’s convenient terminology,” she said. “I always worked, and even if I wasn’t working in the public eye, everything is measured about how visible you are in this business. If people want to say that, I’ll be happy when they stop saying it so that I don’t have to justify going away and coming back.”
Subsequent performances included Donald Fagen’s New York Rock and Soul Revue in 1991 and the Woodstock 25th anniversary festival in 1994. In 2003 she released “Natural Wonder,” her first album of new, original material in 14 years. Her last album, “Live,” came out in 2008.
But it was her daughter’s illness that occupied most of Snow’s time. Snow, born Phoebe Ann Laub in New York City, said in 2008 that her daughter had been “the only thing that was holding me together. My life was her, completely about her, from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed at night.”
Snow’s manager, Sue Cameron, said the singer “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’s mother, Lili Grossman, was a former Martha Graham dancer who married an entertainer turned exterminator. Snow said she was raised “in the subdued suburban environs of Teaneck, N.J.”
“If you remember,” she said in 1989, “in high school there were always a couple of kids whose clothes were on crooked, whose glasses were really thick and hung sideways. Their hair was never right, and their clothes didn’t match, and they looked like little lost souls wandering down the hallway. That was me.”
Snow had suffered blood clots, pneumonia and congestive heart failure since a stroke in 2010.