Phoebe Snow, 'Poetry Man' Singer, Has Died

Apr 26, 2011
Originally published on April 26, 2011 6:08 pm

Phoebe Snow had one of the most distinctive voices in pop music. It went silent Tuesday morning, more than a year after Snow suffered a brain hemorrhage. She was 60.

Snow was born Phoebe Ann Laub. She actually thought she'd never be a singer because she was so shy. She told NPR in 1998 that she'd made up a name for the hammy part of herself — the part unafraid to get up on stage in Greenwich Village coffeehouses.

Snow was 22 when "Poetry Man" reached the Top 10 in 1975. The song sounded like nothing else on the radio. It was refreshing and unusual to see someone embraced on the strength of her voice and songwriting alone, and not her looks. She was not the prefab concoction we've come to know as a pop princess, yet Snow soon graced the cover of Rolling Stone.

On the cover, she was baby-faced and big, with a crop of curls. Some people couldn't tell if she was black or white. Her parents were Jewish music lovers who made sure she could play piano and guitar. But Snow's four-octave voice could handle anything. She recorded 16 albums.

Jim Chapdelaine produced one of her last, Natural Wonder.

"She could be that sensitive 'Poetry Man' kind of singer or she could be this rip-roaring flame thrower of a voice," he says. "There was never anything emotionally inauthentic about what she was doing."

Soon after her first flush of success, Snow had a daughter, named Valerie, born with multiple disabilities. Doctors predicted Valerie would barely survive a few years. Then, Snow's husband left her. Her child became her priority. She moved back to New Jersey, where she had grown up.

Career took a back seat to parenting and care-giving, yet Snow continued to perform and record. Her final album, a concert recording, came out in 2008. Her daughter died the year before, at the age of 31.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK: And I'm Melissa Block.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POETRY MAN")

NORRIS: (Singing) Oh, talk to me some more. You don't have to go. You're the Poetry Man. You make things all right. Yeah, yeah.

BLOCK: NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance.

NEDA ULABY: Count among those moved by Phoebe Snow's hit another powerful female musician, Queen Latifah.

QUEEN LATIFAH: My mom played "Poetry Man" a lot when I was a kid in the house. I mean, she played that album endlessly.

ULABY: Queen Latifah's mom, Rita Owens, played it every Saturday while cleaning house.

NORRIS: I just love the song so much, the melody. And Phoebe Snow had such a unique voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POETRY MAN")

NORRIS: (Singing) You make me laugh 'cause your eyes, they light the night. They look right through me.

ULABY: Phoebe Snow was born Phoebe Ann Laub. She actually thought she'd never be a singer because she was so shy. She told NPR in 1998 she made up a name for the hammy part of herself, the part unafraid to get up on stage in Greenwich Village coffeehouses.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

NORRIS: Large Marge because I would just send Phoebe to the sideline and say, OK, you, you're too scared. You go sit down. We have to send out Large Marge.

ULABY: Phoebe Snow was no wispy pop princess when she landed on the cover of Rolling Stone after "Poetry Man's" success. She was baby-faced, big, with a crop of curls. Some people couldn't tell if she was black or white. Her parents were Jewish, music lovers who made sure she could play piano and guitar. But Snow's four-octave voice could handle anything.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NORRIS: (Singing) I got a little religion, and I'm not ashamed. Somebody in heaven wrote down my name.

ULABY: Phoebe Snow recorded 16 albums. Jim Chapdelaine co-produced one of her last.

NORRIS: She could be that sensitive "Poetry Man" kind of singer, or she could be this rip-roaring flamethrower of a voice that was staggering.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NORRIS: (Singing) I'm going home.

NORRIS: It's even hard for me to find the right microphone to even keep up with her. There was never anything emotionally unauthentic about what she was doing.

ULABY: Soon after her first flush of success, Phoebe Snow had a daughter named Valerie, born with multiple disabilities. Doctors predicted Valerie would barely survive a few years. Then Snow's husband left her. Her child became her priority.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

NORRIS: The great thing about my daughter is that she is very courageous human being, and she's funny. She has a great sense of humor. She's the most affectionate person I've ever known. I get hugged 30 times a day until my head almost falls off, and I can't think of a better way for anybody to spend their life than to be loved so beautifully and unconditionally. She's my hero.

ULABY: Snow was promoting an album with that interview, all covers. She picked one song because it summed up her feelings about Valerie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NORRIS: (Singing) I'll do you right, darling. I'll be with you for the long haul. You're all I do it for.

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.