Since we are headed into the Mothers’ Day weekend, I thought that I would pay tribute to this mother who died recently, the singer Phoebe Snow. I’m thinking of her and her lovely, strong, four-octave voice and what might have been. However, Phoebe chose to care and love her daughter, Valerie, who was, in her words, the victim of a doctor who nearly choked the infant to death at birth–medical malpractice. Because of that sustained love, Valerie, who suffered brain damage and could not see or hear or speak, lived beyond the expectations of doctors, family and friends, finally dying in 2007 at the age of 31.
To be frank, I could not do what Phoebe did. The doctors wanted her to go on with her life and to institutionalize her daughter, but I think what is important is that her ethics dictated that she care for her child, even as a single mother after she and the father, Phil Kearns, parted ways. I’m sure that there were times when Phoebe was broke; she had had continual fights with her old record labels over money and who owed what. When I read that Valerie had died, I thought, let that voice loose. Give that girl some more time to make a comeback and a victory lap like Santana. But it was not to be.
She did get to know how much her fans from the Seventies, and newer fans who had discovered her work in the interim, cared about her and her music. But her greatest love affair proved to be with Valerie, who had made her, in her own words, a better human being.
It’s not that I didn’t hear about Snow or hear her voice during these years when her career nearly ground to a halt. I heard her voice in television commercials for Hallmark cards, General Foods’ coffee, and Michelob beer, Stauffer’s frozen foods, and a host of other products. She sang the opening theme to The Cosby Show spinoff, A Different World. I heard her featured in Donald Fagen’s touring, kick-ass New York Rock and Soul Revue, which resulted in a series of fine performances recorded for an album with Michael McDonald, Boz Scaggs and many others. I heard that she was also doing gospel (with the Sisters of Glory) and even saw her at a televised Woodstock Festival revival concert with the likes of Thelma Houston, Mavis Staples and CeCe Peniston. I did not know, however, that she had released studio albums on other, small labels, and even a couple of live albums. And that she was a regular visitor to Howard Stern’s radio show and sang at his wedding to Beth Ostrosky.
She was a friend to Linda Ronstadt as well as Gloria Steinem.
Regarding Phoebe and her sista-like looks and black sound: when she was just beginning her rise, she was unaccountably jumped by a group of black women after a club date. I’m sure she was terrified while one or two of those women put flashlights to her and thoroughly examined her frizzy, curly hair, her eyes, her nose and her lips and skin, and then pronounced that they were satisfied that no, she wasn’t black. They thought that she was passing. This is not an apocryphal story. Phoebe talked about it in news stories and even in Rolling Stone. As far as I know, Phoebe, born Phoebe Ann Laub in New Jersey, wasn’t black; she was Jewish. There are still websites that insist that Snow was at least part-black. In 2009, Phoebe spoke of taking a DNA test after she was named one of New Jersey’s greatest black singers by a local magazine to prove her ancestry.
While she’s flattered, Snow has determined it’s time to put the question of her ethnicity to rest the scientific way.
“Believe me, people have been asking me about this since I started in the recording industry,” Snow said. “My mom was the whitest, alabaster-skinned person you can imagine, but who knows what went on four generations ago? So this mitochondrial DNA test should settle it.”
There are several recognized streams of Jewish ancestry that emerged after the Diaspora. One is Ashkenazi, or European Jewry, and another is Sephardic or Mizrahi Jewry from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) or from North Africa or those who settled after their expulsion (1492 and 1497) in other nations where Islam predominated. Particularly with this last group, there was some intermarriage among Jews and Muslims. It was more likely than in Christian countries. And those Muslims, as well as Jews, could have been of black or mixed-black African origin.
Occasionally, one’s eyes are not playing tricks with the owner when a white American Jew presents with African features. You could say that the ancestors are returning in their face. It’s also quite possible that Snow’s European ancestry might have emphasized certain features to make her look the way she was as well. Frankly, though, nobody is pure anything anymore.
But alla that’s okay. That many African Americans, for better or worse, claimed Phoebe Snow despite facts to the contrary merely means that we loved and felt her music and her voice and her soul. She was what I call an honorary black woman. Which means that she would have a home with us even if no one else would have her. “Give the Sister a Moment of Silence,” said one black blogger’s headline about her death.
(Are there any honorary black men? In my humble opinion, Robert DeNiro comes to mind.)
I looked it up, and there is no word whether Snow actually went through with the DNA study and obtained a result. And I have thought too–no dissing on her mother implied–that her mother was a former boho and a Martha Graham dancer on top of it. Her dad, by the way, had had more serious aspirations for the stage and had been a comic vaudevillian. So he was not just an exterminator and she was not just a dance instructor. They had been places and done things with other people. Both made a go at the straight life for the sake of the family that would come.
Blame Phoebe’s love of black music for making her sound like a sista as well. The Charlie of “I Don’t Want The Night To End” had turned her on to Billie Holiday, Big Bill Broonzey, Bessie Smith, and Lester Young, among others. Her reach was daunting for those music executives to pigeonhole her and make her more “saleable,” so they thought. She was a mix of blues, jazz, R&B, and gospel as well as folk and pop. This was a woman who as a little girl met the likes of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and who switched from piano to guitar because she wanted to become a female Jimi Hendrix. Her favorite album of all time, according to a 1982 Esquire article, was Sly Stone’s Fresh followed by the stylings of George Clinton. It got to the point that she became a great interpreter of other people’s songs, and not just her own songwriting, possibly because of her voice, and because caring for Valerie left little time for writing and composing.
Really, her eclectic stylings suited me fine when I first heard “Poetry Man” in 1974. But it was really her song on the second side, “I Don’t Want The Night to End,” that just touched my life. You could say I had delayed being with the opposite sex until I had gotten into college, because that was more important to me than an unwanted pregnancy. That delay, though, complicated my undergraduate days. “I Don’t Want The Night To End” reminds me a lot of what I went through some days with some guys looking for love and not finding it. At the time, I played and played and played that album, especially that song. And no, I knew Snow meant another Charlie Parker who was brilliant and addicted.
Phoebe sustained a stroke last January in the midst of preparing for a tour and a new album. She was kept in a medically-induced coma until her death on Tuesday, April 26. Her manager, Sue Cameron, said that over the years, the singer had suffered from blood clots, pneumonia and congestive heart failure.
The great Phoebe Snow is survived by a sister, Julie Laub, and an uncle.
Rest in peace, Phoebe. Come back to us again.