Singer, composer Phoebe Snow died today, April 26, 2011, at the age of 60 from a brain hemorrhage she suffered on January 21, 2010. When I heard the news, I realized that even though the Rolling Stone had called her voice a “natural wonder” back in the 1970s, I’d never really followed her music, nor appreciated what an amazing artist she was.
After more than 35 years, the only tidbit of information I had tucked away in my brain about her was that she had a child who’d been born severely brain-damaged.
In researching her life I was enormously touched by the heartache and disappointment, the resilience and courage that filled Phoebe Snow’s life.
She grew up in New Jersey and played in Greenwich Village clubs. An early boyfriend encouraged her to perform the stream-of-consciousness poetry she’d been scrawling in her notebooks for years, and in 1974 the 24 year-old singer, who was blessed with a multi-octave range, and a style that was soulful, jazzy, bluesy, tender and sassy, recorded the widely-acclaimed album Phoebe Snow.
In 1975 she was nominated for a Grammy as Best New Artist for the song “Poetry Man.” Phoebe’s star continued to rise that year as she opened for Jackson Browne and Paul Simon. She also appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, and when she was seven months pregnant, she made the first of several appearances as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live.
It was in the middle of all that attention, in December 1975, that Phoebe gave birth to her daughter Valerie Rose, who she says was a medical malpractice victim. “When the doctor was delivering her he asphyxiated her.” Her brain was severely damaged and her eyesight and hearing were all but destroyed.
The doctors didn’t expect the baby to survive for very long and recommended that Phoebe put her in an institution. “They said she would never recognize me or function at any high level. But that was out of the question. From the moment I saw my daughter I was in love with her.”
Shortly after Valerie’s birth, Phoebe said the child was providing the serenity that would finally anchor her life. She gave up all drugs, even aspirin, and two other minor vices, Twinkies and cheesecake.
“I got off by being crazy in my younger days,” she told PEOPLE. “Because I was irresponsible, I didn’t think I could manage myself and another person, too. Of course,” she joked, “it’s true that I’m still out of my mind. You have to be nuts to be in this business.”
As a single mother, Phoebe struggled to keep her career alive and get back on the charts, but it was difficult, and it always took a back seat to caring for her daughter. In 1979 she made another appearance on Saturday Night Live with her friend Linda Ronstadt.
She lost interest in being in the public eye and out of necessity she faded away for a while. Occasionally she would record an album like “Something Real” in 1989, but she didn’t like to go on tour and perhaps understandably the record label didn’t give her a lot of support.
“It didn’t really matter because I got to stay home more with Valerie and that time was precious,” Phoebe said.
In 1992 she toured with Donald Fagen, Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs as part of the “New York Rock n’ Soul Revue tour. She did some guest tracks for other artists like Jewel and she sang commercial jingles for companies like Stouffer’s and General Foods who paid well.
“In hindsight, I missed out on some productive years,” she told John Roos of the L.A. Times. “On the other hand, I made the only choice I could under the circumstances.”
But taking care of Valerie all those years and at times her ailing mother, took a physical and emotional toll on Phoebe.
“I am a very productive person when I’m up and running,” she told Roos. “I just wasn’t up and running. Sometimes when you’re overwhelmed by a situation, when you’re in the darkest of darkness, that’s when your priorities are reordered.”
Phoebe admitted that part of the problem was her own inertia. “All of my life, when things got too difficult, I folded up the tent and went to bed.”
LIFE LESSON: We all have hardship and tragedy that we have to deal with at one time or another. We’ve all had times when we’ve folded up our tent and gone to bed. But some people seem to carry a heavier burden than others. Look around and notice who is in need of help. It might be a neighbor or a stranger. It could be an encouraging word, a kind gesture, an invitation to dinner, an offer to babysit, some gently-used clothing, a few dollars, a simple smile.
Years passed, and the daughter who wasn’t supposed to live more than a year grew into a teenager and in time an adult. Then on March 18, 2007, at the age of 31, Valerie died of a brain hemorrhage and heart failure.
“Right now it’s beyond a hole. It’s a black hole,” Phoebe told The Record in Bergen County, N.J., in 2008. “I don’t even know how to describe that vacancy because it was such an intense relationship. We lived together for 31 years. She was a perennial child who never grew up. I was her primary caregiver. We were best friends. It was beyond a loss. I don’t even know what word to use. I hope everyone gets to experience the exquisite and divine love I felt.”
Then one day Phoebe’s therapist told her, “Look at how efficiently and aggressively you fought for your child and your mother. Why don’t you do that for yourself? It was like a neon light went on right over my head. I realized that I’ve lived half my life already, and it’s time to believe in, and stand up for myself.”
LIFE LESSON: None of us know how much time we have. We can celebrate Phoebe’s life by heeding her words. It’s time to believe in and stand up for ourselves.
After Valerie died, it was Linda Ronstadt who sat Phoebe down and said, “What are you going to do now?”
“Cry and sleep,” Phoebe told her.
“You have to sing again.”
And so a fragile Phoebe Snow started to readjust to life on stage. She was planning a new album and had a tour scheduled.
But life isn’t always kind and on January 21, 2010 Phobe suffered a brain hemorrhage, which ironically is what killed her daughter. Phoebe’s manager, Sue Cameron reported that Phoebe was in a rehab facility learning to walk and talk again. “It will take a long time and she’ll be working very hard, but the doctors believe she’ll be ok. Her progress back from a very big stroke is totally remarkable. I’ve never seen such strength.”
Unfortunately Phoebe endured bouts of blood clots, pneumonia and congestive heart failure since the stroke and this morning she passed away.
“The loss of this unique and untouchable voice is incalculable,” Cameron said. “Phoebe 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.”
I imagine Phoebe Snow reunited with her daughter Valerie who is whole and perfect, and Phoebe is having the best time entertaining everyone in heaven with her soulful sound.