Phoebe Snow Finds the Suburbs of the Soul: Rolling Stone's 1975 Cover Story

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Hypo schmypo-the teenagers in the Passaic audience couldn't have cared less and only the Teaneck contingent evidenced any interest in the late Charlie. The inclusive imagery of the songs, concerned as it was with the locked in/locked out anxieties of the young, was something to get into. The folk, old-timey jazz, gospel and rock strains that interacted in the music were fresh and freewheeling. But just listen to her voice, they were whispering excitedly to each other, it's, like, incredible. And it was-a natural wonder of a voice, soaring as high as Minnie Riperton's and descending to a butch quasi-bass, capable of apparently infinite textural variation, from the gauziest of wisps to the balkiest of bellows, an obvious once-in-a-generation voice from the first note and an astoundingly artless-sounding voice as well. Leaping one and two octaves, floating through difficult chord patterns and hitting the most difficult intervals smack on target suddenly sounded as easy as singing "Frere Jacques" in grade school.

Plus, as Caroline Kennedy was heard to remark after Phoebe's one-night stand at New York's Bottom Line, "She was real." Somehow, after breeding hordes of singers who could only equate soul with blackface travesties of old blues or new R&B, suburbia had finally produced an honest soul style all its own. Phoebe sang with a gripping emotional intensity and she didn't have to ape black mannerisms to do it. It seemed to come naturally and how did she pull it off?

She was a mystery. There'd been no intimate interviews, no biographical sketches, just the voice and the songs coming over the radio more and more frequently until she had a single in the Top Ten and an album certified gold. There was some controversy as to the part her record label, Shelter, had played in her success, but it was undeniable that word-of-mouth enthusiasm had been an unusually important factor. Now there was a court action involving Phoebe, Shelter, Columbia Records and battalions of lawyers, and everyone associated with her was being very, very careful around the press. An injunction prevented her from recording for anyone and legal moves and counter moves tangled around her as she went out on this, her first national tour. She was an extraordinary lady, all right, and she was feeling extraordinarily hassled.

On the way back to Teaneck after the Passaic show she massaged Phil's neck from the back seat of the band's station wagon and ticked off a few of her gripes. No record company had been allowed to help her financially since the injunction and many, if not most, first tours are partially subsidized because they boost record sales. This tour was having to pay for itself and that meant driving to the East Coast gigs in the wagon, leading to frayed nerves and exhaustion. Jackson Browne had been great and his people were more than accommodating but "the audiences want to boogie. So I have to scream every nÈght to get them up off their asses, and I'm a jazz singer ... or a pop singer ... anyway, I'm not a rock singer. My album is like a ballad album and I'm really a sucker for that torchy stuff. Give me a strapless gown and a rhinestone-studded guitar and some 55-year-olds in my audience, along with their kids and grandkids. Don't give me 'boogie'!!" Then there was road food, half sugar and half chemicals, and "Teaneck, coming up." Incredible, right?

Teaneck looked like a suburban paradise of well-kept front lawns and one-family, one- and two-story houses, a far cry from Passaic's crumbling, post-industrial landscape. We turned a corner and, sure enough, found ourselves on a brightly lit thoroughfare lined by singles bars. The strip would probably have looked pretty chic around 11:00, but it was almost two and the singles who were still in the street weren't in control of their faculties. One lovely creature, braless in a sheer white blouse and oblivious to the spring chill, stepped off a curb and zombie-walked into our headlights. Her eyes were locked in straight-ahead position and she didn't seem to notice when Phil slammed on the brakes to avoid running her down.

Around half the bodies acted inhabited in the all-night deli restaurant at the end of the street. "This is the place," Phoebe said, "where you see everybody and hear everything." It seemed like a good place to find out a few details. "My parents. You want to know about my parents. Well...." She reached into her bulging purse, pulled out a wallet and opened it to a snapshot of a raven-haired, liquid-eyed young woman. "My mother," she explained. "Hot, right? She was in Martha Graham's dance company for a while and she used to go out on double dates with Marjorie Masia and Woody Guthrie, who were married later. There's an autographed copy of Bound for Glory at home; Guthrie wrote this long stream-of-consciousness rap to my mother in it. There was this Coney Island Guthrie bunch in those days, kind of like a bunch of hippies. They used to have hootenannies and tell tall tales. Anyway, when I was a kid I'd show the book to my friends, who wouldn't know who Guthrie was or what I was talking about. And I would wonder, you know, whether Woody Guthrie had had a proper education, 'cause he wrote kind of like a hick. My mother said, 'Oh yes, he was very well educated; he just adopted that style.'

"She met my dad at a party and they got married two weeks later! His father was in vaudeville and burlesque as a stand-up comic, and Dad was really into his little anecdotes about the theater. He was working for Viking Press for a while and into various other things. Now? He's an exterminator. He's been into jazz since Benny Goodman and the Swing era, and he still gets really wrapped up in listening to his jazz record collection. He turned me on to Django Reinhardt and Sidney Bechet when I was a little kid. Sometimes he gets into banjo bands strumming 'Wait till the Sun Shines, Nellie,' but basically he likes things like the live Carnegie Hall appearance of the Benny Goodman Quartet, which is fine with me."

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