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

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After dinner we drove back to Teaneck and Phoebe led the way into her family's typical-looking two-story house, where she was living temporarily, and downstairs into a basement playroom. Her father's voice was audible from the kitchen above. "I had a terrible day today," he was saying. "My customers. ... I don't want to discuss it." A Paul Robeson album, Broadway show soundtracks, Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall ("one of my all-time favorites," Phoebe said) and laundry were scattered here and there. A tape recorder was set up and Phoebe threaded a reel and ran it fast forward, to a point she knew well. "This is Charlie," she said, "playing harp and clowning around." The harmonica work wasn't particularly bluesy. It was assertive, mercurial, perhaps a little frantic for the more deliberative mood set by Phoebe's Delta – style guitar. The tune ended in laughter, there were random room sounds and then Charlie sang unaccompanied, in a strangely purposeful manner:

Got a date with an angel
Gonna meet her at seven
Got a date with an angel
And I'm on my way to heaven

"Five years," Phoebe said, "of real craziness. I guess we were bored. This is a cushy existence here; all you learn about life is life in the suburbs. Sometimes boredom is like a necessity here and necessity is the mother of invention. You see what I'm saying? You ask yourself what you can do to your brain just to get it out of TV land." The tape ran off the reel. Upstairs, Phoebe's dad was in a better mood. He was singing "Some Enchanted Evening." Phoebe carefully put the tape back in its box. "I'm glad I didn't stay a part of that scene," she said. "Some of my friends from those days became junkies and some of 'em died. I guess I was already getting a little more self-confidence, from Charlie pushing me into performing around the Village and so on. But then when he died. ... The night he died I was here working with this tape recorder, trying to put down a couple of my original records to see if Shelter records would get interested in me."

Late in 1972 Dino Airali, then director of national promotion for Shelter, arrived in New York after performing as master of ceremonies in a Philadelphia rock festival. "I was really exhausted when I got to my hotel," he remembers. "It was about 9:15 at night. I turned on the TV and the first words I heard were, 'It's the bitter end in politics,' and a bomb went off in my head. This is New York City, I said to myself, I don't get here that often, there's lots of music out there. I called the Bitter End and they said it was talent night and I took a taxi over there. I sat through an hour of mediocre talent and then Phoebe Snow came onstage and her music just took over from there. The vocals, the guitar playing, the songs, everything was really marvelous and the crowd reaction to her was great. So I went backstage and talked with her and gave her some money to make a demo tape, expenses to cover doing it and asked her to send it to Shelter. A week later she sent us the tape, and [Shelter president] Denny Cordell agreed that the company should sign her and that he would produce her. She got a lawyer to negotiate a contract fÈr her and a month later she'd signed."

Cordell continues the story: "I heard the tape, which had 'Poetry Man' on it, and flipped, and I went to New York to meet and talk with this girl. She said she'd never played guitar in a band before and what she really wanted to do was make a record with a band behind her. So she came out to Los Angeles and for the next seven or eight months she played with, I think, all the musicians associated with Shelter, in L.A., and also in Nashville and in our studio in Tulsa. She'd play with whoever was around and we'd record and analyze the recordings, try and work out what was ideal for each song, which approach to take. I think she found that rather a long and painful study, but it obviously had its rewards."

Airali: "Three or four months went by and Denny and Phoebe had been working steadily but still hadn't recorded an album. In the meantime, I was getting more and more into her music, and one day I told her I thought she was a jazz singer, that she should record with more jazz-oriented musicians. Cordell liked the idea. He said, 'Sure, here's a budget, go in and cut some songs.' We cut four songs in L.A. and everyone said, 'This is the direction, you be her producer.' So I sat down with her and she had one musician who was a favorite, Teddy Wilson. She also said she wanted to leave L.A., where she'd come to live while working on her album, and go back to New York, so I contacted Phil Ramone at A&R Studios to engineer the rest of the sessions. Coproduction was one of the requirements for engineering so I said okay. We cut the rest of the album, five tracks added to the four from L.A., in between nine and 11 days."

The Phoebe Snow LP, completed in December 1973, was a name-dropper's dream. Zoot Sims had translated Phoebe's ideal saxophone sounds into reality over the stringlike cushion of jazzman Bob James's organ. David Bromberg, Dave Mason and the Persuasions had helped out on various cuts and of course Teddy Wilson had contributed an impeccable, elegant solo to "Harpo's Blues." The jacket artwork made more of Phoebe's facial moles than was necessary – they aren't all that prominent – but it was offbeat and probably helped sell the album. Airali was credited as producer with Ramone listed below as "coproducer and engineer," a billing which the usually soft-spoken Ramone is somewhat upset by. "Nobody had really taken the time to work with Phoebe when she came to A&R," he says, "and Dino Airali had never produced a record. There was a certain naiveté on both their parts and in this case it worked because they sort of put their life in my hands. I worked on the album, and on helping with the putting together of her touring band; I got involved in conceptualizing musical textures and in translating the musical ideas she had in terms of players and arrangements. I don't say this very often but I don't think I got enough credit."

Early in 1974 Phoebe's attorney, Edgar Malkin, and her recently acquired manager, Steve Rand, informed Shelter that the $1120 forwarded to her by the company in January as payment for her sessionwork on the album was insufficient. They advised Shelter that by their computation the actual monies owed were in excess of $7000 and demanded the $5900 difference. Soon thereafter Shelter exercised its first option to extend Phoebe's contract for an additional year. She had been paid no advance on signing, nor was she contractually entitled to one, but a $6000 payment was required by the option clause and this Shelter sent. The dispute over her session pay continued. Shelter representatives say that in April they offered to pay approximately half of the $7000, and that the offer was rejected. In June the album was released.

Phoebe stayed out of sight as the LP began its slow but steady ascent up the charts. Cordell expresses puzzlement: "After the album was completed and up until the time it came out, we communicated regularly, every ten days or so, and I never got the feeling from her that she thought we'd treated her badly. Now I keep hearing this negative feedback second- and third-hand, but I can't tell you how these feelings of hers were actually conceived or why they've reached such epic proportions." He disagrees with the media's characterization of the way Shelter handled the LP. "I kept reading that we didn't promote the album, when in fact, I'm very proud of our promotion. It was very subtle and very effective. I think America generally has a sense of promotion as being a loud, leering, dazzling affair but I knew with Phoebe that if we could get a solid foundation of people in the media appreciating her for what she is, that inevitably it would snowball into the success that it is. I think we've established Phoebe as a major artist without placing her in any category, which most record-company advertising copy tends to do. And of course our people were working in the field for months, concentrating on airplay and then on the consumers. Those things tend to go unnoticed, as opposed to billboards in Times Square, but those who say there was no promotion should look at the results."

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