I knew I’d found Passaic’s Capitol Theater when I caught sight of a couple of teenagers trying to strangle each other against a grimy, peeling wall while an unconcerned vendor hawked hot pretzels to the gathering crowd nearby. I slipped around the mélee, through the stage door and into a green-carpeted, plywood-paneled room full of tobacco smoke and jittery conversation. Headliner Jackson Browne had retreated into an inner sanctum somewhere but Phoebe Snow, who is short and soft looking, like a baby or a pillow, was sitting in a corner with her band. She was almost swallowed in a green couch and she kept bounding up out of it as she talked.
“Sugar,” she was saying to Phil Kearns, her boyfriend and backup singer, whose striking, angular face had once graced a Jesus Christ, Superstar road company. “Too much sugar. Rowdies. Drunk, stoned, am I right?” A passing theater staffer winced. “I have this fantasy of going out there and saying, ‘Okay, how many people are high on so-and-sos?’ And hundreds of ’em go, ‘Yaaay!!’ ‘How many on red wine?’ ‘Yaaaay!!!’ ‘How many people out there are high because they’re hypoglycemic?’ ‘Hypo-what?’ ‘Fuck you!'”
What Phoebe actually asked the audience was, “Anybody from Teaneck?” There were a few isolated cheers. “Well, I wrote this song about a guy in a band who … became Harpo Marx for extended periods of time; he wouldn’t talk and his eyes would roll around in his head and. …” She stopped, wondering whether to go on, and the crowd, sensing an unguarded moment, came close to falling silent. “Anyway, it’s called ‘Harpo’s Blues.’ ” “Yaaay!!!”
I’d like to be a willow, a lover,
Or a soft refrain
But I’d hate to be a grownup
And have to try to bear
My life in pain
Phoebe, 24, New York City born and Teaneck bred, was quieting the rowdies with a jazzy torch song about a washboard-playing Charlie Harpo who’d died several years earlier by swallowing more antidepressant pills than he should have. “He was the first boyfriend I ever had,” she would explain later, “and he was responsible, totally responsible, for making me keep on with my music. He would make me play on the radio, do guest sets at the Gaslight and the Bitter End, audition for people, and I was really insecure. I would stop in the middle of a song and say, ‘That’s not right,’ and sometimes people would throw things. But he kept me doing it.”
Charlie and the sugar disease were the twin poles to which conversations with Phoebe circuitously but continually returned. The former had launched her career and then, quite unexpectedly, left the material plane. “Although,” she would add, “I know there’s a consciousness energy that operates completely independent of the physical body you inhabit, that maintains … awareness after the body’s gone. I’m not so sure Charlie’s missing all of this.” To the latter she attributed the lack of self-confidence and the crushing, endless depressions which she’d fought throughout her adolescence. “A friend hipped me to hypoglycemia, which an article I read calls ‘a disease for a nation of sugar junkies.’ Who knows how many people in this country have it? You get it from eating too much carbohydrate food, which is sugar food, which is what most pantries in the suburbs are full of. Potato chips, hamburger helper, cookies, canned vegetables, sugar sugar sugar, right? The symptoms are dizziness, cravings to eat, mental depressions, and I had those symptoms for years. And then I went on this pure protein diet and, I know it sounds jive, but my whole life changed.”
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.”
Phoebe looked dreamily out the window, her finger tapping a snare drum pattern on the counter top. Phil was involved in his lentil soup and the conversation level in the brightly lit deli had subsided to a low hum. A couple walked by the window arm in arm, singles no more. “That jazz music had a strange and wonderful effect on me,” Phoebe said, “when I was real small. I remember I first noticed it when I’d be watching Shirley Temple movies and when she’d do her little tap dances, there’d be a hot Swing band playing. And that rhythm, I mean I was ten years old – when you’re supposed to be out playing with your friends – and I was having real orgasms to that rhythm. The other thing that got me was this album we had, The Best of Boogie Woogie, with Cow Cow Davenport, Meade Lux Lewis’s ‘Honky Tonk Train,’ Big Maceo’s ‘Chicago Breakdown.’ Yeah, the more I’d listen, the more worked up I’d get.”
The family was living in Teaneck by this time, Phoebe was going to school, and there were problems. “I’d always felt like I didn’t fit in with the other kids very well and I didn’t. I was bigger than they were and gawkier and fatter and clumsier. I knew I was the only kid in the neighborhood with kinky hair, but it took me awhile to find out I was the only Jewish kid. And then I became very ashamed of being Jewish. In fact, I became anti-Semitic. I began to read things about Hitler in Look magazine and wonder if he was right. On top of all that, I was supposed to be gifted. I remember later on I was sent to a camp for gifted children. There was a camp truck that said ‘for gifted children’ on the side and we all scratched it off and smeared over it with paint because we were so humiliated. Anyway, the only prestige I had among the other kids was that my name was on the trains. We lived right across the street from the railroad tracks and we used to play down there. We’d get under the bridge and it would be very orgasmic when the trains would go by. Especially for me, ’cause all the Erie Lackawanna coal cars said ‘Phoebe’ on ’em. The kids would say, ‘Your name is on a train? Wow!’ Only they didn’t say Phoebe Laub, which was my real name. They said ‘Phoebe Snow.'”
There was no name on the side of the station wagon. Phoebe, wrapped in a multicolored knitted shawl and looking only marginally rested from the gig in Passaic the night before, and Phil, who had tied a red scarf around his neck cowboy style, were making small talk in the back seat while guitarist Steve Burgh exchanged musical gossip with multiinstrumentalist and relief driver Warren Nichols. “Then I’m gonna be doing Bromberg’s concert at Avery Fisher Hall,” the stocky, mustachioed Nichols was saying. “You too? That should be fun.”
Onstage Burgh and Nichols would flank Phoebe, providing colorings around her deft acoustic guitar picking while bassist Chuck Fiore and drummer Beau Segal contributed solid but understated rhythm. Burgh began the carefully structured sets in a jazz vein, plucking warm, globular chords and Wes Montgomery-like octaves out of his electric hollow body. Later, after “Poetry Man” and the bluesier material had created a mood, he would stand up and brace his feet like a bull getting ready to charge and hit a ringing intro to Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” Phoebe’s tour de force closer. He matched her riff for screaming riff through the song, following her voice into its dog-frequency range while Nichols filled in on organ.
It was Nichols’s job to hop around between a bewildering array of instruments during the sets. In the course of “Harpo’s Blues” alone he jumped from piano to organ to plunger-muted trombone, and on other numbers he used pedal steel guitar and conga drums as well. Amazingly, his versatility was matched only by his wholly unassuming stage presence; Phoebe remained the center of attention. She would slip on almost unobtrusively, dressed in slacks and blouse or a one-piece pullover as if she were hanging out in someone’s suburban den, drop into a folding chair stage center and begin deliberately tuning her guitar. Then she’d tap out four brisk beats and the band would come on in her lilting “Either or Both.”
Sometimes these hands get so
That I drop things and people
Sometimes these hands seem so
I can see them signin’ autographs
It was an opening as disarmingly, breezily direct as Phoebe herself and she was singing for keeps from the first note. She would end some of the lines in a kind of bebop-tinged blue yodel that jumped its obligatory octave and then swerved and glided into what sounded like every possible melodic nook and cranny before beginning its final downward glissando. Phil’s backup vocals sounded uncannily like Phoebe double-tracked and the song came off as pristinely as on her album, but with more presence and spontaneity.
Theoretically, these minutes onstage made up for the hours of driving and waiÈing. In practice, the guitar cases seemed to get heavier and heavier; exhaustion from the two shows in Passaic was catching up with everyone as they shuffled slowly into Yale’s Woolsey Hall. Downstairs, deep in the subterranean chambers and passageways which connect Yale buildings underground, a dinner table had been set up and several middle-aged women were tending a hot buffet. “Look at this,” Burgh enthused. “Salad, ziti … real food.” Phoebe ate salad and little else and was soon sitting in a corner, alone. Musicians, stagehands, roadies, girlfriends and groupies paraded through. A corpulent Italian arrived with several gigantic pizzas and Phoebe left to find her dressing room.
It was a room with a single chair, pale yellow walls and a door that opened on a huge set of steel steam pipes. “Where were we?” Phoebe asked resignedly. “Oh yeah, school, schools. I hate ’em. Teachers too. We were talking about Phoebe Snow, the tracks? That was a good period. When I got to junior high school, I started going through a lot of changes. A lot of girls in class had started to wear stockings and bras and stuff and when we got dressed in gym I’d be very conspicuous in my ankle socks and undershirt. But I didn’t need a bra and as a matter of fact I got pretty pissed off because a lot of those chicks didn’t need a bra either. I almost got beat up in that gym class. They threw me in the shower and hid my clothes and life started to get tough. By the time I was in ninth grade people were actually laughing at me and I was afraid to walk into a classroom. The jocks and the greasers, the only people who mattered, thought my name was funny, my body looked funny, my face was a scream. And I just got more and more awkward.
“Then in high school my girlfriends – they were generally outcast types like me – we all got into partying and getting drunk. I remember getting drunk at the junior prom ’cause I didn’t like my date, although I had asked him to take me and paid for the tickets. He did it up right too, brought me a half-dozen long-stemmed roses, picked me up in a big Cadillac. Then he tried to rape me after and I was really like … asexual in high school. I was very locked into myself, I guess; music was more interesting than sex. Anyway, I got stinko drunk and threw up all over the place and he dumped me on my doorstep. What a bummer. Then I didn’t want to graduate. One of the jocks kicked me in the ass during rehearsals for the graduation ceremony and I just refused to go. I prayed all night, ‘Please God, let something happen to the graduation exercises.’ Sure enough, it started to rain during the opening song and in just a couple of minutes it turned into a downpour. Everybody grabbed their diplomas and split.
“Then came the college hassle. I got rejected by about 11 different ones because my marks from high school were really shitty. I knew I was a failure but my parents really thought college was important and they wouldn’t give up. They took me on a trek through the northeastern states, to interviews at all the most hip and progressive schools. Rejection. Finally, one guy didn’t even finish his interview with me. He just said, ‘There’s not any point in showing you around today, it’s snowing too hard.’ And I got in the car with my parents and cried. I ended up going to evening school in Teaneck for a while and then riding the subway into New York to the New School for Social Research. I took creative writing and anthropology, which put me to sleep.”
Phoebe had already developed into a musical original and she had done it more or less on her own. “Sure,” she admitted, “I took piano lessons. I was a little piano prodigy for a while, but I couldn’t stand my teachers. ‘No blues, no barrelhouse, no boogie woogie,’ one of ’em would yell. Okay, okay. I would remember what they played and mimic what their fingers did and convince them I was reading the pieces, but I wasn’t. I still can’t read music, I still haven’t learned theory.” At age 15 she began taking guitar from Eric Schoenberg, who was involved in arranging Scott Joplin piano rags for the instrument. She studied Stefan Grossman’s How to Play the Blues Guitar, bought some Sam Charters Mississippi blues albums, hung out at the Folklore Center in Greenwich Village, listening and learning. Still she rebelled at reading notation. Instead, she “would take a chord somebody had shown me or written out in tablature – that I could read – and I’d add a note, move my pinkie up one to see how it sounded. I invented chords; I’m sure they’d been invented before but I found them for myself in very roundabout ways.” Several years later she would take voice lessons for a few months with David Sorin Collyer, vocal coach to Paul Simon, Bette Midler and Liza Minnelli. The results were predictable: She rebelled at the teacher/student situation, though not without learning voice exercises which she continued to find valuable.
She was still pursuing a desultory college career and skirting the fringes of various Village scenes when she met Charlie. “Some of my girlfriends in Teaneck told me he had a jug band and that he’d really dig to hear me play, so I went over and played for him, with a lump in my throat, you know. He was in somebody’s den with these five or six kids in his jug band and I played and he took me aside and said, ‘Listen, you’re too good for my band.’ I freaked out and said, ‘Oh, no, listen, I just want to be with a band.’ Actually, at that moment I just wanted to be part of the furniture. But he said, ‘No, you should be out there on your own,’ especially after I sang my little blues number for him. What was it? ‘Let Me Squeeze Your Lemon till the Juice Runs down My Leg.'” We laughed; the image of short, bespectacled Phoebe walking in with her insecurity pinned to her sleeve and then opening up with her unbelievably authoritative voice on a classic piece of raunch was irresistible.
There was a knock on the dressing room door. “Phoebe Snow?” asked a nervous Yalie stagehand. “Do, uh, do you have a road manager with you?” She shook her head. “Well, Jackson’s band is still out there tuning up and taking levels, a-a-and we have to open the doors in five minutes and your band hasn’t had a sound check. So is there somebody, I mean, we asked Jackson’s band kinda polite and they’re still playing and … do you have a heavy with you?” Phoebe jumped to her feet and jabbed a thumb into her chest. “Me,” she said, “let’s go.” By the time I’d put away my tape recorder and found my way out of the catacombs and up the stairs Browne’s band was gone and Phoebe’s was beginning “Either or Both.”
A couple of days later Phoebe suggested dinner near Bear Mountain and we drove up from Teaneck in the late afternoon, along evergreen-covered ridges, through some of the most unspoiled scenery the Garden State offers. “Charlie and I drove up to Bear Mountain on his 20th birthday,” she said. “As a matter of fact, there are some words in ‘Harpo’s Blues’ that he sang that day. He used to have these little impromptu songs that he would spout and he would do things like make me sing with him. ‘You have to sing these words or get out of the car right now,’ he’d say. Anyway, we got lost and he started this song that went ‘I’m lo-o-ost again.’ By the time we were through it had as many verses as ’99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.’
“There’s a little something about him in almost every line of the Harpo song. Like where it says, ‘I wish I was a soft refrain/ When the lights were out I’d play and be your friend.’ He had a library of tapes, all meticulously logged with the dates he’d recorded them and cross-referenced in alphabetical and chronological order. Mostly jazz, everything from early Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines doing ‘It’s Tight like That’ to Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday, who is still the one as far as I’m concerned, Fats Waller, Charlie Parker and then we would listen to Dinah Washington, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Mavis Staples, Aretha. The impact of all that on me was enormous, and it was Charlie who’d really sought it out; I was just a lazy little fat thing, waiting for it to come to me. But we would get into listening and he would just shake me and go, ‘This is where it all started!’ And I’d say, yeah! I mean, that was the music I’d been looking for all my life. Where was I? Oh, ‘Harpo’s Blues,’ right, every time he would play his music for me the lights would be out. ‘You have to listen to it in the dark,’ he’d say. He was a heavy cat.”
We arrived at Guido’s Alpine Lodge as the sun was setting. It was a long, rambling structure with peaked roofs and eaves like a Swiss ski lodge, but the grounds were a little … strange. Beyond the parking lot stood a huge ruined gazebo, half its roof hanging to the ground in strips, a few posts lying in the rubble on its floor. Moss hung, from the thickly bunched trees behind the gazebo and an evening mist was creeping along the ground. “During the last year of Charlie’s life,” Phoebe was saying, “he stopped writing his silly little poems, he stopped playing the clarinet and washtub bass and spoons – he was really hot on all of ’em – and gradually his whole creative flow just tapered off. I’m afraid he must have been living all his musical fantasies through me, probably because I was more developed just on a technical level. He sure did push me. He’d say, ‘You’re going to play the Bitter End on talent night,’ or, ‘You’re going to go audition for Dick Waterman,’ who was Junior Wells’s manager and Bonnie Raitt’s, and at the time I was still playing mostly blues and really looked up to Bonnie Raitt. Charlie and I would practice together with him playing harp and he was good at that too. Then one day he just said, ‘No … I’m not good enough.’ And he put up his harps and went home.
“There were four years of on-again, off-again relationships, me being madly in love with him and him usually having other girlfriends. The fifth year I didn’t have very much to do with him until the last couple of weeks of his life, when we started seeing each other again on a very platonic level. He began to open up and talk to me at that point about things that were bothering him, and I thought we were making some headway. But every time we got into it he would get to the climactic point, where he was going to explain why he was so unhappy, and he would stop in midsentence, he just wouldn’t be able to let it out. Was I doing dope? Yeah, not shooting up or anything but smoking and taking a lot of different kinds of pills. I remember being so bombed on quaaludes I set my hair on fire trying to light a joint. I remember once I took a whole bottle of speed and all my friends thought I was going to die. They made me eat something and throw up and they kept walking me around to keep me alive. When I came out of it the first thing I did was call Charlie and babble it all out to him and he freaked and went, ‘No, don’t tell me that, I don’t want to hear that!'”
The gazebo had disappeared in the deepening gloom; inside Guido’s it was warm and loud, cheeks were pink and ruddy, bellies were bulging with seafood stuffing and steak. Guido himself dropped by our table to tell us he’d served Joey Bishop and London Lee recently. His daughter, who’d been one of Phoebe’s friends since the Charlie years, took our orders and raised her eyebrows at the snatches of conversation she heard. “Charlie would become someone totally different from the person you were sitting with five minutes before,” Phoebe continued. “That could be frustrating, especially when he got into being Harpo. You’d be in a romantic mood and all of a sudden he’d pull out a seltzer bottle, or at exactly the right slapstick moment you’d be sitting on a pie or have shaving cream all over your face. I mean, he was awful, he really was. When he died, which was in late ’72, it was the heaviest thing that ever happened to me. I’ve gone through a lot of changes about it since then. I remember when I recorded ‘Harpo’s Blues,’ I got there and Teddy Wilson was actually in the studio, and I just went in the ladies’ room and cried because Charlie wasn’t there.
“Later I decided that he was there. That came from reading a book by Jane Roberts, called Seth Speaks. Actually, Jane Roberts dictated the book while she was in a trance and the person who was speaking through her claimed to be the entity Seth. He said he existed on a plane other than the physical, on another astral plane, so I guess you’d call him a spirit, or a ghost if you want to be really blunt. One of the things he said was that the physical body you inhabit serves as no more than a vehicular thing to get you around the earth plane, which you chose to live on at that time. Now remember, I had always been insecure about not having the perfect body, the perfect face. My body had been a source of constant disappointment to me. So that idea just knocked me out. I’ve studied parapsychology a lot since reading that.”
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.”
The case was briefly tried in the media over promotion, which wasn’t legally at issue. The session pay was “Throughout April and May,’ says Steve Rand, “Phoebe’s attorney and I sought through conversations with Shelter to secure proper payment for her sessions in New York. We had determined that she had spent in excess of 60 hours working on her record in a New York studio and far in excess of 60 hours prior to those sessions working in preparation for her album at studios in Los Angeles, Tulsa and Nashville. At the same time we requested detailed royalty statements such as are required under her agreement with Shelter and didn’t receive any such statements. By May Shelter had told both me and her attorney that it would not pay what we considered to be proper compensation for the New York sessions, let alone offer to compensate her for the sessions prior to New York, for which she had been paid not one cent.”
Harvey Fierstein, Shelter’s attorney, says of the session pay question that “Phoebe and her advisers claim she was entitled to be compensated as a leader for each and every hour that recording was in progress. It was their contention that she was to be paid whether or not her services were performed or her presence required. It was Shelter’s position that she was entitled to be compensated for the amount of time that was actually spent in recording or the amount of time that she was required to be present.”
Rand: “It’s my understanding that in May Phoebe’s attorney had advised her of Shelter’s refusal to pay proper union scale and its failure to render detailed royalty statements. Acting on her attorney’s counsel, she then instructed him to write Shelter, giving it 60 days as required by the contract to cure these various breaches. Sixty days passed, Shelter didn’t act, and it’s my understanding that she then instructed her attorney to advise Shelter that, by reason of its breaches, she was no longer contractually bound to the company. After that letter was sent to Shelter, she instructed me to see whether any other recording company would be interested in signing her. At her request I approached several companies, one of which was Columbia.”
Fierstein: “In July 1974, Shelter heard through the grapevine that Steve Rand had been negotiating with other recording companies and had taken the position that Phoebe was no longer under contract to Shelter. To counteract this Shelter, at my direction, sent telegrams to over 40 recording companies, including Columbia, advising them that Phoebe was under exclusive contract to us. In August Shelter filed an action against Phoebe, and the court set a hearing on an order to show cause in re preliminary injunction, which is a legal proceeding required prior to the issuance of an injunction.
“Inasmuch as Phoebe lived in New Jersey, we had to have her served through the local sheriff. We were unsucÈessful in doing so; it was my opinion that she was clearly evading service. The hearing was set for August 30th, and by local court rules I had to file proof that she had been served by August 28th. I was unable to furnish such proof to the court, so the hearing was taken off the court’s calendar. This was not an adjudication of any sort. In late September I heard, once again through the grapevine, that Phoebe was about to sign a contract with CBS. I immediately put in a call to the chief legal counsel for CBS Records. He would only acknowledge that Phoebe had been dealing with CBS, but with this knowledge in mind I served CBS as a party to the litigation that Shelter had initiated against Phoebe. I also prepared a new order to show cause. Due to the fact that my partner and our wives were about to go on a three-week vacation, the hearing on the injunction was not held until November.”
By this time Phoebe had signed with Columbia. A CBS representative, who declines to be identified by name, asserts that “the first serious meeting between Phoebe’s representatives and CBS took place in mid-August. At that time her representatives showed us papers indicating that they had on several occasions advised Shelter that Shelter was in breach of its agreements with her, that she regarded the term of her contract with them as over and herself as free to enter into an agreement elsewhere. At that point, as I recall, Shelter had started an action against Phoebe and we decided to withhold acting until the court ruled on Shelter’s motion for an injunction. Several weeks passed. We were then advised that Shelter’s lawyers had voluntarily taken the motion for an injunction off the calendar and at this point we prepared and signed a contract with Phoebe, in the honest belief that Shelter was not seeking an injunction. Thereafter Shelter renewed its motion and added us to its lawsuit. Then, after some procedures took place, there was a hearing, and the court did grant Shelter a temporary injunction against Phoebe. But at the same time, Shelter was ordered to comply with its obligations under the contracts, the main ones being to render accountings and pay royalties. After that, there was an arbitration of the session pay dispute at the American Federation of Musicians. It was found that Shelter should have paid her $5400 in scale and had actually paid her only $1100. Based on that, Phoebe and CBS went back to the court and asked that the temporary injunction be set aside, on the grounds that this was a pretty serious breach. The lower court held that the judge didn’t have the jurisdiction to decide the motion, only the appellate court could, so now we’re asking the appellate court for that release.
“Remember, when Phoebe came to us in August her album was still very low in the charts; she wasn’t trying to capitalize on a burst of popularity. The bottom line, as far as CBS is concerned, is that this girl came to us and told us she had a fixed intention never again to record for Shelter. We have been approached very frequently over the years by disgruntled artists and we almost never sign an artist in this situation, unless we’re sure the situation the artist is claiming is a factual one and the artist has already split. We believe, based on the file that we saw, that we did the right thing and we feel very heavily committed to this girl and are going to see this through.”
Fierstein spoke for Shelter during the court proceedings leading to the injunction when he said, “Your honor, we want her back. With everything that has gone on, we want her back and we are willing to accommodate her in any way we can.” Phoebe says she “just can’t talk about being with Shelter. It’s what they call a litigious situation and nope, absolutely not.” She pauses. “I can tell you one thing, though. No matter what happens, I’ll never record for them again.”
Her friends in New Jersey say her months of involvement with the company were a time of “very weird scenes” and speak of rumÈred “mind-fuck trips,” but they refuse to add substantive details. A former employee of Shelter agrees that “weirdness went on” but asserts that it had at least as much to do with Phoebe as with the Shelter people. Several observers contend that the apparent instance of badly misinterpreted signals between Shelter and CBS during the crucial period of late summer to early fall 1974 is more than passing strange. Nobody is taking bets on when Phoebe will be free to record again.
Phil Ramone would rather talk about the music. “My first impression of her,” he says, “was of a healthy Sarah Vaughn. You see chops like hers come along once in a great while. There was even something about the way she played the guitar, a Django Reinhardt kind of rawness. Tie those two things together and you’re listening to something that’s actually new, an opportunity you don’t have very often.” To which Phoebe, off on the West Coast leg of her first tour, adds: “Nobody can keep me from performing, my boyfriend’s here with me. As long as I don’t have to eat sugar I’m cool.”