Phoebe Snow

Before zooming to stardom with the 1975 hit single "Poetry Man," folk-jazz singer Phoebe Snow was Phoebe Laub, the oldest elder of two daughters in a middle-class Teaneck family.

"She was a rebellious teenager who always looked a little different and did all the weird things teenagers do," said state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, who lived a couple of doors down, hired Phoebe as a baby sitter, and called her a friend.

One thing Phoebe did was take her guitar, get on the bus to New York and sing blues at Greenwich Village clubs and coffee houses. Soon her "powerful, four-octave voice," as a New York Times reviewer described it, was known far and wide.

The music world and Teaneck especially are mourning Phoebe Snow, 60, who died Tuesday in Edison from complications of a brain hemorrhage she suffered in January 2010.

The Fort Lee resident stayed true to her Teaneck roots. She attended Weinberg's birthday fund-raisers to sing "Happy Birthday" to her old neighbor, and for 40 years, until days before her illness, she took many meals at Louie's Charcoal Pit on Cedar Lane.

Phoebe Snow  she adopted the name of a turn-of-the-century railroad advertising campaign character after seeing the words on boxcars rumbling through Teaneck  was 3 years old when her parents moved to Merrison Street from Manhattan. Merrill Laub, who was in the exterminating business, had a family background in vaudeville; Lili Laub taught dance.

Phoebe, whose fashion calling card was a head full of curls, graduated from Teaneck High School in 1968.

"I wasn't aware of her talent and I'm not even sure her parents were aware of it when she was young," Weinberg said. "But I was wowed by the talent that would later come out, the range of her voice."

The melancholy "Poetry Man," part of her self-titled debut album, made Snow a star. She was a best new artist nominee at the 1975 Grammys and followed up on that success with a gold-selling second album, "Second Childhood."

Snow gave birth to a brain-injured daughter, Valerie, in 1975. The child was the product of a brief marriage to musician Phil Kearns.

Snow's role as mother of a severely disabled daughter came to define her life more than her music. Valerie always lived with Snow, and always came first.

"She devoted her life to Valerie," Weinberg said.

"This was a woman who gave up much of her professional career for her invalid daughter," said Snow's friend, Dino Stamatelatos, whose family owns Louie's Charcoal Pit. Snow often brought Valerie with her to Louie's.

"I cannot express to you the love she had for her daughter," he said.

Valerie died in March 2007, at 31.

"Phoebe took it very hard because in many ways, Valerie was her reason for being," Weinberg said.

Before a 2008 performance at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, Snow spoke of the void in her life.

"Right now, it's beyond a hole," she said in an interview with The Record.

"It's a black hole. I don't even know how to describe that vacancy, because it was such an intense relationship. & She was a perennial child. I was her primary caregiver. And we were madly  as anyone who saw us together knows  in love with each other. We were best friends."

Snow never duplicated the success of "Poetry Man"  she last appeared on the charts with her 1989 album, "Something Real"  but her career did stretch for decades. She performed for President Bill Clinton at Camp David and she sang commercial jingles in the 1980s and 1990s, most memorably for General Foods International Coffees ("Celebrate the moments of your life").

"My child was not a distraction. She was a challenge," Snow said in The Record interview. "And there are certainly ways to work around a challenge. But I was in an industry that didn't know any of those ways."

Her Teaneck friends and acquaintances say Snow was down to earth.

Carl Emerick, a retired Teaneck High School dean, was a young teacher when Phoebe Laub attended the school in the '60s. More than a decade later, they met at a party. Emerick asked her out.

By then, Phoebe Snow was divorced and a household name.

"She didn't brag about herself," said Emerick, who shared a story Snow had told him.

"Phoebe was always a fan of [Frank] Sinatra and was at one of his concerts, sitting in the first row, waiting for the show to start.

"But she had to go to the bathroom and didn't want to leave her seat because she was afraid he would start. But she had to go badly. On her way back, Sinatra was already singing. She walked as quietly as she could, hoping she would not disturb anything. And Sinatra yells out from the stage, 'Ladies and gentleman, there's a broad here tonight who is interrupting my show. And by the way, she is the best singer in the history of the world.'

"That's what Phoebe told me. And she said her career went sky-high after that."

Jacqueline Kates, a former Teaneck mayor, occasionally ran into Snow.

"She had been singing again, doing more since her daughter passed away," Kates said. "She was such a fantastic stylist, with that unusual voice. I was proud of her being from Teaneck."

E-mail: levin@northjersey.com
Published in The Record on Apr. 27, 2011