Gone At Last featuring Phoebe Snow
I'm embarrassed to admit that a month ago, I had no idea who Phoebe Snow was.
After listening to Paul Simon's "Gone At Last," I was curious to learn more about his duet partner on that song (from the album Still Crazy After All These Years). She also sang back up on "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" from the same album.
The second episode of Saturday Night Live (the second ever, in their first season), featured Paul Simon singing solo, reuniting with Art Garfunkel for a few songs and presenting Phoebe Snow for a song.
The video and audio aren't great here (someone filmed their television) but here's Phoebe Snow, 7 months pregnant, introduced by Paul Simon on Saturday Night Live, October 18, 1975.
The always amusing AV Club section of The Onion actually reviewed this episode. Classic sentence:
"The episode opens with Simon, in his porn-mustache and the haircut of a man who doesn’t yet understand that letting his hair grow wild in those areas where it will still grow at all doesn’t make him look any less balding, alone onstage, singing the title song from his then-brand new album, Still Crazy After All These Years."
So who was Phoebe Snow? She was born Phoebe Ann Laub and took her stage name from a fictional character from an advertising campaign for a railway line.
Phoebe Snow is best-known for her song "Poetry Man" which got to #5 on Billboard's Top 100 and #1 on their adult contemporary chart:
From an interview with listen.com (via Songfacts):
"That was the second song I ever wrote in my whole life.... 'Poetry Man,' came about because I was really getting the hang of guitar picking and I had these open chords, not open tuning, open chords. And I was having a relationship with somebody. From the words you can probably deduce that the guy was married. It was a bad thing to do. But I got a lovely romantic sonnet out of it. As it turns out, he was not a particularly great guy either. I turned it into this ode to romance. It's funny looking back on it - I sat there and hunched over the guitar and said 'I'm gonna finish this.' I was in the throes of young romance."
For the record, although Jackson Browne was the rumored subject of this song -- she was 22 and opened for Browne to support her debut album -- Snow categorically denied the speculation.
So it's the mid-1970s and Paul Simon needs a duet partner for a song he wrote, "Gone At Last," so he and his producer, Phil Ramone, call to request -- and get -- the premier female singer in New York City: Bette Midler.
It didn't work out. Midler and Simon officially declared that they did not agree on the arrangement of the song, but a clash of personalities may have been involved. (As much as I admire Simon as a songwriter, I didn't have to delve deep into Paul Simon research to find people who hate him for various reasons; see: "Little" Steven Van Zandt, Steve Berlin of Los Lobos.)
In any case, Midler was out and Ramone and Simon then chose Snow to sing on the track.
Here's Paul Simon with Phoebe Snow performing "Gone At Last" on Late Night with David Letterman ("You're gonna hurt someone with that voice," Dave tells Snow at the end of the song).
Would the song have been a top 25 hit with Midler instead of Snow? Well, I have no documentation, but YouTube comments suggest that this demo has Bette's vocals on it:
The arrangement is very different --a lot of percussion and no piano, as well as overly busy backing vocals towards the end -- but this vocal certainly lacks the passion of Snow's recorded track.
As the song says, Phoebe Snow had some bad luck. In 1975 she gave birth to a daughter, Valerie. Valerie suffered from severe brain damage, a result of hydrocephalus and, according to Snow, medical malpractice. Doctors did not expect her to live long and told her mother not to take her home from the hospital; they told her to put Valerie in an institution for a life that would be measured in months. "Never," Snow declared.
Phoebe chose to care for Valerie at home and, after divorcing Valerie's father, by herself. This meant stepping away from her musical career. Phoebe did such a good job caring for her daughter that Valerie confounded doctors by living for 31 years.
Phoebe's eulogy for her daughter is the only content on her website, phoebesnow.com.
Having chosen not to tour, Snow continued to support herself and Valerie by singing. She sang on numerous commercial jingles in the 1990s; I remember almost all of these commercials but had never realized it was the same voice on every one of them.
She sang, for instance, "Cotton, the fabric of our lives" although I couldn't find a copy on YouTube. (The song was so popular that Big Cotton remakes the commercial with new young singers and they have clogged up the search engines, but I did find a twenty year old version featuring Aaron Neville.)
Here are some more Phoebe snow jingle classics.
Phoebe Snow from a Stouffers Commercial (1995) "Nothing comes closer to home":
General Foods International Coffee, "Celebrate the moments of your life":
"Safeguard the ones you love":
Snow developed a cerebral hemorrhage in 2010 and died in 2011. CBS Sunday Morning ran a story about her in 2009, which functions well as a video obituary:
A bit more profane (yes with some 4 letter words so totally NSFW for people who actually work in the presence of others), but very sweet, is this radio remembrance from Howard Stern. Along with his stories of her, he also plays some tracks she recorded for his radio show. Snow was friends with Howard, sang at his wedding, and displays a great sense of humor. If you think of Howard as just a nasty mouth on the radio, or Snow as just a sainted mother, listening to this will show another side of both of these people.
And now she's gone.
Here's Snow performing Etta James' signature song "At Last" with Donald Fagen's New York Rock and Roll Revue:
Here's cleaner audio of Snow's take on "Piece of My Heart":
I can't believe I've only gotten to know Phoebe Snow. I certainly won't forget her, the example she set with her life, or her music.
Do you have a favorite Snow performance, or know of a jingle she sang on? Let us know in the comments.
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Jack Cheng directs the Clemente Course in Dorchester, excavates in the Middle East, and writes in Waban, MA.