Keeping Phoebe Snow’s Music Alive in Winston-Salem

Tribute to Phoebe Snow posterI can’t remember the last time I heard Phoebe Snow’s “Poetry Man” on the radio. But 40 years after the song first hit the airwaves, Philip Kearns is working to make sure her music is not forgotten with a tribute show he’s been playing around the Triad for about a year now.

It’s not surprising that you don’t hear Ms. Snow on the radio, which programs almost exclusively by genre. Like many talented musicians, Phoebe Snow transcended any single genre, and the music she created measured soul, jazz, rock and pop into a blend that was distinctly her own. Coming to prominence in the middle of the 1970s, she was one of the last of the great singer/songwriters who populated the charts in the early part of that decade, and one of the last of a breed of popular musicians who eschewed pop pablum to make her own kind of music, as Cass Elliot would say.

That doesn’t mean she didn’t have an impact on pop culture, however. “Poetry Man,” placed in the top five on Billboard’s “Hot 100,” and the album from which it was culled also placed at the top of the album charts, selling over a million copies in the U.S. alone. That would be her first album, Phoebe Snow, which earned her a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, and which featured an impressive lineup of guest performers that included The Persuasions, Zoot Sims, Teddy Wilson, David Bromberg, and Dave Mason.

She toured as the opening act for Jackson Browne and Paul Simon, recording the hit single “Gone at Last” with the later. Her picture blessed the cover of Rolling Stone (Dr. Hook take note) and she made several appearances on Saturday Night Live, back when the program was as hip as television got. The Second Childhood album that followed was produced by the legendary Phil Ramone.

From 1973 until 1978, her husband and fellow singer/songwriter, Philip Kearns, was always by her side and often joined her onstage to play percussion.

“Although we went to the same schools together in Teaneck, we didn’t really get acquainted until after crossing paths in the club circuit in the New York metro area,” Kearns says of their meeting. “She came in to my show one night, returning home from doing some finishing touches on her very first album in New York. She had two girlfriends with her and elbowed one and said, ‘See that guy up there singing? I’m gonna marry him.'”

Phoebe Snow and Philip Kearns

Philip Kearns and Phoebe Snow, back in the day.

As it turned out, Snow got the chance to meet and impress her future husband that same night.

“A friend of mine came up to me while I was playing and said that girl is making a record, get her up and sing with you,” he says. “She did, and we had a great time that evening, laughing our asses off together.”

The marriage didn’t last, for a variety of reasons. They had a child together, Valerie Rose, who was born in 1975 with severe brain damage. Snow made the decision to not institutionalize her daughter and cared for her herself at home — a decision that doubtlessly put a strain on the marriage. Another factor would be Kearns’ homosexuality, although he was firmly in the closet in those days, even to her.

“Phoebe suspected I was gay, but didn’t pressure me about it,” he remembers. “She loved me, and I would have been mortified if anyone knew I was gay. We were together for five years, married for the last three of them, and became even better friends after we split up. Of course, it was only a matter of time before that would happen, since she felt I should try to ‘find myself.’

“I didn’t come out until I was almost 50 years old, 17 years ago.”

Kearns has called the Winston-Salem area home since 1990, and currently shares a domicile with Marc, his partner of sixteen years. Since publicly coming out of the closet, he’s been active in the LGBT community and served as the entertainment coördinator for Winston-Salem Pride parade in 2011.

He’s also been active musically. In 2004 he released a well-received album of his own compositions, acoustic songs dealing with his own coming out process — an album that received a thumbs-up from Snow. These days, he’s concentrating on a Phoebe Snow tribute show, which mixes story telling and reminiscing with his own interpretation of songs from his ex-wife’s songbook.

The show was originally prompted by old friend John Bale, who owns Phoebe’s Place, a club in Kearns’ and Snow’s hometown of Teaneck, New Jersey. “He thought it might be a great idea to do a tribute show in New York, in Greenwich Village, so he put that together at the Duplex Cabaret for this time last year.”

The show, aptly titled A Tribute to Phoebe Snow, was a success. Soon after his return to Winston-Salem, a chance meeting at a party allowed him to bring the show to the Triad.

Philip Kearns

Philip Kearns today.

“Someone heard what we returned from doing and said, ‘How did you know Phoebe?’

“I replied, ‘I was married to her.’ The woman almost died, then asked if I’d be bringing the show to Winston. I said it would be too expensive for me to undertake myself, and she said she would sponsor it.”

At that show, which took place at the now closed Community Arts Cafe in downtown Winston-Salem, the stars aligned again with another chance encounter. During intermission, Kearns was approached by Steve Willis, who wanted to know if he’d be interested in bringing the tribute to Greensboro’s Carolina Theatre, where he was a board member.

“So, January 24 became the third time I performed The Tribute To Phoebe Snow.”

Now it’s time for Act IV.

Kearns will be paying tribute to Snow and her music again this Sunday afternoon from 4-8 P.M at the Luna Lounge & Tiki Bar at 701 N Trade Street in Winston-Salem’s downtown Gallery District. The show is a fundraising event, to raise money for the North Star LGBT Center on Brookstown Avenue in the city’s West End.

I haven’t had a chance to see the show yet, but if the music I heard at a rehearsal last Monday is any indication, this will be a great way to spend a late Sunday afternoon. Kearns doesn’t attempt jukebox copycat versions of her material, but offers his own interpretations. He sings and plays acoustic guitar, backed by an eclectic mix of cello, keyboard and bass guitar.

It’s a given that this show will be appealing to those who already know and appreciate Snow’s music, but I’m hoping it will introduce Snow to those born since the ’70s and who have no memory of this legendary singer/songwriter/performer.

We’ll have a review on Monday here on Alternative Approaches.

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And to get you in the mood for Sunday’s event, enjoy this concert that Snow recorded for German TV…

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Christine Hall

Christine Hall is a journalist and writer who lives near Winston-Salem, NC.

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