04/26/2011 at 01:00 PM EDT
Phoebe Snow, a songwriter and contralto singer of the '70s hit "Poetry Man," died Tuesday in Edison, N.J., where she lived, her rep told the Los Angeles Times
. She was 60 and had suffered a brain hemorrhage in January 2010.
According to a 1976 PEOPLE profile
, Snow picked up her initial interest in music at home, where her mother was a former Martha Graham dancer and her father was a big-band buff who worked for an exterminating company. (Her actual surname was Laub; "Phoebe Snow" was borrowed from an Erie Lackawanna train
Phoebe's parents gave her the obligatory piano and guitar lessons, though her real inspiration came from jazz and blues records. School, according to the the artist, was an agonizing exercise in social maladjustment. "All I wanted was to wear knee socks, plaid skirts and bangs and be inconspicuous," she told PEOPLE. "But I stuck out like a sore thumb. I used to walk around with my notebook in my face."
She dropped out of Shimer College in northern Illinois and fled to Greenwich Village and the life of a quasi hippie, smoking dope and crashing on uppers and downers. An early boyfriend encouraged Phoebe to perform the stream-of-consciousness lyrics she'd been scrawling in her notebooks for years.
Snow's break came after a record producer spotted her at amateur night at New York's Bitter End nightclub. Her first single, "Poetry Man," was a hit in 1975, and its brooding, bluesy LP, Phoebe Snow
, coined gold with a minimum of hype.
Her career took a backseat to caring for her daughter with the folksinger Phil Kearns (the couple were married only briefly). The girl, Valerie Rose Laub, was born in 1975 with severe brain damage and lived by Snow's side for 31 years. Snow later said Valerie's death left a vacancy in her life she did not know how to fill.
Shortly after Valerie's birth, Snow said the child was providing the serenity that would finally anchor her life. Snow gave up all drugs, even aspirin, and two other minor vices, Twinkies and cheesecake.
"I got off by being crazy in my younger days," she told PEOPLE. "Because I was irresponsible I didn't think I could manage myself and another person, too. Of course," she joked, "it's true that I'm still out of my mind. You have to be nuts to be in this business. But they're not going to get my kid."