National Post

Surprise! Ruth Lowe wrote many of Sinatra’s hits

Ruth Lowe wrote some of Sinatra’s signature songs — and on Ol’ Blue Eyes’ 100th birthday, her son is still fighting to get her recognized in her home and native land

- By Sue Carter Weekend Post

Frank Sinatra’s funeral, on May 20, 1998, was an extravagan­t sendoff befitting a man considered one of the 20th century’s greatest performers. The air was heady with perfume from the thousands of white roses and gardenias that carpeted the Beverly Hills c-hurch, enveloping the pews lined with glamor ous A-list guests such as Jack Nicholson, Sidney Poitier and Sophia Loren.

Tony Bennett sang “Ave Maria.” Actor Robert Wagner cried during his eulogy. But mourners didn’t actually hear The Voice himself — who would have turned 100 today — until the end of t-he two-hour religious service, when Sinatra’s sig nature song “Put Your Dreams Away (For Another Da-y),” which served as his radio and television an them during his early career, filled the air.

“That was a surreal moment,” recalls Charles P- ignone, senior vice- president of Frank Sin atra Enterprise­s, who has been involved with the singer and his estate since 1984, starting as president of the fan club. “verybody was just sitting there and then this voice comes up. You heard the strains of the arrangemen­t — and you’d look around and see Nancy Reagan, Bob Dylan, Br-uce Springstee­n. It was a who’s who of Holly wood and New York. There was an audible gasp and then there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

Toronto photograph­er Tom Sandler didn’t attend the funeral but the fact that “Put Your Dreams Away” was selected by the Sinatra family as their final farewell still makes him emotional. After all, it was Sandler’s late mother, composer Ruth Lowe, who wrote the lyrics that caused all those celebritie­s to well up: “Put your dreams away for another day / And I will take their place in your heart / Wishing on a star never got you far / And so it’s time to make a new start.”

Sandler’s home doubles as a shrine to his mom. Her old piano, its sunny-yellow paint well worn under a collection of family snapshots, dominates t-he living room. Lowe’s honorary Grammy, pre sented a year after her death in 1981, hangs on the wall beside a glamorous portrait.

These days Lowe’s name most often appears as a footnote in Sinatra biographie­s and boxsets; her songs trivia fodder for vintage- music diehards. But what Sandler wants the world t- o remember is that decades before the swag gMering “y Way” and the Rat Pack’s notorious Vegas escapades, Lowe wrote another, famousat-the- time song for Sinatra, “I’ ll Never Smile Again,” a slow, mournful tune that launched Ol’ Blue Eyes’ career.

Sandler does not want his mother’s legacy forgotten, and has long sought recognitio­n for her in Canada, both through institutio­ns like the Walk of Fame, and more informally through word of mouth. “She should be acknowledg­ed for outstandin­g accomplish­ments in music,” he says. “And the struggle that she overcame, and the dilemma that she had — and women have now — about families and careers. She was quite liberated, very independen­t and confident.”

It was in 1955, when Sandler was five years old, that he discovered that his mother was something of a big deal. She was featured on This Is Your Life, the popular pre-reality-television show that duped unsuspecti­ng celebritie­s into appearing before an audience, while notable people from t-heir lives were trotted out to share personal anec dotes. Young Sandler and his older brother Steven were flown in from Toronto and brought onstage to surprise their mom. Blinded and frightened by the bright studio lights, Sandler immediatel­y ran into her arms for protection.

He has a photograph of that day hanging on the wall. There are many more photos stored in a binder, along with copies of Lowe’s sheet music and personaliz­ed autographs from performing pals like Du-ke Wellington. It took Sandler sev eral years to digitize all her memorabili­a, partly in hopes that someday they find an institutio­nal home. For now, though, he packs it up to visit seniors’ homes and synagogues where he gives p-resentatio­ns on Lowe’s life. There he’s found ap preciative audiences who actually remember the songs from the first time around.

Lowe’s story could have come out of a classic film of that era (director Vincente Minnelli once envisioned it as one, starring Judy Garland). Born i-n 1914 in Toronto, she spent most of her child hood in Glendale, Calif., until her father’s butcher business went sour during the Depression. Her family packed back up for Toronto with only their piano in tow, on which Lowe and her sister, Mickey, had taken classical lessons.

After her father died, Lowe quit school at age 1-6 and helped support the family by demonstrat ing sheet music on the piano at the Song Shoppe on Yonge Street. At 21, she got her big break wBhen the “lond Bombshell of Rhythm,” Ina Ray Hutton, came to town. The charismati­c, sultry leader of the all-women big band the Melodears (said to be the inspiratio­n behind Some Like It Hot) needed a replacemen­t pianist for her Toronto gig, and Lowe came recommende­d by the musicians’ union. Lowe o-bviously impressed as she was invited to be come a permanent Melodear, exhaustive­ly touring with the band across North America for two years — until she fell madly in love.

In 1938, while performing in Chicago, Lowe met Harold Cohen, a rugged music p- ublicist, or “song plugger,” with Holly wood good looks. But within a year of being married, Cohen died unexpected­ly during a routine surgery, and Lowe returned to Toronto, devastated. In her sadness she wrote the lyrically simple but powerful “I’ll Never Smile Again.” Lowe told the Toronto Daily Star in 1940 that the ballad “seemed to fill my head and guide my fingers as I picked it out on the piano.”

She got a job as an accompanis­t at the CBC , and gave the sheet music for “I’ ll Never Smile Again” to Toronto composer- conductor Percy Faith, who recorded a full arrangemen­t of the song. When Lowe heard that Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra were performing at the C.EN. ., she waited — acetate recording in hand — by the musicians’ tent for her friend, a guitarist with the band, who arranged a meeting with the New York bandleader at the Royal York Hotel.

Dorsey was a starmaker ( the first time a young Sinatra performed in front of him, he was so nervous he forgot the words to the song he was singing), and he was taken with Lowe’s compositio­n, but held onto it for nearly a year. He decided to test it as a coming- out number for Sinatra, who had gotten over his nerves and joined the orchestra as its new vocalist.

In Will Friedwald’s book, Sinatra! The Song IYs ou: A Singer’s Art, Sinatra recalls the band rehearsing on the roof of the Astor Hotel, when Dorsey asked the pianist to play “I’ll Never Smile Again.” Suddenly, everyone went quiet. Sinatra said, “There was a feeling of a kind of eeriness that took place, as though we all knew that this would be a big hit, and that it was a lovely song.”

Sinatra called it. Not only did the song become the first No. 1 track on the very first Billboard sales chart in 1940, remaining there for 12 weeks, i-t propelled the skinny Italian-American vocal ist into the spotlight and working girls into the screaming fervour that would last for decades.

Lowe modestly suggested to Sandler that the timing — it was the beginning of the Second World War — was key to her success. “It was a song that spoke to everyone in the country,” he says. “Their loves were going to war and most of them weren’t coming back, so it was a very parallel story to what happened to my mom.”

Given the success of “I’ll Never Smile Again,” S-inatra approached Lowe in 1942 to write a clos ing song for his new radio show. One catch: he needed it immediatel­y. As in, the next day. Lowe pulled together some lyrics she had been toying w-ith and sequestere­d herself in a room with musi cian pals Paul Mann and Steven Weiss. Overnight the trio came up with “Put Your Dreams Away.”

The following year she married Nat Sandler, a hard-nosed conservati­ve businessma­n. He wasn’t a- creative person at all, but he did launch Toron to’s first nightclub, Club One Two, for which Lowe used her connection­s to book the musical talent. T- hough she happily took on the role of a For est Hill housewife raising two sons, Lowe never stopped playing or composing. “She’d play crazy tunes on the piano, and I’d spin around until the room would spin,” says Sandler.

Du- ring those years, Lowe continued to re work her old songs in hopes of selling covers. Although Sinatra’s name has become synonymous with his later, more swinging tunes, “I’ ll Never Smile Again” has become a popular standard, covered dozens of times. Doris Day’s version borders on sultry. The Platters gave it a doo-wop edge. Michael Bu-blé’s is a smooth con fection. Billie Holiday’s cover, which appeared on her last album before she died, is languid and melancholi­c in her signature way. Yet, no one touches the heartbreak of Sinatra.

Perhaps the crooner himself explained it best. In a 1963 Playboy interview, Sinatra said, “If the song is a lament at the loss of love, I get an ache in my gut. I feel the loss myself and I cry out the loneliness, the hurt and the pain that I feel.”

S-oulpepper Theatre founding artistic direc tor Albert Schultz, who features the song in his current touring tribute show, Frankly, Sinatra, says it’s a daunting number to perform. “It’s really Frank’s song,” he says. “Nobody sings it like Frank. No one remembers any version other than Sinatra’s.”

During his career, Sinatra himself rerecorded “I’ ll Never Smile Again” for all three of his major music labels. He also selected it a-s one of 11 iconic numbers for his 1971 retire mBent concert, as captured on the recent H O documentar­y, Sinatra: All Or Nothing At All, in which Frank’s daughter, Nancy Sinatra Jr., puts the song into context: “It followed my dad his whole life and I think it was probably because so many people identified with it in the first place.”

With this year marking Sinatra’s centenary, Sandler had hoped that Lowe would receive more attention for her role in his career. Despite the fact that Lowe is a Grammy winner, Sandler struck out with Canada’s Walk of Fame, which inaugurate­s one posthumous award a year. But a victory came in March, when the Canadian Songwriter­s Hall of Fame entered “Put Your Dreams Away” into iCts “overed Classics” series.

The fact that the Canadian Songwriter­s Hall of Fame exists at all is actually in large part due to Sandler’s petitionin­g. “The idea to create a hall of fame to celebrate Ca- nadian songwriter­s was actually in advertentl­y inspired by Lowe,” says Frank Davies, who, as a Canadian Academy of Recordi-ng Arts & Sciences board member, heard a pres entation from Sandler. “I came away believing that there must be many other Ca-nadian song writers from our past and not- so- distant past whose songs may be equally as well-known and influentia­l but whose lives and careers were not.” Davies spent five years creating the Songwriter­s Hall of Fame, which inducted “I’ll Never Smile Again” for its inaugural year in 2003.

Since there are so few official venues in Canada that formally recognize musicians, Sandler continues on his mission to raise his mother’s profile in whatever other ways he can. He makes appearance­s on local jazz radio shows, and is in the early stages of co- writing a book. The next step is to give talks at universiti­es and schools, in hopes of educating younger generation­s, many of whom might not even know — or care — who Sinatra is. But he hasn’t given up on the award plaques just yet.

“-I’ll keep pitching,” says Sandler. “It will hap pen. It needs to happen.”

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 ??  ?? Ruth Lowe featured on the show
“This Is Your Life” with her children, Tom and Steven.
Ruth Lowe featured on the show “This Is Your Life” with her children, Tom and Steven.
 ??  ?? Frank Sinatra, Ruth Lowe and Tommy Dorsey
Frank Sinatra, Ruth Lowe and Tommy Dorsey
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