Frank Sinatra’s first No. 1 hit was called “I’ll Never Smile Again.” The inspiration for the song was tragic. In 1939, songwriter Ruth Lowe’s husband went into the hospital for a relatively routine procedure. But he died on the operating table, leaving his new wife widowed at the age of 23. “I’ll Never Smile Again” perfectly summed up her feelings of loss.
Lowe eventually gave the song to the popular big-band leader Tommy Dorsey (she knew a member of his band), and, a year later, Dorsey recorded it with his “boy singer,” Frank Sinatra.
It became Sinatra’s first smash hit. In fact, it was the first-ever No. 1 song on the first-ever Billboard Top 40 chart. And it was the best-selling sheet-music song of its day.
The timing was no doubt significant. The song captured the feelings of loss that so many World War II widows were experiencing. It gave voice to their anguish. And, of course, no singer could capture the pathos and emotion of the song better than Ol’ Blue Eyes.
Three years later, Lowe co-wrote another song that would turn into another big hit for the Chairman of the Board. Sinatra was looking for a signature song, one that he could end his 1940s radio show and concerts with. He told Lowe that he was going into the studio to record the next day. Could she whip something up for him by tomorrow? Lowe and two colleagues apparently pulled an all-nighter, the result of which was “Put Your Dreams Away.”
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Sinatra and his family loved the song so much that they even played it at the singer’s funeral. Not “My Way”; not “New York, New York”; not “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road); nope — “Put Your Dreams Away,” which was the antithesis of “I’ll Never Smile Again.” It was hopeful and optimistic about the future.
If you’d written two of Frank Sinatra’s favourite and most popular songs, mightn’t you expect to get some recognition from your hometown?
You’d think so. But Lowe’s hometown is Toronto — and, so far, the folks in Toronto who are in a position to do something about this have been strangely silent.
Lowe was born 105 years ago today, and it’s therefore a good time to remind everyone of her significant contribution to the music business and to the career of the greatest-ever interpreter of the Great American Songbook.
Contrary to the song she wrote, Lowe did smile again. In 1945, she met and married Nathan Sandler, with whom she had two children, Tommy and Stephen. Tommy, who’s one of Canada’s most prolific photographers, was named after Tommy Dorsey. I once asked him whether he thought his mom had ever had a fling with Sinatra.
“Well, I do have blue eyes!” Sandler said, smiling mischievously.
But there’s nothing amusing to Sandler about what he sees as an incomprehensible lack of hometown recognition for his mother. In 1982, a year after her death, Lowe was inducted into the American Music Hall of Fame and given an honorary Grammy Award; “I’ll Never Smile Again” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Lowe’s death was significant enough to merit a story in the New York Times.
But in Toronto? Nothing. Down in the theatre district, there are stylized maple leaves engraved on the sidewalks honouring well-known Canadians from many walks of life. But there is no maple leaf for Lowe (who was born Ruth Lowenthal but Anglicized the surname to hide her Jewish roots, as so many in show business did back then).
For years, Sandler has been lobbying those who run Canada’s Walk of Fame to recognize his mother, but to no avail. He made his first attempt before his father’s death, in 1990. But, for whatever reason, Lowe didn’t meet the Walk of Fame’s threshold.
“I made another push this year with three board members. They are the ones who decide,” Sandler tells me by email. “They swear up and down the induction will happen. But I asked them, ‘In my lifetime?’
“Everyone on the board seems to agree this is a no-brainer,” says a frustrated Sandler. “I don’t get this at all. And my mom would be so hurt by this. I’m glad she doesn’t know.”
Theatre impresario Jeffrey Latimer has been the Walk of Fame’s CEO for the past 28 months. “I know Ruth’s story very well,” he told me in a phone call last month. “She’s absolutely worthy. She’s in the running.”
Latimer points out, though, that the number of eligible inductees is massive. He adds that there are only so many posthumous selections the board can make each year.
Lowe knew from an early age that she wanted a career in the music business. By 16, she was promoting the sale of sheet music, playing tunes on pianos at Toronto music stores. By the 1930s, she was singing, playing piano, and touring across America with various bands. In the early 1940s, she penned the two songs that would forever be associated with her name and with the world’s most popular singer.
“She kept saying to my aunt, ‘I’ll never smile again without him,’” Tommy recalls the story going. “The song wrote itself.”
By the late 1940s, she’d given up performing and dedicated herself to songwriting while raising her two sons.
In 1954, Lowe went to Los Angeles and unexpectedly became the subject of the popular Ralph Edwards television show This Is Your Life.
She was only 66 when she died, of cancer, in January 1981.
Nearly four decades after her death, isn’t it time that her hometown showed Lowe a little of the love she wrote about so captivatingly all those years ago?