Dec. 23, 2020
By RUTH SCHWEITZER
The long-awaited biography of Ruth Lowe, the Jewish songwriter from Toronto who helped launch Frank Sinatra’s career, has finally been published.
I’ll Never Smile Again held the No. 1 spot on Billboard for 12 weeks in 1940 and has since become a standard that’s been covered by many jazz legends, including Billie Holiday. Lowe wrote the song, recorded by Sinatra with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, in 1939, a year after her husband died.
Lowe’s biography, Until I Smile At You: How One Girl’s Heartbreak Electrified Frank Sinatra’s Fame (Castle Carrington Publishing), is by Peter Jennings, with contributions from one of Lowe’s sons, Tom Sandler. The book includes a foreword by Sinatra’s daughter, Nancy, and contains plenty of photographs and memorabilia from Lowe’s storied career.
It covers the two acts of Lowe’s life: her musical pursuits during her teens and 20s, and her semi-retirement from music, after remarrying and having a family. Jennings interviewed scores of people for the biography, some of whom knew her personally and others who knew her only for her brilliant song.
Born in 1914, Lowe grew up poor in Toronto during the Great Depression. Her father, Sam, a butcher and grocer, experienced successive business failures. Lowe’s younger sister, Muriel (Mickey) Cohen, describes their father as a man who was longer on entrepreneurial spirit than business smarts. “He and my mother, Pearl, seemed to always struggle to keep ends together,” she said.
But Sam Lowe was a charming man, and musically gifted. “He could sing and dance and loved to entertain. Ruthie caught that bug from him,” Cohen said. Despite their poverty, the Lowes always had a piano at home. Lowe took a few lessons, but as a natural talent, she was mainly self-taught.
At 16, she dropped out of school to help out at home, playing piano at a “song shop,” where customers could hear tunes before buying sheet music. When Lowe’s father died in 1935, the family’s financial situation became even more precarious. Lowe earned extra income by performing in a two-piano nightclub act with the singer Sair Lee and she became the staff pianist for a Toronto radio station. In 1935, Lowe joined an all-female touring band, The Melodears, led by the singer and dancer Ina Ray Hutton.
Lowe married Harold Cohen, a music publicist, in 1938. Hardly a year later, Cohen, 29, died of kidney failure during routine surgery. Devastated, Lowe left Chicago, where she and her husband were living, and returned to Toronto. One evening, she sat down at the piano and transformed her mood into the melody for I’ll Never Smile Again. She also wrote the lyrics, unusual at a time when most songwriters worked in pairs, one writing the music and the other the words.
Lowe returned to Toronto and got a job playing piano at the CBC, where she met the Jewish bandleader Percy Faith. He recorded I’ll Never Smile Again with his orchestra. When Dorsey came to town with his orchestra, Lowe pitched the recording to him, a year before Frank Sinatra joined the band. Sinatra’s rendition backed up by the Pied Pipers, became, as they said, number one with a bullet.
To this day, Sinatra holds the unique distinction of singing on the first Billboard #1 single. I’ll Never Smile Again went on to sell nearly one million copies.
The song’s release during the Second World War was a factor in its early success. “Ruth’s ballad, born from her own sad loss, managed to catch the mood of Americans – and then the world – reflecting the delicate nature of all wartime romance,” Jennings writes.
The song’s popularity endured even after the war, with contemporary artists like Canadians David Clayton Thomas, Michael Bublé, Molly Johnson, and Alex Pangman recording it in recent years.
Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s lyricist, told Jennings that he considers the song to be “in the top 50 of great American songs.”
The music producer Quincy Jones first heard I’ll Never Smile Again when he was 10 years old. “Not only do I only remember the song, I remember the story behind the song. It was one of the songs that inspired my career,” Jones told Lowe’s son.
I’ll Never Smile Again was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003, and the Dorsey-Sinatra recording was honoured with a Grammy Hall of Fame award in 1982.
Lowe co-wrote a second hit song for Sinatra, Put Your Dreams Away (For Another Day), his signature closing number. Although Lowe is remembered for the two songs, she was a prolific songwriter in the early 1940s, often collaborating with other writers at the Brill Building in New York, an incubator of talent.
Lowe’s success was her ticket to a glamorous world of the celebrities of the era – musicians, songwriters and comedians like Duke Ellington, Sammy Cahn, Henny Youngman, Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Buddy Rich, and Al Jolson. But Lowe tired of the pace of living the high life in New York. “Mom told me she’d got to the point where fun was fun, but this had become a little much,” Sandler told Jennings. “It was relentless, and maybe a little overwhelming for her. It had lost its allure.”
On her return to Toronto, Lowe went on a blind date with a Toronto stockbroker, Nat Sandler. After a whirlwind two-month romance, they married in November 1943, when Lowe was 29. They had two children, Tom, named for Tommy Dorsey, and his older brother, Stephen.
Aline Sandler, Tom’s wife, confirms that Lowe missed the New York music scene. “I do know she missed the limelight,” she told Jennings. “I mean, it’s hard for a performer not to perform. Don’t get me wrong: she loved her life, she loved Nat, and she loved her children and grandchildren. But you can’t replace the celebrity experience she’d been through, you just can’t.”
In 1951, Nat Sandler opened a posh nightclub, the Club One-Two on Adelaide Street in Toronto, and Lowe used her connections to book the talent. The story was that Sandler had bought the club during an afternoon of drinking at a pal’s house, after leaving a synagogue service.
Music was a passion for Lowe, who continued to play piano and write songs in the living room of her Toronto home. An upbeat gospel song, Take Your Sins to The River, which she wrote with her son Tom, was recorded by The Travellers in the 1960s. But songwriting didn’t come so easily for her any longer.
Sandler told Jennings he thinks his mother, who died of cancer in 1981, had more great songs in her. “But she had become tied to a new lifestyle: a family and different values to which she decided to dedicate herself,” Jennings writes.
Perhaps Lowe’s lifestyle was no longer fertile ground on which her songs could sprout. As Sandler told Jennings, “trying to write a hit song and get it out…is a huge amount of work.” He goes on to ask: “Are you going to do that? Or raise a family?”
Nonetheless, it is a shame Lowe had to make a choice.
Jennings tells Lowe’s story in a cheerleading, conversational style with quite a few digressions, some of them more relevant than others. He provides quite a bit of biographical information about Percy Faith, described as “a gentleman who would go on to fame in the U.S. and worldwide.”
In a preface to his interview with the singer Dinah Christie, who was involved in the staging of Smile Company’s 1987 show about Lowe, Ruthie, Jennings goes into detail – perhaps too much, describing the community surrounding Christie’s “100-acre spread in Grey County, Ontario.” Mentioning that the community hosts the Holstein Maplefest and the Holstein Rodeo Expo has nothing to do with Lowe.
Some of the best parts of this biography are Tom Sandler’s loving memories of his mother.
While Until I Smile At You may be a rambling account of Lowe’s life, we’re fortunate to have a biography of her. If you’re a music lover, it’s worth checking out.