Canadian songwriter Ruth Lowe was a trailblazer.
Back in the early 1940s, Lowe took on the male-dominated music business and composed two songs for Frank Sinatra, the first of which helped launch the singer’s career.
Lowe wrote I’ll Never Smile Again in 1940, and it became an instant hit when Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra recorded the song with vocals by a young Sinatra. The song has since become a standard, and it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1982.
In 1943, Lowe teamed up with Paul Mann and Stephan Weiss to write Put Your Dreams Away, which Sinatra initially used as the closing theme for his radio show. It became one of his signature songs, and it was sung at his funeral in 1998.
Author Peter Jennings and Lowe’s son Tom Sandler recently released a book about her journey called Until I Smile at You. The book is available at major retailers, and signed copies can be purchased at untilismileatyou.com.
Jennings joined us to offer some insights on Lowe’s inspiring music career.
I’ll Never Smile Again was ultimately written out of personal tragedy. But before we get to her writing it, can you give us a sense of her life leading up to that big moment in her career?
You’re absolutely right, because Ruth experienced some serious roadblocks in her life that threatened her. Her father died when she was just 17. She had to leave school and go to work to support her ailing mother and her younger sister. Eventually, she joined a band called the Melodears, run by Ina Ray Hutton, as a piano player. For the better part of three years, she toured across North America with a bunch of ladies — it was an all-female band. In 1938 in Chicago, she met the love of her life, Harold Cohen. They married and settled down for what was going to be a beautiful life. Within the first year, Harold died very suddenly on the operating table. This just devastated poor Ruth Lowe. She returned to Toronto, moved back in with her mother and sister, Mickey. One day Ruth said to Mickey, “I just don’t think I’ll ever smile again.” Mickey told me that that night, the song all of a sudden just poured out of her sister. From there, it went to Percy Faith at the CBC, who recorded it and fell in love with the song. She now had a 78-rpm acetate record, which she was able to get to Tommy Dorsey. He fell in love with it, and the next year he hired Sinatra.
Do you know if Ruth and Frank had a chance to meet before it was recorded, or only after the success of the tune?
No, it was only afterward. Dorsey was a very smart man. He recognized that this song was taking off. It went to No. 1 on Billboard for more than 12 weeks. He brought Ruth down to New York, where she lived for the better part of the next three years, and at that point she met Frank Sinatra. But before that, they had never met before.
She also gained fame outside of just being the composer. She was on shows, she had a name. Was being a female composer part of the reason she broke out and became famous as the writer of that tune?
I think so. I can think of Dorothy Fields, and basically that was it back in the 1940s. There were just no women in the game. Tin Pan Alley was a male-dominated bastion. Ruth just carried on. That was very much a part of her M.O.
The other tune she wrote for Frank, it seems like that one came from needing a lot more quickly. He sort of put her feet to the fire on that one.
Yes, in fact there’s a chapter in the book where we tell the readers what happened. In early 1943, CBS had given Sinatra his own radio show, and he called up Ruth and said, “Hey Ruthie, I need you to write me a tune … We’re going on the air, and they want me to have a theme song.” They went back and forth about it, and she said she’d get back to him in a few days with some ideas. He says, “That’s the problem. I need the song tomorrow.” What? No, come on, Frank. She managed to get in touch with Paul Mann and Stephan Weiss. They wrote the music, she wrote the lyrics, and they pulled an all-nighter to get this done. The next day at noon, she called Sinatra, put the phone on the piano, and she sung and played the piano. There was no reaction … and all of a sudden he goes, “I love it!” That became his theme song, and the last song played at his funeral, in fact.
By the mid-’40s, she’s back in Toronto and re-married, living a more domestic life.
At the end of the day, she was a pretty simple lady. She married Nat Sandler, who was a pretty down-to-earth businessman. She would still go down to New York from time to time, but I think Nat wanted to leave that part of her life behind. In fact, MGM wanted to make a movie about her life with Judy Garland playing Ruth Lowe, but Nat said no, let’s forget about that, let’s move on.
How dare he!
Well, now we’re suggesting Lady Gaga would make a great Ruth Lowe.
For the book, you had a chance to talk to some pretty heavy hitters — Bernie Taupin, Tim Rice, David Clayton-Thomas. What kind of insights did they bring to her songwriting?
It’s interesting because if you think back to 1940, all of the big bands were playing uptempo pieces of music. They wanted to get people onto the dance floor. And then along comes this almost dirge-like song, I’ll Never Smile Again, and it goes beyond all of those songs right to the top of the charts. I thought, How the heck did that happen? I talked to Bernie Taupin, Alan Bergman, Tim Rice, Quincy Jones, a whole bunch of people, and every one of them said you know what, when you’ve got a great song, great music, great lyrics, it doesn’t matter what’s going on — it’ll always rise to the top. And Ruth’s song was the best.
Do you think Canada has done enough to celebrate Ruth Lowe and let her story be known?
You’re touching on a sore subject here. Tom Sandler and I are campaigning as hard as we can. I don’t know why it is that in Canada we just don’t recognize our heroes well enough. Ruth won a Grammy and she’s about to be inducted into the Great American Songbook Hall of Fame. In Canada, there should be a star on the Walk of Fame. There should be a Juno Award named after her. It’s not happened. Tom and I are working on that, and we’re hoping that with our book, Ruth will get the acclaim that she deserves. She’s a hero. She’s truly a hero, and I think we don’t do enough to reflect on those people.
This interview has been edited and condensed.