The Birth of Ol’ Blue Eyes: When Frank Sinatra Met Ruth Lowe
A rare photo of Ruth tickling the ivories alongside Frank Sinatra (left) and Tommy Dorsey
We remember the Canadian woman whose sorrowful serenade helped make Ol’ Blue Eyes a star.
In September 1940, Ruth Lowe, 26, with golden hair and a Cheshire smile, brought a guest to meet her mother and sister at her mom’s apartment in downtown Toronto. Already an accomplished pianist and songwriter, she introduced the skinny, handsome crooner whose melodic baritone gave voice to a song that, though born in the depths of her worst despair, had become the first No.1 single ever on the brand new Billboard music chart – a position it held for 12 weeks. Improbably, on the back of one mournful ballad, the daughter of a poor butcher from Toronto and the son of Italian immigrants from New Jersey were suddenly music sensations.
“He was just starting [out],” Lowe’s younger sister, Micky Cohen, 95, recalls of the crooner. “He was a nice young man with a wonderful voice, and that’s all I knew.”
The crooner called her sister “Ruthie.” To Ruth, he was “Frankie,” but everyone else called him Frank. Frank Sinatra.
Before meeting Frank Sinatra, Ruth was a respected pianist in Toronto music circles
The first song Ruth Lowe ever wrote for Harold Cohen (no relation to Micky) consisted of two lines: “Harold, you need me/Yes, you do” on a crude recording intermingled with giggles from Ruth and band mate Sair Lee. It brims with an unbridled joy and enthusiasm that compensate for its brevity – in hindsight, a glum foretelling.
It was 1938 and Ruth, then 23, served as her family’s sole breadwinner following the untimely death of her father, Sam Lowe, a Toronto butcher. He left little money behind but did, however, help endow his daughters with a passion for music.
“There was always music in the family,” Micky says, fondly recalling Sunday concert outings with relatives. Ruth’s younger sister by six years, the pair took piano lessons as children and, while Micky quit, Ruth continued.
At 16, Ruth left school to become a song plugger – a pianist who played sheet music for prospective customers, be they parents buying it for their kids or seasoned performers – in a music store at the Yonge Street Arcade. She also took gigs with local radio stations and played in bands, including the female trio The Shadows, with Sair Lee and Esther Winthrop.
“Ruth was way above your average song plugger,” says Jack Hutton, a Canadian journalist, musician and author.
“The musicians came in to talk to her … bandleaders [asked], ‘Has this song got potential?’ And they respected what she said.”
One of those bandleaders was Chicago-born blond bombshell Ina Ray Hutton, whose all-female orchestra, the Melodears, needed a pianist for a Toronto gig. Ruth, in one night, went from song plugger to a full-fledged Melodear, touring North America.
“Everybody couldn’t believe it – a nice Jewish girl going with an all-woman band,” Micky quips. “She wrote a lot of their arrangements, too. She was there for a couple of years until she met her first husband.”
Harold Cohen of Chicago – Ruth’s first husband, perhaps even first love – was a fellow song plugger and, by all accounts, a tall, handsome, kind, well-liked gentleman. Shortly after giggling through, “Harold, you need me/Yes, you do” they married and settled down in the Windy City. A year later, in 1939, during surgery, Harold suffered kidney failure and died.
Heartbroken, Lowe returned to Toronto to work as a pianist at the CBC, though it did little to ease her grief. She worked out tunes at home too, while routinely confessing to her sister, “I’ll never smile again.”
“We went to a fortune teller,” Micky recalls, “and she said to Ruth, ‘You just want to write a song that’s going be very famous.’ And we all laughed, but it did happen.”
There’s no giggling through the second song Ruth wrote for Harold, “I’ll Never Smile Again,” a sombre tune about true love torn away. Famed Canadian bandleader Percy Faith overheard Ruth playing it at work and asked to perform it with his orchestra on his radio show, Music By Faith. Ruth agreed and, in return, received a recording of the performance.
Armed with a professional demo of her own song – Ruth brought it to a friend who performed with Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra.
“Women weren’t known to write songs back then,” Canadian singer-songwriter Molly Johnson notes. “If you can take it into a man’s world in the music business and get them to play it, it takes a lot of tenacity and that song better be good.”
It was, and Dorsey loved it. A year later, in 1940, as the Second World War raged an ocean away, he recorded it with his orchestra alongside the vocal group the Pied Pipers and his newest talent acquisition, a young Hoboken kid named Frank Sinatra.
“It’s very early in the war, so [the song] has a lot of appeal and it resonates with the young girls who are just starting to hear Frank Sinatra sing with [Dorsey],” Chuck Granata, a Sinatra historian, explains, noting that American servicemen were beginning to mobilize and the women “were missing their boyfriends and husbands.”
“It was a song that came from my heart, the result of great sorrow,” Ruth said on Tommy Dorsey’s Fame and Fortune show. “In part, the tune was always seemingly in my mind but, until the death of my husband, it was part of, well, another sense.”
Ruth’s song vaulted Sinatra to his first No. 1 hit while making them both instant superstars. While the young crooner toured with Dorsey, Ruth herself was in demand for appearances and concerts. “People … heard a woman wrote this music, and they wanted to see who she was,” Micky says. Eventually, Ruth became so popular she asked her sister to travel with her as her secretary. “She loved appearing in public. She loved being with people.”
Ruth continued to write and perform, amassing a fan base that included famous friends from Bob Hope to Milton Berle. Two years later, in 1942, Sinatra came calling again. He requested Ruth write him a theme song for his radio show. And he needed it the next day.
“Sinatra, right from the start, appreciated the fact that songs like ‘Put Your Dreams Away’ and ‘I’ll Never Smile Again’ … had real lyrics with real sentiment,” Granata says. “And I think they expressed something that rang true for Frank himself.”
In 1943. Ruth met Nat Sandler, who worked in the brokerage business, and within a few months, on Nov. 21, they married. The couple had two sons, Stephen and Tom, and Ruth settled into life as a wife and mother in Toronto.
“She was a great mom and a great wife and a great friend,” Ruth’s son, Tom Sandler, recalls fondly. “She loved to have parties, loved to go out. She loved to share everything and she was very charitable.”
Ruth, though, longed to write one more hit. Sandler recalls watching his mother at the piano almost every night. “She always worked on tunes. She always wanted to re-introduce songs that she thought … could’ve been a hit.”
Ruth travelled annually to New York’s famed Brill Building to meet with music insiders while writing songs for other acts – she and son Tom wrote the Travellers’ single “Take Your Sins to the River” – but none resonated like the Sinatra hits.
“I think part of the problem was, in the ’50s in Toronto, there wasn’t much of a music scene or a jazz scene,” Sandler explains. “She always said it was the timing.”
Ruth never did write that one final hit. She lived the rest of her life in Toronto, always playing music and travelling, occasionally running into Frankie and taking time to reminisce about their early days. She passed away on January 4, 1981 at age 66, but Sinatra continued to perform her songs. When he died in 1998, “Put Your Dreams Away” was the final song played at his funeral.
A year after Ruth’s passing, “I’ll Never Smile Again” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 1998, award-winning music publisher Frank Davies specifically pointed to Ruth’s success as the catalyst for founding the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. Both of her Sinatra hits are inducted.
An original telegram from Milton Berle to Ruth
Tom Sandler has long campaigned for his mother to receive greater distinction in Canada, noting that neither the Junos nor the Canadian Walk of Fame has recognized her. The timing seemed ideal last year, on Ruth’s centenary, or even this year, with Sinatra’s 100th birthday in December. Still, Sandler won’t give up.
Granata, meanwhile, believes Ruth’s legacy belongs within the “pantheon” of songwriting pioneers. “Any songwriter would give their eye teeth to have one song performed by Frank Sinatra. But to have two songs that Frank not only performed but continued to perform and made standards out of is a pretty amazing accomplishment.”
“She’s already achieved more than a plaque. She found a way into your heart,” Andy Kim, the Canadian singer-songwriter behind the hit “Sugar, Sugar,” contends. “What she created was beyond manmade. The song is beyond those awards.”
Though she never again matched her success with Sinatra, Ruth did enjoy one last moment in the spotlight. In the mid-1950s, a parade of loved ones surprised her during filming of the NBC show This Is Your Life – including her young sons. Ruth clutched at her hair and quipped, “I wish I knew. I’d have had a bleach.”
That crowded TV set proved that neither songwriting nor even Sinatra truly resolved the heartbreak of her first husband’s death. Ruth’s commercial success was merely a means to the truer, more personal end.
“I think that she understood, somewhere, her heart needed to be filled, and it was in finding love again and … having children,” Kim says. “That’s the best song.”
Her sons leapt into her arms. The television cameras rolled. The host continued with the show. And Ruth Lowe smiled again.