The Birth of Ol’ Blue Eyes: When Frank Sinatra Met Ruth Lowe
Photography courtesy of Tom Sandler
The first-ever Billboard music chart was published 80 years ago today — on July 27, 1940 — with Frank Sinatra’s “I’ll Never Smile Again,” written by Canadian Ruth Lowe, as the number one song. Here, we explore the life and legacy of the Canadian songwriter who penned two huge hits for Ol’ Blue Eyes.
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 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.
“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.
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.
After hunkering down with songwriters Paul Mann and Stephan Weiss, Ruth delivered “Put Your Dreams Away (For Another Day)” – a song to which Sinatra once gushed, “I love you, old buddy.”
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 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.
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.