Frank Sinatra – No One Cares (1957)

Long before he was the tough talking “Chairman of the Board,” Frank Sinatra was a skinny kid from Hoboken, NJ who knew how to create powerful emotions with his ballads of love and loss.

There is no doubt that Frank Sinatra was a tough customer. Wether via his own boorish demeanor, or through the thugs that surrounded him, Sinatra had a certain preoccupation with his masculinity and the assurance that he was the de facto leader in every situation he found himself in. But when it came to singing songs of heartbreak or sorrow, something changed in Sinatra. These were the times he showed his vulnerability to the audience, revealing a hint that just perhaps beyond that life of “booze and broads” there was a very human man who knew what loneliness, regrets and heartbreak felt like. Just maybe.

This is why Frank Sinatra ballads really hit an emotional chord with listeners. When it came to singing a hurting song, nobody could deliver it like Sinatra could. His ballads were dark, liquor-soaked confessions that were sung late into the night. Somehow Frank Sinatra could make self-pity seem cool. Women could listen to them and dream about fixing Sinatra’s sadness, while men could relate to them and realize they aren’t alone in feeling complex emotions.

But long before Sinatra transformed his image from being a skinny kid in a swing band to the tough talking Chairman of the Board, he was already making his mark on music with one the industry’s most beloved song about grief and loss, “I’ll Never Smile Again.” Sinatra’s first big hit record with The Tommy Dorsey Band and the Pied Pipers, “I’ll Never Smile Again” made music history for being the first record to be placed at the #1 spot on the first ever national Billboard chart released on July 24, 1940.

But what a lot of people don’t know is that the song that made Sinatra was written by a grieving widow living in Toronto. The powerful punch that made the audience feel the songs impact wasn’t just out of Sinatra’s delivery. It was because it came out of real loss.

Toronto’s Ruth Lowe was a grieving widow who wrote “I’ll Never Smile Again,” which became one of the biggest hits of WWII and helped launch the career of Frank Sinatra.

“I’ll Never Smile Again” was written by Toronto born musician Ruth Lowe who was the pianist for Ina Ray Hutton’s all girl swing band The Melodears. A novelty act that originated on the declining vaudeville circuit, The Melodeans toured throughout North America, and were also featured in three film shorts – “Feminine Rhythm,” Accent on Girls,” and “Swing Hutton Swing.” Ruth joined the band in 1936 when the regular pianist quit due to illness during a stop in Toronto and there was an audition notice in the music shop Lowe worked in asking for an “Attractive Blonde Pianist.” Lowe auditioned and Hutton took her on the road with them, where she eventually became the band’s primary song writer of original material.

While touring with the group, Ruth met and fell in love with the band’s Chicago based publicist Harold Cohen. The two were married in 1938 and, by accounts, were a happy and good-looking couple. But their life of making music together was short lived. In 1939 during surgery, Harold went into kidney failure and died on the operating table. He left Ruth a window at age 26.

Devastated with grief, Ruth quit the band and went home to Toronto to the care of her family, and eventually got a gig working for CBC radio as a pianist. Her life shattered, Ruth went into a dark place of deep sorrow. But, as any artist knows, deep sorrow can also often create the best art, and she heaved all of the torment within her heart for Harold and wrote “I’ll Never Smile Again.”

The first time an audience ever heard “I’ll Never Smile Again” was when pianist Percy Faith played it on a live CBC radio broadcast. People liked it, and Ruth believed she had something. But women songwriters still weren’t taken seriously in the male dominant music industry, and when Ruth tried to sell it, nobody was buying.

When bandleader Tommy Dorsey first heard “I’ll Never Smile Again,” he rejected it, dismissing it as “more of a Glenn Miller thing.” However, when recorded by his band with lead vocals from Frank Sinatra, the song became the first #1 Billboard song on the newly established chart on July 24th, 1940.

In the summer of 1939 Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra were performing at the Canadian National Exhibition and Ruth was able to get the song to the world-famous band leader. One account of how this happened is that Dorsey and his band were staying at the prestigious Royal York Hotel on Front Street, across from the Union Train Station and walking distance from the CNE fair grounds. Ruth went and sat in the lobby of the hotel for hours until she was able to recognize someone from the band, which happened to be guitarist Carmen Mastern, and gave him a copy of the handwritten sheet music to “I’ll Never Smile Again,” begging him to give it to Dorsey. I’ve been to the Royal York many times, and I always get goosebumps when walking through the regal lobby, imagining the vision of beautiful but sad Ruth Lowe, clinging the sheet music in her hands, praying that someone would take notice of her and hear her song.

“I’ll Never Smile Again” would be the signature song for Frank Sinatra an the Pied Pipers, although Sinatra would go on to rerecord it as a solo artist many times throughout his career.

Well, the story continues that Dorsey wasn’t all the impressed with the song. He felt it was more of a Glen Miller thing. But, a few months later he signed a new lead singer for his vocal group, The Pied Pipers. He was a skinny kid from Hoboken, NJ with a big smile and blue eyes. This was, of course, Frank Sinatra. When going through material for the new group, Dorsey remembered that song from Toronto and dug it out for Sinatra to take a stab at. It was a perfect fit. Dorsey and his crew recorded it in the spring of 1940 and by that summer “I’ll Never Smile Again” was one of the biggest songs in the world.

Part of the popularity was due to perfect timing. Only months before recording the song, war was declared in Europe and the Second World War was raging. Although America wouldn’t enter the war until December 1941, soldiers all over were leaving their wives and children and there was a global tension of separation and loss, with many men and women never reuniting. “I’ll Never Smile Again” was being lived in the real lives of people all over.

Ruth Lowe continued working as a songwriter during an era where women songwriters were not taken seriously, and wrote a second hit or Sinatra, ““Put Your Dreams Away (For Another Day).” She passed away in 1981.

But the big winner was Frank Sinatra, who had his first hit and his first signature song of what would be a long line of signature songs. Frank Sinatra would go on to rerecord “I’ll Never Smile Again” many times over his career, but possibly the best version was his 1959 version arranged by Gordon Jenkins from the album “No One Cares.” Famous as being Sinatra’s darkest album, Frank once cynically described the album as being filled with “suicide songs.” But it’s a brilliant and moody listen and contains a lot of Sinatra’s most powerful ballads. This version of “I’ll Never Smile Again” strips off the fresh-faced light weight wistful sound of Sinatra’s big band era, and replaces it with a harder, more world-weary Sinatra reliving a sad song from the past. It’s a more brooding version of the song, which fits the theme and lyrics in the post-war era even more effective than before proving that people may die, but a good song never will.

Despite her heart-breaking laments in “I’ll Never Smile Again,” Ruth did smile again, and she loved again. She eventually remarried and had two sons, and after the success of “I’ll Never Smile Again,” she wrote more songs including another for Sinatra, “Put Your Dreams Away (For Another Day).” She died of cancer, in Toronto, in 1981. A year later “I’ll Never Smile Again” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1982.

Although barely remembered today, not only was Ruth Lowe’s contribution to music an important part of Sinatra lore, but also a critical part of Canadian music history, and an early accomplishment in songwriting for a female artist.

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