As we head into a new year, I want to focus for a moment on someone who took adversity and spun it around on its head. Because that’s something we can all learn from as we continue to face Covid-19.
The someone is Ruth Lowe who I profile in my new book “Until I Smile At You”. Her story is a stirring account of tremendous courage as one of the 20th century’s most enduring musical talents. Ruth overcame significant grief by writing a song that launched Frank Sinatra’s career into the stratosphere in 1940, “I’ll Never Smile Again”. (As Nancy Sinatra writes in the Foreword, “There’s a reason why ‘I’ll Never Smile Again’ has endured: it was a perfect song, interpreted by the perfect singer, at the perfect time.”)
And what was the grief that had beset Ruth as she managed to defeat roadblocks that threatened the joy in her life? Consider that her beloved father had died when she was just a teenager. As a result, and to bring money in to the surviving family (her ailing mom and her younger sister), Ruth had to quit school and go to work as a pianist in a music store. This then led to three years of being on the road across North America with the Ina Ray Hutton all-female band “The Melodears” resulting from a chance fill-in for an ailing band member, sending back money to her mother and sister as she went. But the fates were not done with Ruth Lowe; after meeting a handsome song plugger named Harold Cohen, she married and settled down in Chicago, ready to live a blissful life. But Harold died very suddenly in their first year of marriage, leaving Ruth devastated and grief stricken.
For a while, she was unable to re-group and bounce back, life seeming to be so negative. But one night, having moved back to Toronto and living once again with her mother and sister, she sat at a piano and out poured the words and music that became “I’ll Never Smile Again”. Not long after, bandleader Tommy Dorsey heard the tune and picked it up, recording it after hiring his new singer Frank Sinatra.
Suddenly, Ruth Lowe – breaking down barriers as she struggled for self-realization, adopting a fearless attitude by overcoming challenges that might otherwise have broken her soul – was on her way to greatness. Her song charted on Billboard for an unheard of 12 weeks. Dorsey knew a good thing when he saw it and moved her to New York where Ruth went on to write Sinatra’s theme song, “Put Your Dreams Away” (the last song played at his funeral) plus 50 other tunes for Broadway and Hollywood.
And there's this: in today’s era of women claiming their full rights, “Until I Smile At You” reveals Ms. Lowe as one of the earliest liberated females who worked in a man’s world (Tin Pan Alley) and never let her gender, nor her attractive good looks, get in the way of her outstanding talent. That’s why she’s been called, “One of the Architects of the American Ballad”, she is the recipient of a Grammy Award, her songs have been inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame and she’s about to be added to the Great American Songbook Foundation Hall of Fame.
“Until I Smile At You” features interviews with luminaries who cast a warm glow on Ruth’s talents, such as Bernie Taupin (Elton John’s lyricist for over 50 years), Sir Tim Rice (lyric writer for Andrew Lloyd Webber), Alan Bergman (who’s written award-winning songs for Barbra Streisand, Sinatra, etc.), the late Frank Sinatra Jr., music historian Chuck Granata, Sinatra biographer James Kaplan, singer David Clayton-Thomas (in fact, the book opens in studio as the famed Blood, Sweat & Tears star records his own unique version of ‘I’ll Never Smile Again’), and many others. (BTW, if you are interested in learning more about Ruth, I should add that there are more than 50 never-seen-before photos plus other memorabilia contained in the book. Some of these you can also see at untilismileatyou.com)
Anyway, bottom line: with the world facing increased levels of stress and anxiety these days, I’m pretty convinced a positive, feel-good story of resilience like Ruth Lowe’s is good for the soul and helps us remember that we can push back negativity when we need to.