by Peter J. Jennings
Imagine this: you’ve written a landmark song that’s heard around the world. It gets recorded by over 150 musical stars. It’s chosen as one of the best pop songs of all time. You compose nearly 50 other tunes for Hollywood and Broadway. You’re labelled “One of the Architects of the American Ballad”. You win a Grammy Award.
All that … and virtually no one knows your name. That was the challenge at hand when the family of the late Ruth Lowe contacted me about writing her memoir.
Now, I was already aware that Ruth wrote the song that launched Frank Sinatra’s career, “I’ll Never Smile Again”. I knew it had poured from her heart after the sudden death of her young husband, leaving her a widow at age 23. But who knew there was so much more to her life?
Ruth Lowe was was one of the earliest liberated females who worked in a man’s world – Tin Pan Alley – and never let her gender get in the way of her outstanding talent. Did you know that MGM had wanted to make a movie of Ruth’s life back in the day, staring Judy Garland (but her second husband nixed the deal because he didn’t want her clinging to the past)? And are you aware that her talent has been well recognized by musical stars such as Bernie Taupin (Elton John’s lyricist), Sir Tim Rice (who writes lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber), Alan Bergman (who, with his wife Marilyn, has written award-winning songs for Barbra Streisand, Sinatra, etc.), Nancy
Sinatra (who wrote the Foreword for my book), the late Frank Sinatra Jr., David Clayton-Thomas (Chapter One opens in studio as the famed Blood, Sweat & Tears singer records his own unique version of Ruth’s song), and many others… all of whom cast a warm glow on Ruth’s artistry when I interviewed them for the book.
I also knew that Ruth had written Sinatra’s theme song, “Put Your Dreams Away”. But I was surprised at how that song came to be…
The year is 1943. Ruth gets a phone call from her friend Sinatra.. Hey, doll, I need you to write me a song.”
“A song, Frankie?” Ruth questions. “What kind of song?”
“Gonna be my theme song,” Sinatra explains with pride. “CBS is giving me a radio show. I need a tune I can be known for, something I can sing at the end of each show
that’ll be my signature tune. Got it, Ruthie?”
“OK, Frankie. Now, what are you thinking of for the mood?”
“The mood? Hmmm. The mood. Well, I’m thinking it’s something that will be… I dunno… maybe sweet dreams? The show’s at night, so maybe I sing this at the end and it’s like
you’d say ‘Sweet dreams” to someone as they fall off to sleep?”
“OK Frankie. Leave this with me. When do you need it for?”
“Um… see, that’s the problem. We need it tomorrow.”
“Yeah. Sorry ’bout that. They just laid this on me, and the first show’s tomorrow night.”
Frankie! I… … mean…tomorrow night! I can’t…”
“Ruthie, you told me you wrote ‘I’ll Never Smile Again’ in one evening. You can do this. You’re so good at this.”
“But, Frank, that was totally different. I mean…”
“Look, I gotta go. You’ll nail this, I just know you will. Call me tomorrow morning. OK, Ruthie?”
“Yeah. Sure Frankie… sure… I’ll call you tomorrow…”
Now, truth be told, Ruth had created her signature tune “I’ll Never Smile Again” in an evening. But, as she’d tried to explain to the irrepressible Sinatra, that was a song that played out because of the anguish building within her for months. But now, a theme song for the hottest singer in the land? A signature tune that would be heard by millions of people? Every week? For…like…forever? And it had to be composed in less than 24 hours? Impossible.
With the clock ticking, Ruth phones two song writing buddies, Paul Mann and Stephan Weiss. “You guys got a tune lying around you’re not doing anything with?” she asks.
They laugh. “Hey Ruthie, good to hear from you. Now, what kind of a question is that? Whadyamean do we have a tune lying around?”
Ruth explains the predicament she’s facing. She knows that these two guys are always batting out melodies and lyrics trying to peddle new tunes. And sometimes, when the song doesn’t quite click, the tune or the lyrics go on the shelf, awaiting inspiration for a future date. Ruth just hopes today’s shelf might feature a lovely tune looking for words. You know, one that would do as a theme song for the most in-demand vocalist in the country. You know, by tomorrow.
“24 hours!” They respond with laughter after hearing her story. “You’re kidding, right? Frankie Sinatra needs his theme song by tomorrow!?”
But Ruth tells them it’s no joke.
As chance would have it, the boys do have a tune they’ve been playing with. Not fully finished, mind you, but part way there. Paul moves to the piano while Stephan
holds the phone over the soundboard. Ruth hears the gist of a tune, one they’ve been playing around with. When done, Paul feels the need to make excuses.
“I mean, Ruth, it’s not finished. But I don’t know, I think there could be something there…”
“I like it!” Ruth gushes, pleased with herself that she’s made the right call. “You know what guys, I’ve got some words I’ve been throwing around for a song,” she tells
them. “Haven’t really finished anything. But maybe they could work with that melody…”
The three of them agree that they might just have a fighting chance of pulling a rabbit from the hat.
A sleepless night transpires.
And by the crack of dawn, Ruth Lowe’s singing…
Put your dreams away for another day,
And I will take their place in your heart.
Wishing on a star never got you far,
And so, it’s time to make a new start.
It’s a slow-tempo, romantic ballad with Ruth’s dream-like lyrics reminding listeners they’ll find love wherever it’s offered.
Before noon, they’ve wrapped it up. She places a call to Sinatra.
“Frankie, listen to this,” Ruth says earnestly as she places the phone on the piano and begins to play and sing the song that will serve as his signature tune for 25
years. The ballad that will be the last song played at his funeral in 1998.
She finishes and waits breathlessly for the verdict.
“Ruthie…” Sinatra intones.
“Yes Frank,” she says. He hates it, she thinks.
“I love it. Play it again. It’s great! I knew you’d come through!”
The smile overtaking her nervous face signals to the boys: We did it! And for the second time in her short life, Ruth Lowe has joined her star to that of
the biggest talent in the land. Plus, she’s inspired each of us to always delve down within ourselves to find the resources necessary to carry on when things get down, with a You-Can-Do-This! attitude.
In his new book “Until I Smile At You”,author Peter Jennings recounts the life and times of Ruth Lowe whose songs took the world by storm. untilismileatyou.com