The current Billboard Number One record in America, as our hipper readers will surely know, is something called "Rockstar" by someone called DaBaby featuring Roddy Ricch. Which my fading eyesight read as Buddy Rich. Which misreading got me almost interested in hearing the track. The Billboard Number One is of much diminished status these days, but it is still the definitive accolade for unsurpassed success in the field of bestselling pop records. DaBaby's "Rockstar" is the 1,104th such Number One.
Eight decades and one thousand, one hundred and three hit singles ago, the very first Number One hit the top, with the introduction by Billboard of its brand new bestselling records chart on July 27th 1940. But here's the thing that always tickles me, as a loyal son of the Deranged Dominion. The very first American Number One record was a Canadian song. It would stay at the top past Labor Day and deep into the fall, a bona fide blockbuster for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra with vocal group the Pied Pipers and their new boy singer - a fellow called Frank Sinatra:
That's such a lovely song - and a lot of American singers sing it. But not so many Canadians. So on a live Mark Steyn Show from Ottawa a couple of years back I thought we ought to redress the balance, and hear a great Canadian ballad performed by a great Canadian singer - for the very first time.
Tal Bachman is no stranger to these parts nor to our Mark Steyn cruises and Christmas shows. He's a hitmaker in his own right with songs like "She's So High", and the son of Randy Bachman (of the Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive), which gives him an hereditary claim to a couple more generations of Canadian pop music. But in Ottawa I had him in mind for an even earlier contribution to the Maple Songbook. I invited Tal to sing two songs - one chosen by me, one by him. I'll tell the story of this first ever Billboard Number One below, but first here's Tal's take on a great song. Click to enjoy:
If you're interested to know more about Ruth Lowe and "I'll Never Smile Again", here are my thoughts on a beautiful ballad, adapted from my book A Song For The Season:
I'll Never Smile Again
Until I smile at you
I'll never laugh again
What good would it do?
In the summer of 1940, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, their vocal group the Pied Pipers and a young boy singer called Frank Sinatra took that song to Number One, and not just any old Number One but the very first Number One - the inaugural Number One hit on the very first Billboard magazine chart, the chart that became America's defining measure of commercial success in the music business - the Billboard Hot One Hundred.
Yet it wasn't an American song. The very first American Number One was, in fact, Canadian. The lady who wrote those words and the tune they're set to was my fellow Torontonian Ruth Lowe, born in the city on August 12th 1914. Ruth Lowe was a superb writer of both music and lyrics. Sinatra sang her songs for over half a century and, when she died, it was Frank himself who nominated her for an honorary Grammy Award. Yet, despite the ever vaster array of lame-o boosterish prizes for maple-flavored mediocrity, she remains all but entirely unhonored in her own country.
Like George Gershwin, Ruth Lowe started out as a teenage song plugger, playing the piano in Toronto music stores to boost sheet music sales. Unlike the young Gershwin, she had a family to support. Her father had died suddenly when she was 16, and Ruthie found herself having to bring home the bacon for both her mum and her younger sister. If you liked music, plugging wasn't a bad job, but it wasn't that lucrative. So in the evening she accompanied singers in Toronto nightclubs, played as one half of a two-piano act with Sair Lee, and sang as part of a girl trio called the Shadows on CKNC.
In 1936, 21-year old Ruth was working in the Song Shop in Toronto when Ina Ray Hutton's all-girl band, the Melodears, came to town and suddenly found themselves in need of a last-minute substitute for an ailing pianist. There were two requirements: you had to be a good-looking blonde (or blondish) and you had to be able to play the piano. Ina Ray and a couple of Melodears chanced to drop by the Song Shop, and discovered that Miss Lowe met both requirements. So she got the gig. The Melodears was a gimmick cooked up by the music publisher Irving Mills, but as gimmicks go it worked out pretty well. Mills hired Ina Ray to front the band: she couldn't play an instrument and she didn't really conduct but, poured into a figure-hugging silver lamé gown, she wiggled around in front of the players in a vaguely rhythmic fashion – hence her billing: "The Blonde Bombshell Of Rhythm". And the band behind her was pretty good.
So Ruth became the regular pianist and went on the road, and in 1938 she fell in love with a Chicago music publicist called Harold Cohen. They were blissfully happy – for one year. And then, during a routine operation, he died, quite unexpectedly, of kidney failure. And a devastated Ruth left the band and went home to Toronto - to her family's third-floor apartment, across from Christie Pitts Park, where she watched young couples strolling arm in arm. One day she was talking things out with her sister, and said she'd never smile again without Harold. And, even in her grief, the song plugger in her realized she'd stumbled on a hit title. That night in June of 1939 she sat down to write it out:
I'll Never Smile Again
Until I smile at you
I'll never laugh again
What good would it do...
Even though it's born of shattering personal pain, Miss Lowe was enough of a professional songwriter to universalize her situation:
For tears would fill my eyes
My heart would realize
That our romance is through...
It was first heard on a CBC radio show "Music By Faith", conducted and arranged by Percy Faith, another Canadian who went on to do pretty well south of the border. That year – 1939 – Tommy Dorsey was in Toronto playing at the Canadian National Exhibition and staying at the Royal York. There were a couple of connections – Ina Ray Hutton's sister June sang with the Pied Pipers – and Ruth managed to get the tune to the big guy.
Months later, back in New York, Dorsey had his pianist play the number. In 1940, the Sentimental Gentleman had a new vocalist, a skinny kid from New Jersey. As Frank Sinatra remembered it:
We were rehearsing on a Saturday afternoon, up at the roof of the Astor Hotel, and Tommy asked Joe Bushkin to play the song. I noticed that everybody suddenly was very quiet, the whole orchestra sat quietly when he played it. There was a feeling of a kind of eeriness that took place, as though we all knew that this would be a big, big hit, and that it was a lovely song.
So Dorsey asked his saxophonist Freddie Stulce to work up an arrangement, and on April 23rd 1940 the band found themselves with a spare 20 minutes at the end of a recording session and no songs left. "Well," says Freddie, "I wrote that chart for that gal in Canada."
"Let's give it a try," says Dorsey. And they do, and it's ...okay. And then Sinatra sees a celesta over in the corner and suggests Joe Bushkin, the pianist, just shove it in as needed. That celesta sound – eerie and ethereal, as the hammers strike the steel plates - made the record. Well, that and the doo-doo-doo fills from Jo Stafford and the Pied Pipers:
I'll Never Smile Again
Until I smile at you
The Dorsey band take it at what the Sinatra scholar Will Friedwald calls "crawl tempo" – it's achingly slow, not just slower than the big-band swingers and the fixed-tempo ballads and even slow ballads, but slower than anything else around back then. And yet it works: its "eeriness" (as Sinatra said) was heartbreaking. Instead of the usual AABA pattern – main theme, repeat, middle section, back to main theme – it's ABAC. But it's so beautifully written and lushly confident you don't even notice the structure. Not only was it the first Billboard Number One, it held the spot for 12 weeks.
There are theories about that. For a while, its popularity was assumed to derive from a widespread rumor that Miss Lowe's late husband was a flyer killed in action over Europe with the Royal Air Force. In 1940, remember, Canada was in the war, but America wasn't. Indeed, the rumor was so indestructible that on HBO's Sinatra centenary documentary Frank himself, late in life, is heard referring to the widowed Ruth's lost love as a Canadian airman. No, he wasn't. But in a broader sense, her ballad of love and loss and loneliness, torn from her own widowhood, caught the mood of Americans in that pensive interlude between the start of World War Two and their own entry into it. It succeeds not just as a song of bereavement, not just as a song of less fatally lost love, but also as a song that captures the fragility of all wartime romance.
For his contribution to that very first Number One record, Frank was given a $25 bonus by Dorsey. But the song was a breakthrough for him, and you can't put a price on that. Not long after, the band were given a cameo in a movie called Las Vegas Nights (a novel concept in late 1940), so he got to sing it on the big screen. On the day they recorded it, Bing Crosby swung by the studio. "This Sinatra," he said afterwards. "Tommy, I think you've got something there."
Frank re-recorded "I'll Never Smile Again" in a very dark version with Gordon Jenkins in the Fifties, and again in the Sixties and Seventies. But even as a young man he understood the song's power.
Miss Lowe eventually re-married and chose to stay in Toronto and be a stockbroker's wife doing good works and raising her kids rather than be a big-time songwriter in Tin Pan Alley. She nixed a Hollywood biopic in which she would have been played by Judy Garland, and seemed content to be a quirky footnote in pop history. But "I'll Never Smile Again" and "Put Your Dreams Away" (the closing theme she wrote for Frank) are quite the footnotes. Sinatra kept both songs in his book virtually until the end. On June 13th 1971, in Los Angeles, a 55-year-old Frank, despondent at the state of the music business and what he saw as his increasing inability to find a place in it, gave his "retirement concert". From a thousand or more, he picked out the dozen songs that meant the most to him personally, and told his story. And so:
The very last time I heard him sing "I'll Never Smile Again" was in the early Nineties. He was touring with Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé, and, by that stage, it was a good general rule that if he was in town for five nights you were better to see him on the Monday than the Friday, when he could be pretty tuckered out, and the supporting act would be called on to provide rather more support. For the pre-closing routine, Steve and Eydie had a long medley of Sinatra hits and the idea was that, if he felt like joining in, they'd step aside and let him take the songs, but if he was exhausted he could just sip his Jack Daniel's, sit back and recover his strength for the big finish with "Mack The Knife" or "New York, New York", and they'd do the whole thing. "I'll Never Smile Again" was paired with another Dorsey balled "This Love Of Mine", and the night I caught the show Steve Lawrence sang the first line and then Frank leapt in, and Steve and Eydie just filled in the doo-doo-doos Pied Pipers-style. Pushing eighty, he still loved to sing the song, even though there was a little more Jersey gravel (or Palm Springs sand) in his diction than there was half-a-century earlier: "Until I smile at you" tended to come out as "Until I smile at choo", at which point Steve and Eydie would each provide an echoing "A-choo..." Maybe Eydie should have chipped in with "Gesundheit."
When Sinatra died in 1998 it was one of the first CDs the disc-jockeys reached for: when you're feeling bereaved, "I'll Never Smile Again" is just about the last word, especially for those who felt that, with Sinatra's passing, the golden age of popular song slipped a little further into the past, the golden age of Rodgers & Hart, of Berlin and Porter - and yes, of a Toronto stockbroker's wife, Ruth Lowe:
Within my heart
I know I will never start
To smile again
Until I smile at you...
~The above is adapted from Mark's book A Song For The Season. Order your personally autographed copy exclusively from the Steyn Store. And, if you're a Mark Steyn Club member, don't forget to enter your coupon code at checkout to receive the special member's discount.
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