Throughout history, tragedy, heartbreak, and unfathomable loss are experiences that have inspired artists to write songs. While they start from a personal place, when combined with the zeitgeist when they were written, these songs can resonate with generations long after the songwriter is gone – because of the shared feelings evoked by the words and the music.
“I’ll Never Smile Again” is one such song, inducted into both the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (CSHF) and American Recording Hall of Fame, and a part of our country’s deep well of treasured compositions.
Flash back to the 1930s. The Great Depression lingers. Unemployment is high. Europe edges closer to World War Two. In Toronto, 23-year-old Ruth Lowe writes a “I’ll Never Smile Again.” The sentimental ballad comes to her following not just one, but two huge losses: the death of her father in 1932, followed by the passing of her husband in 1939.
Lowe had a gift for music. After her father died, she supported the family by selling her songs and performing them. This was the start of the golden age of the Big Band era. Lowe climbed aboard. After hearing her sing in Toronto one night, bandleader Ina Ray Hutton invited her to join her all-female orchestra, full-time. Lowe agreed and hit the road.
After a gig one evening in Chicago, the songwriter had a blind date with song man Harold Cohen. The pair fell in love and soon married. After only one year of matrimony, tragedy struck Lowe for the second time when Cohen unexpectedly passed away.
“Losing the two men she loved in her life, in such a short time, inspired the song,” says Lowe’s son Tom Sandler. “My mom was so heartbroken. She said to my aunt, ‘I’ll never smile again without him,’ and the next day she sits down and quickly writes this haunting song.”
Lowe shared the song with Toronto bandleader Percy Faith. He loved it. With the songwriter’s permission, Faith arranged and recorded a 78 RPM single with his orchestra. Faith first broadcast the song in 1939 to CBC listeners on his regular program Music By Faith.
But Lowe knew she had a hit on her hands beyond Canada. The ambitious songwriter shared the recording and sheet music with bandleader Tommy Dorsey, through his guitar player – who happened to be dating one of Lowe’s girlfriends at the time. The bandleader listened to “I’ll Never Smile Again,” and like Faith, was moved.
Dorsey arranged a new version of the song with his band, and then brought it to Frank Sinatra and the Pied Pipers to record. The sentimental song ended up launching Sinatra’s career; it was not only the crooner’s first No.1 Billboard hit, but the first No. 1 record on Billboard’s modern chart, staying atop it for 12 weeks, in 1941.
“With the war raging in Europe, there was a lot of heartbreak going on, and more to come,” says Sandler. “All these women were losing their loves and their husbands to war and then here comes a story of a woman losing her man. The song resonated. I call it a flashpoint in music history: Dorsey, my mom, Sinatra, the war… everything came together. It went through the roof on the charts!”
Like all great songs, more than a half-century later, “I’ll Never Smile Again” still stands the test of time. The composition inspired Frank Davies to create the CSHF. And through the decades, “I’ll Never Smile Again” has been covered by Fats Waller, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Big Joe Williams, Count Basie, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Eddie Arnold, The Platters, Carl Perkins, Cleo Laine, Barry Manilow, and Michael Bublé, among others.
On film, the song has been heard in Good Morning, Vietnam and The Color of Money, and on TV’s The Fugitive, McHale’s Navy, Leave it to Beaver, and the Ed Sullivan, Perry Como, and Lawrence Welk shows.
An impressive legacy for a song written out of heartbreak, by a 23-year-old widow from Toronto.
To learn more about Ruth Lowe’s legacy in song, read the book Until I Smile at You, written by Sandler and Peter Jennings, published in 2020, or visit www.untilismileatyou.com.