Sunday, May 04, 2008
Philadelphia's Liberty Medal: A
Hometown Nomination for Once
Sid Mark, The Voice of Philadelphia for more than 50 years.
NOD TO THE PAST. The criteria for Philadelphia's Liberty Medal sound lofty:
The Liberty Medal is awarded annually by the National Constitution Center to men and women of courage and conviction who have strived to secure the blessings of liberty to people the world over.
Yeah, they gave it to Nelson Mandela once. But last year they gave it to Bono. They've also given it to Sandra Day O'Connor and Kofi Annan. There seems to be some latitude here, some give and take in what constitutes courage, conviction, and the blessings of liberty. Which is as it should be. Sandra Day O'Connor never stood in front of a tank. Kofi Annan never served a day as a political prisoner and has probably eaten in more four-star restaurants over the years than Frank Sinatra.
Which brings me to my point. Why can't the Liberty Medal be granted, for once, to an actual Philadelphian who has performed a huge service in communicating the blessings of liberty to the city where constitutionally guaranteed liberty began in the first place?
It's a truism of art and writing and music that "before you can be universal, you must be local."
I'd be willing to bet there are thousands if not millions of people like me, who grew up listening with their parents to "Friday with Frank" and "Sunday with Sinatra," hosted by Sid Mark on WWDB (and now WPHT) in Philadelphia (and syndicated to other stations throughout the country). What did we learn? That there was a special poignancy to the lives of the World War II generation, which garnered Tom Brokaw waves of acclaim when he acknowledged it belatedly, but which we children of that generation learned firsthand by hearing Sid Mark respond week after week to Sinatra classics with an impeccable sense of how every song sounded when it was released and what chord it touched in its audience. The Brokaws somehow seem to forget that the Greatest Generation also came home after the war and rebuilt the world even though they were in all probability suffering from what is today called Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder.
My dad was. He endured nightmares for years. But Friday night was a ritual. We gathered in the den and turned on the FM radio. It was Sid Mark time. The songs Sid played spanned 20 years, from the pre-war Tommy Dorsey era to the beginnings of the Rat Pack and beyond. It was a time machine that helped us youngsters learn what our parents had been through. Both my parents adopted, at one time or another, the pose that Sinatra wasn't even the best Big Band singer, despite all the screaming bobby-soxers. I heard both my parents seriously argue that Dick Haymes was a better vocalist than Sinatra and that Sinatra's career should have ended after this disastrous recording of Ol' Man River.
But it was Friday night, and Sid was playing the songs, and my sister and I were little and full of questions -- besides being intoxicated by the sound of Sinatra -- and so this family time also became a history lesson. My prejudiced father hauled out his Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Teddy Wilson, and Coleman Hawkins LPs to prove to us that Sid Mark's description of America as one vast Sinatra audience was incorrect. The very first time I fell in love was at the age of six when I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing "The Man I Love," and the very first time I knew there was a racial divide in my country was when my Dad showed me the Ella/Gershwin album cover -- Ella was not white, slim, or gorgeous the way women who can sing like that automatically are to little boys who have beautiful blonde mothers. "Forget the picture," my dad said. "Just listen to the way she sings. That's music. Sinatra is an ugly little guy. And you like him."
I did. Me and how many countless others who learned about him from Sid Mark. More than my parents did. In fact. my first rebellion was realizing that Sinatra was better than Dick Haymes and every other Big Band singer. I realized that he was singing my own parents' lives, the parts they couldn't admit, the pain and wistfulness and sorrow they could never acknowledge, along with the upbeat determination that kept them going, and dancing, even when they must have wondered what the hell was going on. It was as if the real appeal of Sinatra to adults was a secret -- they pretended he wasn't an arterial necessity; he was just historical and because he was connected to every successful jazz musician, composer, and arranger, he was safe. When he let loose with his "three o'clock in the morning," "when I was seventeen," or "strangers in the night" bits, the parents mixed another cocktail and fell silent.
Truth is, what I learned from Sid Mark and his Sinatra shows was that my parents and their generation had real and incredibly deep passions in their lives. That was the knowledge that enabled me to bridge the Generation Gap of the sixties. I understood that mine wasn't the first generation to have been powerfully motivated and transformed by music. A tenuous bridge was constructed which survives to this day. Yeah, my dad couldn't get the heroin jazz, or the rock and roll, or even the bee-bop. But long after the war that forced and anguished his character, he HAD to listen to the one man who ensured continuity and whose genius phrasing somehow contained an entire generation of experience.
Without Sid Mark, my parents would have been a blank to me, the way so many parents are a blank to their kids today. Thanks to Sid, there were moments in my childhood when I felt at a cellular level what it was to be my parents when they were young, in danger, and fighting like hell for their lives. I'm absolutely damn sure I'm not alone in that. Is this a service which helps to "secure the blessings of liberty"? Yup. And then there was "Watertown." Which only Sid ever promoted and proved to me that Sinatra AND Sid were eternal. Sid Mark is a national treasure.
I think that. But then I'm not a Philadelphia politician.
P.S. The audio file has been Sid Mark's close to every Sinatra broadcast for 50 years. It's burned into my soul. My Catholic friends who confidently expect me to confess the one true faith at the last second had better bring this recording with them to my deathbed.
UPDATE 5/12/08. Last night, one of the public television channels ran a 1966 show called "Sinatra: A man and His Music (Pt I)." It was a time machine moment. Sinatra in a recording studio with Gordon Jenkins and his band. He stood at the studio microphone, introduced the songs to the audience and then -- without a cut -- delivered a perfect performance of standards like "Fly Me to the Moon." It made me remember something I'd left out of the original post, which was about Sid Mark more than Sinatra. But, again thanks to Sid, I followed up an opportunity many years after my youth to see Sinatra perform at an open-air concert in Cincinnati, Ohio. I convinced my wife to attend, telling her that it was a chance to see a living legend, even if -- as would obviously be the case -- he was far too old at nearly 70 to be able to sing anymore. But he still could sing. And he did. He had the entire audience, from octogenarians to teenagers, in the palm of his hand. Thank you for that, too, Sid Mark.
Which leads me to the real reason for this update. Daniel Rubin, a talented Philadelphia columnist, linked this post at at Philly.com, where he does an entertaining blog called Blinq. I checked back today and found a real gem of a comment, one that should tell you more about Sid and Frank and Philly than I could in a dozen posts. I just have to share it with you. This is who we are in this neck of the woods:
I had known F Sinatra and when he had appeared at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, N.J. I would hang out backstage with Pat Henry, his opening act and this one night I seen this tall gentleman standing outside of Sinatra's dressing room for a short time and asked if he was waiting to see Sinatra and he answered yes. I knocked on Sinatra's dressing room door and he put out his hand to say please don't but it was too late and Jilly Rizzo, his best friend opened the door and a friend of mine also. I told Jilly that Sid Mark was here and immediately Jilly said Sidney what are you doing out here come in. As he closed the door I seen Sinatra come forward and said Sidney what are you doing outside and gave him a big hug and a kiss. That I believe was in 1972 and from that night Sidney and I became very good friends. I would say we refer to each other as brothers and I am extremely proud of that. The reason I tell this story is to demonstrate what an admirable gentleman Sidney is. His wife Judy and his children are all wonderful and respect all. This man does not want to make a nusiance of himself and never pushes himself forward almost to the point that he appears shy, however, if the situation arises he can account for himself respectfully. A genuine gentleman loved by all his peers and listeners alike. It would be wonderful if he were to be the recipicant of the "Liberty Medal". Knowing this man who had served his country in the Armed Forces and born in Camden, N.J., and a hard working man all his life in addition to being a great humanitarian I beleive makes him a fine candidate for this prestigious award. I am confidant that there would no one more deserving as throught the years he has made millions enjoy the beautiful sequenced of songs he has programmed, not to mention his voice. God Bless you Sidney and all concerned and also to you Mr. Rubin for having suggested this talented man be recognized.
Posted by BROTHER BEAR
Don't you just absolutely love it? Well, I do, anyway. And here's the larger point. I wasn't kidding.
Brother Bear, Philadelphians, and New Jersey folk (Frank was from Hoboken, let's not forget), put the pressure on. I was absolutely serious in nominating Sid Mark for the Liberty Medal. Generate some cards and letters to Mayor Mike Nutter, whose address and other contact information is here. Sid Mark for the Liberty Medal. Make it happen.
Please. Even if you're not from Philadelphia. Pretend. (This is a city that always votes over 100 percent of its registered Democrats. They'll understand.)
UPDATE 5/20/08. Welcome to all you fans of Michael Smerconish, who has linked to this post from his website at WPHT in Philly. Thanks, Michael. There's a special treat available for listeners of Sid Mark's Sinatra shows. At Steynonline.com, the "columnist to the world" has been honoring the tenth anniversary of Sinatra's passing by writing in-depth accounts of the writing and recording of the greatest Sinatra standards. If you really love the music you won't want to miss a word. Thanks for stopping by. And much greater thanks if you follow through by contacting the Mayor with a Sid Mark nomination.