Sid Mark: An Interview With The Legendary Philadelphia Disc Jockey

Victor L. Schermer By

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sid mark, frank sinatra Sid Mark is a Philadelphia institution. For the last fifty years (!), he has hosted the popular radio show, "The Sounds of Sinatra" exclusively devoted to the man and his music. (The show currently airs on WPHT 1210 AM: "Friday with Frank": Fridays 6pm-8pm ET; "Saturday with Sinatra": Saturdays 8pm-10pm ET; "Sunday with Sinatra": Sundays 8am-1pm ET.) Prior to that, during the post-bebop and hard bop eras, Sid hosted a long-running program called "The Mark of Jazz," playing all jazz and conducting interviews with many of the greats of the time. Today, Sid is a gentleman of diverse experience, hosting the Sinatra show, loving his family, making many public appearances, and advocating for various causes, especially infantile autism (his grandson suffers from that condition).

Sid's passion for Sinatra is boundless and constant. I interviewed him partly on account of my puzzlement about how he could be so single-mindedly obsessed with one performer. Admittedly, Sinatra is a cultural icon, an almost mythological figure who has symbolized the hopes, dreams, ideals, and struggles of two generations of Americans. Admittedly too, Sinatra was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, singers of all time. Even a music magazine as far removed from the crooning style as Rolling Stone paid him tribute. But nevertheless I was curious why someone would dedicate year after year to a Sinatra radio show. Sid Mark just goes on playing Sinatra records for a large audience of listeners, without any motives other than genuine admiration and affection for "Frank."

However, what many of his fans don't realize is that prior to his Sinatra program, Sid was a jazz show host—one of the first anywhere—and a prime mover in making jazz happen in the Philadelphia area. Music is propelled by people like Sid Mark. His dedication and his affection for the musicians has spawned many a career, kept the music in focus for the public, and fostered a positive climate in the music business. I caught up with Sid on the phone early on a summer morning in June, and we had a simpatico conversation, which went as follows:

Discovering Nina

All About Jazz: Sid, I'd like to pick your brain about Sinatra and your radio show, "Sounds of Sinatra." Then we'll turn to the general subject of jazz, more specifically jazz in Philly and your former radio program, "The Mark of Jazz," and finally some talk about Sid Mark the DJ, the person, and the humanitarian.

Sid Mark: Well, it's interesting, Vic. I looked up your writing on All About Jazz, and it seems we have a lot of similar interests, not the least of which is that one of my best friends was Al Stauffer.

AAJ: Al was one of the most wonderful people, and possibly the best bassist, I ever knew.

SM: And one of the people I was actually responsible for when it came to her success was Nina Simone.

AAJ: I know that Nina spent some time in Philadelphia.

SM: She started her career in Philadelphia. In her autobiography, she said the reason for her success was a white Jewish disc jockey, Sid Mark. She said, "If I knew him today, I don't know if I'd kiss him or smack him in the mouth!" (laughter.) That's a quote. We had a hell of a relationship! By the way, did the tribute concert by her daughter ever take place?

AAJ: It was performed at Town Hall last year. From what I understand, it was extremely successful.

SM: I love that picture of the two of them together.

AAJ: She's been very active in promoting Nina's legacy.

SM: Nina was something else. We had hours of discussions on the numerous radio and TV shows we did together. When I discovered her, she was just playing piano at a little joint in Philly at 22nd and Chestnut. It was a bar, and she wasn't singing, just playing the piano.

AAJ: She was originally planning to be a concert pianist.

SM: She went to Julliard for that. I'm getting ahead of myself, but anyway, at the time I was working at a jazz room called the Red Hill Inn in Pennsauken, New Jersey. I brought her in, she started singing, and for some strange reason people objected and wanted her to just play the piano! Boy, they were proven wrong.

About Sinatra

AAJ: Well, let's switch our discussion to the Sinatra show, which is your main gig these days and has been so for the last five decades. It occurs to me that for you to do a radio program exclusively playing Sinatra recordings for years on end, your passion for Sinatra must go very deep, even more so than the dedication of many of the Sinatra fans out there. What is it that makes that connection with him so profound for you?

SM: First of all, while his music was primary, it wasn't just the music, it was the man himself, because Frank was so multidimensional. Aside from just being the world's greatest vocalist, he was an incredible movie actor. He contributed to every known charity and helped more people than anyone can imagine. And he was actually a nice guy! You'd never hear women arguing about Frank. They all liked Frank. But you'd hear guys argue! "Well, I'd like to wear a hat like him." "You like him, but I don't!" But especially there was his musicality. With me working at a jazz room, the Basie band would come in, and I'd hang out with the guys, and they'd all be talking about Sinatra. I was only 22 when I started at the Red Hill Inn, and my job was driving the musicians over from the hotel.

AAJ: I understand the Red Hill Inn was one of the great jazz rooms of all time.

SM: Oh, it was. As a young man starting out, I was the driver. I'd pick up Ellington, Basie, whatever. My job was to pick up the leader. Invariably, the conversation would get around to Sinatra. They all admired him. The guy in the Basie band I became friendliest with was Al Grey, the trombonist. He said that when he got to Vegas, he was going to tell Frank about me, this kid in Philadelphia. My interest was so piqued by Sinatra's music and his personality that if there's such a thing as man love, I just loved the guy. He could pretty much do what he wanted to do. At one point, he was as down as any one of us will ever get. In the 1950's he lost his record and movie contracts. No one would hire him. He disappeared for almost a year and did nothing. And then he made the single largest comeback in showbiz, about the same time I was starting out. So I had the greatest admiration for this guy. And the fact that all the musicians loved him and he loved all the musicians really cemented the bond for me. And that was my initial foray into Sinatra.

AAJ: So it really was a total identification with him. And I understand that he basically picked himself up out of the bottom—no one gave him a break, so to speak.

SM: When he was selected the Man of the Year of Time Magazine and had his picture on the cover, they asked him, "Who do you credit for your comeback?" He said, "No one. I did it myself." And it was true. No one would touch him at that point. He was finished.

AAJ: Much later, you actually met him. Tell us about that fateful encounter.

SM: That was thanks to Al Grey and [jazz and cabaret singer] Sylvia Syms. They told him about me and the radio show. Frank loved Al Grey. Basie cut an album titled Sinatra at the Sands in 1966. At that time, I was at the station WHAT-FM [Philadelphia], an all jazz station. I decided to go with that album for the entire week! That helped the album to top the charts. When Frank heard about all that, he invited me to Las Vegas for the weekend. Well, when we got there, nobody knew who we were—we didn't have any reservations. So I called Sylvia Syms in New York and told her my problem. She said, "Don't worry. I'll take care of it." She called Frank's "number one" guy, Jilly Rizzo, and—wow—he took us in for dinner with Frank!

Jack Benny and Mary Livingston were at the table, and also Milton and Lucy Berle, Leo Durocher, little Nancy Sinatra, Jimmy Darren. They had no idea who I was! Frank introduced me: "This is Sid Mark from Philadelphia." Then, believe it or not, Sinatra came over and pinched me on the cheek and said, "I'll see you after the show." I said, "I don't have tickets for the show." He said, "You don't need tickets. You're sitting at our table." Everybody was totally surprised that I would get all this attention—who is this guy? We spent the whole evening together. I always say how hard it was to come back to reality after that! When I returned to Philly, my wife said, "How about taking out the garbage, Sid!" (laughter.) Real life!

AAJ: Such is life!

SM: I always loved live music. When I was a kid, my parents took me to the Ice Capades, where they had a full orchestra. I was thrilled by that sound of the full orchestra.

AAJ: Who were some of Sinatra's favorite musicians and vocalists?

SM: Mabel Mercer. Supposedly, when Frank was a kid, he and Sylvia Syms would go into New York to hear Mabel Mercer and listen to her phrasing. Then they'd go and listen to Billie Holiday. Holiday was one of the most important influences on Frank. He was also influenced by Louis Armstrong, as was Tony Bennett. And of course, as a kid, Frank listened to Bing Crosby. Actually, contrary to the myth, though everyone was trying to sing like Bing, Frank really didn't want to emulate him.

AAJ: Frank was listening a lot to the Tommy Dorsey band.

SM: Yes, and of course Harry James.

AAJ: Steve Allen, who was a terrific pianist, singer, and composer himself, wrote an article about Sinatra.

SM: I knew Steve well, too.

AAJ: Steve took the position that Sinatra was not only a pop singer, but one of the greatest jazz vocalists of all time. Do you agree with that assessment?

SM: The critic Ralph Gleason said that as well, in one of the liner notes. He compared Frank to Segovia, even Picasso. He said that what they were to their art, Frank is to jazz vocalizing.

AAJ: What makes Sinatra so important to jazz?

SM: Well, for example, like the great Johnny Hartman, Frank always had his unique interpretations. He never sang the same way twice. Whether it was "I've Got You Under My Skin" or "The Lady is a Tramp" and so on, Frank enjoyed bending and twisting a note. Also, his whole thing was that he was the musicians' musician. He'd rather hang out with Basie than a U.S. President. Even in his later years, he went out on the road with Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, and of course a zillion times with Basie and Ella. He recorded with Ella, Neil Hefti, Johnny Mandel.


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