Cardella: There Was More To Sid Than Sinatra

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For the second time in recent weeks, South Philly has lost a valued piece of its musical history. We lost Bobby Rydell. And now Sid Mark. Sid never lived in our part of town. But he owned our Friday evenings and Sunday mornings for countless years. Who among us never listened to FRIDAY WITH FRANK or SUNDAY WITH SINATRA?

I knew another side of Sid Mark. The radio personality whose musical knowledge and taste went far beyond Sinatra. The one whose early aspirations were quite different than the man whose name will forever be linked in our hearts with Sinatra. I’ll leave it to others who knew him longer and more intimately to chronicle Sid’s Sinatra years. I’ll try to help you understand a richer, more complicated side of Sidney.

When I met Sid for the first time, he had already gotten FRIDAY WITH FRANK on the air for five years. He had done so mostly despite incompetent and indifferent management. Through the force of his own personality. But Sid wasn’t just on the air on Fridays and later on Sundays spinning Sinatra songs. Sid was on the air five nights a week playing and promoting jazz.

If truth be told, Sid saw his future as an impresario of jazz, what he called “America’s only true art form.” Think the nationally famous DJ at that time, William B. Williams in New York, as his role model. In 1961, the year I got hired as a young disc jockey out of Temple, Sid had convinced ownership that jazz could be profitable for the station. Thus Philadelphia’s first and only 24-hour jazz station was born.

Sid had coined the title for himself, “the Mark of Jazz.” Not only was he working on the air weeknights from 5 to 11 p.m., he had the title of FM Program Director. He also was in the midst of negotiations for a jazz show on public television in the area. I was assigned a shift from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. on weeknights as well as a shift on Sunday afternoons.

Because I came on the air right after Sid, I was privileged to spend a lot of time alone with him in the studios. We discussed not only music (Sid was no fan of rock and roll or even Bobby Darin), but the civil rights issues of that time. Sid confirmed my beliefs in racial tolerance. We knew who were the good guys and the bad guys.

The station’s relaxed FM format offered me a chance to learn about jazz at the foot of the master. Sid played from his own collection. He was generous with his deep knowledge about what he saw as the commercial future of jazz. Sid’s friendships in the business were extraordinary. It was routine for stars of the day such as Mel Torme and personal friends Eydie and Steve Lawrence to drop by when they were in town. I even got to meet Lenny Bruce. A couple of times, Sid took me with him to Pep’s Musical Bar at Broad and South to see and meet Cannonball Adderly and Maynard Ferguson. Sid used to jokingly refer to Maynard as his “brother.” And he used Ferguson’s music to open and close his show.

The excitement of that time far outweighed any financial remuneration. I had to fight to get my pay upgraded to $1.75 an hour (25 cents for bus fare was included). The deal was if you were called upon to fill-in for Sid’s shift, you accepted $10.

Sid’s interest in Sinatra was alive and well back then, but I honestly don’t believe he saw his future tied to Frank as much as he felt jazz would be his ticket to fame. At that point in his career, despite his friendships with jazz personalities, Sid had never met Sinatra, though he actively sought to do so. It was a number of years after the station no longer played jazz that Sid finally got a chance to meet Frank and their friendship grew.

The job of a disc jockey playing records — especially long cuts – eventually loses its fascination. Most of the chatter that went on between Sid and his jazz fans was conducted off the air. Oft nights, I watched a bored Sid Mark struggling to maintain his interest. Some nights he would turn up the sound of a Sinatra or a big band record. “Frank’s really cooking tonight,” he’d say to me as if we were witnessing a live performance. At the end of his shift, Sid would simply say, “Maynard, take us on home,” and with the opening notes of FRAME FOR THE BLUES, he’d be halfway out the door and on his way home.

As a tribute to Sid’s promotional influence, a local musician as I remember it, Jimmy Wisner, wrote and recorded SIDNEY’S SOLILOQUY (you can hear the piece on the internet). It’s a beautiful piece of music that Sid used as a musical bridge under his on-the-air voice for a short while.

My relationship with Sid ended badly. He took exception to a column I wrote suggesting Sinatra retire gracefully. At the end, Frank became a performer who could not always remember the lyrics and I thought embarrassed himself. We never spoke again. It was an especially painful moment in my life. I felt Sid’s friendship with Sinatra had caused him to cross the line into idolatry. But to the end, I always regarded Sid as a musical treasure. I’m betting no community was as devoted to Sid playing Frank than South Philly.

The jazz format lost money for the radio station and was soon dropped. It is sobering that I may be the only one left alive to tell the tale of those days. My own association with jazz ended when I left the station to enter the military, except as a sometime fan.

Sid’s legacy will live on. Especially among his many fans in South Philly. But Sunday mornings will never be the same.