Sid Mark had never held a golf club or driven a convertible. But growing up in 1940s Camden, N.J., he was convinced that his ticket to that glamorous lifestyle was a career in broadcasting.
“You wear a beautiful suit, you go play golf and then you get in your beautiful car and you hang out all night with beautiful ladies,” explained Mark. “I thought that’s what radio was.”
Now 85 and an honoree in the Philadelphia Broadcast Pioneers Hall of Fame, he knows better.
So did Mark’s parents, who had other ideas for their son, born Sidney Mark Fliegelman. Strictly Orthodox Jews, they expected him to follow his father and uncles into the family clothing business and become a pillar of the synagogue where “my dad had the first row, first seat,” Mark recalled.
The would-be retailer ended up with a different kind of front row seat — to the career of Frank Sinatra, whose music he has championed for decades as host of “Sounds of Sinatra,” one of the longest-running broadcasts in radio history. Mark’s WPHT 1210 AM program, a staple of the Philadelphia airwaves since 1957, is nationally syndicated on 100 stations.
And although Sinatra has been dead for 20 years, his popularity endures. Mark still gets at least 100 emails a week, “and they all start off the same way: ‘I started listening on Sunday mornings, while Mom and Dad were making gravy,’” he said. The Villanova resident loves relating how in the 1970s, Mayor Frank Rizzo complained that the power dipped across Philadelphia as radios switched on to hear Mark’s show.
Podcasts and satellite have transformed the business, but Mark eschews digital conveniences, preferring to play each recording himself. “It gives me a warmer feeling; I can set the mood better,” said the AM veteran. “Everything I play is for a reason.”
That reason is Sinatra, who Mark has been playing his way for more than six decades. “I haven’t been on vacation for 20 years, because I don’t want anyone else doing the show,” he admitted. “It’s like someone dating your girl. I tell my wife” — Judy, with whom Mark shares a 45-year marriage and four grown children — “that I’ve been having an affair all this time … with the show.”
In 62 years, Mark’s only absence was a two-week hiatus for heart surgery, and he dismisses talk of retirement. “I promised Frank I’d do it as long as I could,” explained Mark, a longtime confidant of both Ol’ Blue Eyes and the late Frank Sinatra Jr. “It’s been a good ride. How blessed am I? It could have been any other performer … but it was Frank.”
Lucky indeed, because it’s hard to imagine a show with similar longevity built around Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughan or any of the other bygone legends Mark worked with as a young jazz enthusiast.
Indeed, Mark’s radio career was built on notable persistence. He’d hoped to join Armed Forces Radio by enlisting for the Korean War after high school, but spent two years in the infantry instead. A two-year broadcasting course got him no closer to a radio dial. Finally, Mark got a break when his sister’s out-of-town jazz teacher asked Mark where to find a good Jewish meal nearby.
The younger man took the teacher home to sample Mrs. Fliegelman’s cooking, and “when he took the second bowl of vegetable soup with short ribs in it, I knew I was fine forever,” Mark chuckled. He started hanging around the teacher’s radio station, which led to hosting a live broadcast of the Saturday jazz show at the Red Hill Inn in Pennsaucken, N.J.
“My first band was Stan Getz — he was a Philadelphian as well,” said Mark. For the next few years, the novice handled such luminaries as Count Basie and Duke Ellington. One singer, though, eluded the Red Hill Inn: Frank Sinatra, whom Mark discovered through his sister. “She’d send me to the record store to buy 78s,” Mark remembered. “It was kind of embarrassing for a teenage boy to be buying Frank at the time, with all the girls screaming.”
But one winter, Mark was alone in a California military barracks. “Frank came on singing ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas,’ and I said, ‘My God, listen to that.’ There was nothing like it!”
By the mid-1950s, Mark was hosting an all-night broadcast on WHAT in Philly. One evening, instead of the rock ’n’ roll his producers wanted, Mark decided to play Sinatra’s new album in its entirety. The next day, sales of the album spiked around Philadelphia. That finally got the attention of Sinatra’s agent; the next thing he knew, Mark was invited to spend a weekend with the icon in Las Vegas.
As their friendship blossomed, “Sounds of Sinatra” became a radio destination for listeners who prized their host’s insider knowledge. Philadelphia was a passionate fan base for Sinatra, said Mark, who frequented the singer’s Manhattan apartment. “He’d always joke: Are you sure you’re Jewish? Because I hear the way you say marinara,” Mark laughed.
While Mark was the less religious of the two, both men shared a deep respect for family and Jewish tradition, which Sinatra saw as akin to his own Italian culture. “Frank was the most charitable man ever, and a tremendous supporter of the state of Israel,” Mark noted.
The hard-living singer also gave the radio host advice on dealing with laryngitis. “He’d say, ‘Your problem is you don’t drink enough,’” Mark recalled. (The broadcaster relies on tea, lozenges and an evening schedule.)
Photographs show the craggy, 6-foot-4-inch Mark towering over the singer, smiles intact as their hair whitens over the years. “He’s been a friend for as long as I’ve been in this business,” Sinatra told a crowd in 1991. “It’s wonderful to have a friend like Sidney, and I’ve had maybe four or five in my career. People who’ve stayed with me when things were dark, who didn’t change when everything else changed.”
You might say the same of Sinatra’s own fans, for whom the Chairman of the Board remains as alluring as ever. “He’s intergenerational,” noted Mark. Annual Sinatra tribute concerts sell out; millennials regularly host Rat Pack theme nights.
That’s because, as Mark observed, glamour is eternal. “And that was Frank,” he said. “All the guys wanted to be like him, and all the women wanted to date him. Sinatra is the convertible and the girls and the golf clubs. Sinatra is a lifestyle.” l