Sid Mark keeps Frank Sinatra and his music alive

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Frank and Sid pose for the camera in Las Vegas in 1975.

The WPHT station promo says it so well.

"Your grandfather listened. Your mother listened. And now you listen."

History records that Frank Sinatra died in 1998, but Sid Mark has kept the Chairman of the Board alive by continuing one of the most remarkable tribute shows in radio history.

"I'm blown away by it," said Pierre Robert, who has been at WMMR for 34 years. "I don't think we'll see anything like it any time in the near future."

For four hours each week, Mark opens up his vast vault of Sinatra records and takes listeners for a brisk walk down memory lane.

"Millions of DJs play Sinatra, but not the way Sid Mark has," said radio personality Big Daddy Graham. "The key is his consistency and his loyalty."

Sinatra would have turned 100 tomorrow, a milestone that leaves Mark amazed.

"Honestly, I thought he'd be here," Mark said. "He seemed to have that fortitude. His last show, in Palm Springs [in 1995], was his best. As he was coming offstage, he said 'I think I'm ready to go back on the road.'"

Mark's "Sounds of Sinatra" show started accidentally. He was a deejay working the graveyard shift for WHAT in 1956 when a colleague failed to show up. With the extra airtime, Mark played a full hour of Sinatra. He's been doing it now for 59 years.

In 1966, Sinatra released an album with Count Basie performing at the Sands in Las Vegas. During a two-hour Sinatra special on CBS on Sunday, L.L. Cool J called it one of the finest live albums ever recorded.

When it came out, Mark played it continuously, and Philadelphia-area stores couldn't keep it on the shelves. Though the British Invasion was in full force and the Beatles were in their prime, fans still were going nuts for Sinatra.

That's when Mark first heard from the people in Sinatra's camp, who were looking to show gratitude.

"They asked, 'Do you want a TV set?' I said I already have a TV set," Mark laughed. He asked to meet Sinatra and eventually was invited out to Vegas. Mark had to decline because he couldn't afford it.

"No, they told me, 'When you are a guest of Mr. Sinatra, you are his guest.' "

The axiom is that it's usually not a good idea to meet your heroes, because disappointment is inevitable. That did not apply here. Meeting Sinatra changed Mark's life.

"I had spent a weekend in Vegas where I got to meet and hang out with Frank Sinatra," he said. "I had reached the summit."

The early years

Sid Mark was born in Camden and grew up near the intersection of 24th & Federal. He graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School and served in the Army from 1953-55.

When he was assigned to Camp Polk in Louisiana, it was the first time Mark had been out of the Delaware Valley.

"There was an old slogan," Mark said. "Write to the boys in Korea and pity the boys at Camp Polk."

In addition to horrendous heat, Mark saw racism and encountered anti-Semitism. He recalls fondly, however, a gesture of support by one of his superiors who was surprised to learn of the tradition of fasting during Yom Kippur.

"If you're not going to eat," Lt. Robert McKnight told Mark, "than neither am I."

Not so nice 'n' easy

Sinatra was a celebrated singer, but he had a well-known streak of meanness that bordered on nasty. A dealer in Las Vegas told a story of the night Sinatra got so infuriated at the blackjack table that he poured his drink all over the cup that held the dealers' tips.

Mark knows the warts, but never discusses them on his show. He's kept a promise he made to Sinatra to never write a book even though an adviser recently told him it would be a "six-figure deal at least." Sinatra saluted his friendship with Mark when he played at the Spectrum.

"There are so many thousands of songs Sinatra did and Sid knows them all," Robert said. "He doesn't just know the B sides. He knows the B side to the fourth song on the 27th album.

To play one artist is extremely difficult to do unless you know the material like he does."

Sid's way

One of the hallmarks of Mark's radio show is the commercials between the songs. Many of them are voiced over by Mark without a script. He often ad libs during the spot to make it even more intimate. Pica's Restaurant in Upper Darby is one of his original advertisers and Mark will discuss how his son raves about the chicken parm and his grandson loves the pizza and warm bread.

Robert called it "conversational broadcasting."

"You feel like Sid is in his living room playing records just for you," he said.

In that salute at the Spectrum, Sinatra cited Mark as being one of his closest pals.

"I've had maybe four or five [friends] in my career, people who've stayed with me when things were dark; didn't change at all when everything else changed," Sinatra told the crowd. "That's the kind of man he is. I love him, and I say that publicly. I love him. He's one of the best friends I've had in my life. I had a lot of friends, but about three days later, they were all gone. I ran out of money."

Mark is 82 years old, and his company Orange Productions, named after Sinatra's favorite color, also produces a show each week that is syndicated to 100 stations throughout the country.

When WWDB changed to a rock 'n' roll format in 1998 and abruptly canceled Mark's show, the Daily News led a petition drive to get him back on the air. He's been at WPHT ever since.

"I still thoroughly enjoy it. I want to do this until I can't do it anymore," he said. "But like Sinatra said, walk out the front door, before they show you the back door."