The song was recorded by all the top swing bands in the 40s and performed as a memorable solo by virtuoso pianist Art Tatum. Despite the fact that is a difficult number to sing, both the Andrews Sisters and Ella Fitzgerald recorded popular versions. Other top renditions were by singer/pianist Leslie Hutchinson (a protege of Porter) and British bandleader Joe Loss with Chick Henderson on vocal.
Jubilee also introduced the songs Just One of Those Things, A Picture of Me Without You, and Why Shouldnt I? The musical ran for only 169 performances, and Porter is said to have been disappointed that Just One of Those Things received less attention than Begin the Beguine.
The book, written by Moss Hart, is about a royal family in a fictional European country who uses the threat of a revolution to abandon their throne and pursue lives they had only dreamed of. When the revolution turns out to be a hoax, they return to the throne but bring their new found friends with them. Interestingly, the future movie star, Montgomery Clift, had a small role as one of the princes in the original production.
Begin the Beguine not only has an unusual musical form but is unusually long for a popular song, 104 bars instead of the usual 32. (Irving Berlin is said to have referred to it as that long song.) In his book TheAmerican Musical Theatre Song Encyclopedia Thomas S. Hischak says, The ballad has no verse and drives ahead without benefit of a distinct stanza or a clear-cut release that relieves the surging melody.
The song was used as a dance number for Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell in the film Broadway Melody of 1940. The six-minute tap duet closed the movie in grand style and became one of the most famous dance numbers on film. For the film Cole also wrote I Concentrate on You and Ive Got My Eyes on You among others.
In his autobiography Musical StagesRichard Rodgers tells of a conversation with Cole Porter who claimed to have discovered the secret to writing hit songs. Ill write Jewish tunes, said the young Porter. I laughed at what I took to be a joke, but not only was Cole dead serious, he eventually did exactly that, says Rodgers, who points to Night and Day, Begin the Beguine, Love for Sale, and others with their unmistakably eastern Mediterranean, minor-key melodies.
Begin the Beguine is also featured in the two film biographies of Cole: 1946s Night and Day (performed by Latin singer Carlos Ramirez) and 2004s De-Lovely (performed by Sheryl Crow who not only changes the melody but tosses out key changes and sings the entire song in a minor key). Deanna Durbin sang it in the 1943 film Hers to Hold, and in 1986 the New Amsterdam Company produced a well-received concert of Jubilee. In 2003 a documentary narrated by dancer Ann Miller examined the art of Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell in a film entitled Begin the Beguine.
In Cole Porter: A Biography Charles Schwartz says that Porter gave two different versions of the origin of Begin the Beguine. But it is clear that the song was inspired by the rhythm of a West Indian dance called the beguine which Cole described as similar to the rumba but much faster. Peter Gammond in The Oxford Companion to Popular Music describes the dance: It is in 2/4 time, rather like a slow polka with a dotted rhythm, generally supplied by claves, maracas, bongos and congas playing variations on the basic pattern. The dance is performed on one spot with undulating movements of the body, the partners not touching.
In his book Cant Help Singin Gerald Mast, paraphrasing lyrics from other Porter songs, says, For Porter, the Latin surge of the song is another beat-beat-beat of a tom-tom; the pulsing of rhythmic sounds in the air again gets under the skin to enter the bloodstream as a pulse of emotion within. Porter evokes the sensation of the moment not by describing it in images but mirroring it in sounds.
The lyrics recall a love lost but easily recalled when the beguine plays: To live it again is past all endeavor, Except when that tune clutches my heart. The memories are of a voluptuous nature: music so tender, tropical splendor, an orchestra playing, and palms swaying, moments divine, rapture serene.
Jazz artists who have recorded the tune include Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Erroll Garner, Terry Gibbs, Lee Morgan, and Art Pepper. More recently it has been recorded by the BBC Big Band, the group Pearl Django, pianist Adam Makowicz in his Tatum tribute, and clarinetist Eddie Daniels.
By 1940, he had been married twice. That year, tired of the big band life, he headed for Hollywood to make movies. There he met and married Miss Turner. The union lasted only seven months, but it added immeasurably to the Artie Shaw legend.
Sprawling in a chair in the library of his suburban Los Angeles home, the old maestro grew reflective. "People talk about all the marriages," he said. "Listen, the women I've been with that I didn't marry far outnumbered the ones I did marry.
"With the stars it was a special situation. In those days, movie stars lived in goldfish bowls. You couldn't just live with a star; you had to marry her just to get divorced. Otherwise, the star would be finished.
"I married Ava just when we were going to break up. I knew we shouldn't do it; she knew we shouldn't do it. I even called up the house where the wedding was to be held to say I wasn't going through with it. Her agent, I think, got on the phone. 'Artie,' he said, 'you got to do it.' "
That marriage, in 1945, lasted a year.
"People ask what those women saw in me," he said. "Let's face it, I wasn't a bad-looking stud. But that's not it. It's the music; it's standing up there under the lights. A lot of women just flip; looks have nothing to do with it. You call Mick Jagger good-looking?"
Once there were apartments overlooking Central Park that looked like Hollywood sets. There was a farm in Bucks County, Pa., and, for a time, a 22-room mansion in Connecticut. Home is now a modest tract house in Ventura County that would be 60 miles from the center of Los Angeles if Los Angeles had a center. "I came out here," he said, "because I figured I'd have to go 45 miles in any direction to get in trouble."
Out back is the totemic California swimming pool; an expensive-looking Lexus crouches in the carport. Inside, it's wall-to-wall books. They are stacked on the floor, they spill out of their shelves, they clutter up the tables and load down the top of the baby grand. The emphasis is on history, biography, philosophy and, as might be expected from a survivor of two long bouts of analysis, plenty of psychology. The second floor is one large study. Almost buried in the stacks of books, records and pictures is the desk where the old clarinetist writes. Every day.
This is no dilettante's lair. Mr. Shaw already has three books to his name: "The Trouble With Cinderella," a memoir written in 1952; "I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead!," a collection of short fiction published in 1965, and "The Best of Intentions," another group of stories that appeared in 1989.
This last book included a chapter from his work in progress, a three-volume effort that traces the career of -- surprise -- a troubled young musician. He has written more than 1,000 pages and, he says, might have another 1,000 to go. His model: Romain Rolland's 1912 10-volume novel "Jean-Christophe."
"Read it some time," he ordered a guest.
Mr. Shaw lives alone. "I'm a curmudgeon," he said, half seriously. "I'm difficult to live with." There is a houseman. A close woman friend lives nearby, but there is no thought, on his side anyway, of cohabitation. "We see a lot of each other," he said. "We travel. At this point in my life, I think this is the best way to do it."
"Besides," he added unnecessarily, "I don't suffer fools gladly."
For a fleeting moment he seems to acknowledge the swift passage of time. No matter. At this point, as he puts it, he shows the vigor, the sense of engagement, the probity of a man half his age. There are pro forma protestations; failing memory, allegedly creaking bones and a finely tuned cantankerousness that can be turned on like an air-conditioner when the need arises.
His conversation, largely unstoppable, is a rich compote of tough-guy Yiddish, 50's bop and well-honed apercu dredged up from a lifetime of reading. With a touch of studied nonchalance, he skips from Beckett ("At least Godot had some humor") to T. S. Eliot ("Did you really understand the Cocktail Party?"), to E. B. White, or to that earlier curmudgeonly Shaw, old Bernard himself.
"I come before him in the new Webster's Unabridged," he offered with a smug grin. (Henry Wheeler Shaw, who wrote as Josh Billings, and Irwin Shaw, who wrote as Irwin Shaw, follow.)
Artie Shaw was born Arthur Arshawsky on Manhattan's Lower East Side. His immigrant parents were dressmakers, doing piecework in a basement apartment. When he was 7, they moved to New Haven, where he taught himself the ukelele, the piano and the saxophone. By age 14, he and a banjo-playing friend, Gene Becher, were appearing at amateur nights around New Haven.
"I talked to Gene recently," Mr. Shaw said. "Think of it. We worked together 70 years ago."
There followed a succession of local bands through the Prohibition years. When one of them needed a clarinet player, Arthur Arshawsky stepped in. Musical history took a different tack. By 1929 he was in Chicago, playing with Irving Aaronson's Commanders. In the early hours he haunted the jazz joints, listening to Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke and Muggsy Spanier.
Soon he was in New York, making $400 a week with a Columbia Broadcasting System house orchestra. He was 20 and had just changed his name to Art Shaw.
He was becoming well known, and it bothered him. So much so that at 32 he retired, bought the farm in Bucks County and started a novel. To support himself, he trucked firewood into New York and hawked it on the streets of Greenwich Village.
By 1935, he was back in New York assembling his first big band. Three years later, Victor Records took him on. For his first recording with them he chose a swinging version of "Indian Love Call." As an afterthought, he chose a Cole Porter tune for the flip side: "Begin the Beguine." It became an instant hit, and Victor changed his name from Art to Artie.
Money was rolling in. "Thirty, forty, fifty thousand a week," he said. "I decided I'd live like no emperor ever lived -- and I did. Every so often I try to figure out what I'd be worth now if I'd hung on to any of it."
Is he broke? "No, no," he said. "I live on my royalties and I'm comfortable. The old things are doing well. I even spent my 84th birthday in a recording studio in L.A., making a CD." Well, not exactly; he was overseeing the remastering of old material for the new digital format.
A steady stream of old Shaw classics has been reissued in recent years. "Begin the Beguine," of course, "Frenesi" and "Stardust," with an unforgettable Billy Butterfield trumpet solo, but also the subtle work of the Gramercy Five in a host of complex, minimalist arrangements like "Summit Ridge Drive" that presaged the work of a generation of post-swing-era pioneers.
One of the few band leaders to make the transition from swing to bop, he tried everything from strings to a harpsichord to create new sounds. And paid a price. "I thought that because I was Artie Shaw I could do what I wanted," he said. "But all they wanted was 'Begin the Beguine.' "
Someone once described Mr. Shaw as possibly the most unhappy professional musician of his time. In fact, he loved music. But he despised the road trips, the bickering with agents, lawyers and temperamental musicians and what he perceived as a largely uncomprehending public.
"I can sympathize with Glenn Gould and Puccini," he said. "They both hated live audiences."
For a while, Artie Shaw the belletrist forgets himself and talks music like Artie Shaw the clarinetist. He recalls people who influenced him, like Beiderbecke and Johann Sebastian Bach, and people who worked with him, like Charlie Spivak and Billie Holiday and Claude Thornhill.
He talks of his rivals, principally Benny Goodman, who lost his crown as the King of Swing in 1938 when Downbeat Magazine bestowed it on the younger Artie Shaw.
"I played music," he said. "Goodman played the clarinet. All he ever wanted to talk about was the damn instrument."
Critics have always lavished praise on Mr. Shaw. Writing about some of the last Shaw records with the Gramercy Five, the critic Christopher Porterfield said, "These last recordings, like so much else in his career, raise the essential Shaw perplexity: the richness of what was, the wistfulness of what might have been."
Mr. Shaw shrugs off this stuff. "I did all you can do with a clarinet," he ventured, "any more would have been less."
The conversation drifts back to the literary life. "Those drawings over there? They're George Grosz originals. I knew Grosz. I knew Scott Fitzgerald and Art Buchwald. For 10 years I corresponded with Bill Saroyan. I was a friend of Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg."
So then, he was asked, you must be glad to be out of the musical life. "It was like cutting off a gangrenous arm," he said. "You miss it, but better to have one arm and have a life."
In fact, there were a number of lives, punctuated by musical interludes. There was the firewood phase, then a period when he raised cattle in upstate New York. There were the war years when he led what was probably the best swing band in the armed services. There was a post-war period when he latched on to every available left-wing cause except, fortunately for him, the Communist Party -- the House Unamerican Activities Committee complimented him on his patriotism -- and there were two years in Spain, fishing hidden trout streams with his eighth wife, Miss Keyes.
There was even a time in the 1980's when the Artie Shaw orchestra came back. Mr. Shaw made a few appearances but never played. Today, he writes, lectures on music, listens to music -- some jazz, a lot of Gould, which means, he said, "a lot of Bach." He is busy, contentious and alert.
Much of his upbeat outlook he attributes to analysis. "One day," he recalled, "the analyst told me, 'You're through.' I said, 'How do you know?' And he said, 'There's nothing I can tell you about yourself you don't already know.' That was when I knew I'd finally rid myself of Artie Shaw. Soon after that, someone came up to me in a motel and said, 'Aren't you the Artie Shaw?'
"I said, 'No, I'm the other one.' "Continue reading the main story