During the Swing Era Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw were the clarinetists that reigned supreme and serious fans divided themselves into factions that loved one or the other. Goodman was the peddler of popular tunes who got the crowd on their feet, while Shaw was the musician's musician who preferred to make artistic statement that people listened to.
While both left their mark on the time period, nobody felt the tension between art and entertainment like Artie Shaw. He quit playing in the mid-fifties, frustrated by the music business and weary of a scene that demanded he regurgitate his hits when he had more artistic aspirations in mind. "Begin the Beguine says it all; it was a tune that Shaw either loathed or grew bored with, depending on whom you ask, but it also established his career and made him wealthy. The problem was that Shaw wanted to be famous, but hated everything that came with fame. "Begin the Beguine was one of his biggest hits, one that he had to play over and over to his chagrin. And it certainly wasn't his best recording.
So why is "Begin the Beguine one of the best records of the Swing Era? Because it is simply one of the greatest pop songs ever recorded. It's the perfectly sculpted fox trot tempo that coaxed people on the dance floor. It's also the crisp call and response between the reeds and horns and Shaw's sublime solo. In short, "Begin the Beguine sums up all that was great about the Swing Era, all from a song that wasn't even supposed to be a big hit.
Cole Porter, the composer of "Beguine, wrote the song after a stop at Martinique on a cruise around the world. Porter heard the beguine rhythm and adopted it for a huge production number for his new musical Jubilee. At 108 bars, it was an extraordinarily long song. When Moss Hart heard it for the first time he said, "I thought it had ended when he was halfway through.
When it opened it 1935, Jubilee was a flop. However, "Beguine was the one song that stuck out in reviewers' minds. The Times for one found "hints of distant splendors in the melody. Reportedly, Porter was only miffed that nobody cared for "Just One of Those Things, another song from the show.
However, by 1938 fans were asking Shaw if he knew how to play "Beguine, and Shaw asked his arranger Jerry Gray to come up with a chart for the popular tune. Gray's original version stuck with the beguine rhythm, but Shaw didn't feel it would work for the ballroom crowd. According to guitarist Al Avola, Shaw kept Gray's chords and changed it to a swinging four-four time called "bending the Charleston. "We played it that night at the Roseland State Ballroom, Avola reported, "and the first time we played it we could just feel the vibrations. We knew it was going to be big.
However, "Beguine wasn't thought to be a big hit by the bigwigs at Bluebird, the record company Shaw had recently signed with. During that same year Shaw wanted it as a B side to "Indian Love Call, but recalled, "the recording manager thought it was a waste of time and only let me make it after I had argued it would make a nice quite contrast to 'Indian Love Call.'
It wasn't long before record buyers began to flip over the record to play the B side, and "Beguine quickly overshadowed every hit from that year. It sold millions of copies, was featured on jukeboxes around the world and, as Shaw said, "that recording of that one little tune was the real turning point in my life.
It was a turning point in more ways than one. Although it brought Shaw success, it also marked a period where he grew to loathe the public that demanded that he play it night after night. Shaw had no qualms about spitting venom when given the chance. Later on in the New York Post Shaw declared, "I hate the music business. I'm not interested in giving the public what they want...Autograph hunters? The hell with that. They aren't listening. Only gawking. My friends, my advisors tell me that I'm a damned fool. 'Look here,' they shout at me. 'You can't do that. These people made you.' You want to know my answer? I tell them if I was made by a bunch of morons, that's just too bad. Surly and disgruntled until the end of his life, in 1996 he told an NPR interviewer that his preferred epitaph was, "Go away.
It's easy to see where Shaw's frustration originated. He was an accomplished musician who even Goodman's ardent fans admitted was a brilliant player. He had aspirations to record classical music and was able to sit in quite comfortably with symphony orchestras, and his later bands swung hard while featuring daring improvisations and inventive charts. But most importantly his playing featured an unswerving melodic sense and a facility in every register. No one put it better than Whitney Balliett, who wrote that "his solos, whether embellishments of the melody or full-tilt improvisations, were faultlessly structured. He had a way of playing the melody that suggested that this is the way it should sound...he demonstrated considerable emotion on an instrument that resists it.
Shaw titled his autobiography The Trouble With Cinderella, and his life was a Cinderella story if there ever was one: a young, Jewish kid records a neglected song and rides it to fame and fortune. The success of "Beguine led to a year where Shaw produced some of the best music of the era, and temporarily dethroned Goodman as the King of Swing in the Down Beat poll that year. It's puzzling why such a talented performer would suddenly decide to leave music behind him, but there's no doubt that Shaw, with his adventurous approach and devil-may-care attitude gave us some undeniable gems like "Begin the Beguine. .
McDonough, John. "End the Beguine: the Unapologetic Genius of Artie Shaw 1910-2004. Down Beat, vol. 72 no. 3, March 2005.
Schuller, Gunther. The Swing Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
The Swing Era: 1938-1939. Jay Gold, ed. New York: Time Life Records, 1970.
White, John. Artie Shaw: His Life and Music. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004.