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Begin the Beguine (1935)

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Origin and Chart Information
A Billboard DJ poll voted Shaw’s version the number three all-time recording and the number five all-time song.

- Sandra Burlingame

Rank 247
Words and Music Cole Porter

June Knight first sang “Begin the Beguine” and then danced to it with Charles Walters in the 1935 Cole Porter musical Jubilee. The song garnered little attention until Artie Shaw recorded Jerry Gray’s arrangement of the tune in 1938. Ironically, “Begin the Beguine” was recorded as the flip side of “Indian Love Call” which was intended as the hit song by the producer who objected to Shaw’s choice of the Porter composition. In fact Shaw’s version, which sold in the millions (the largest sale of any instrumental up to that time), was so well-liked that audience insistence that he play it may well have contributed to his decision to leave the music business.

 

More on Cole Porter at JazzBiographies.com
 
 

More on Artie Shaw at JazzBiographies.com
 

His rendition charted twice--once on its original release and again as a reissue. A Billboard DJ poll voted Shaw’s version the number three all-time recording and the number five all-time song. Several other versions made the charts as well:

  • Xavier Cugat and His Waldorf Astoria Orchestra (1935, Don Reid, vocals, two weeks, peaking at #13)
  • Artie Shaw and His Orchestra (1938, total of 18 weeks, six of them at #1)
  • Artie Shaw and His Orchestra (1942 reissue, two weeks, peaking at #20)
  • Eddie Heywood and His Orchestra (1945, one week, peaking at #16)
  • Frank Sinatra (1946, Axel Stordahl and His Orchestra, three weeks, peaking at #23)
 

Chart information used by permission from
Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954
 

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 Shouldn’t 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 The American 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 “I’ve Got My Eyes on You” among others.

In his autobiography Musical Stages Richard Rodgers tells of a conversation with Cole Porter who claimed to have discovered the secret to writing hit songs. “I’ll 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: 1946’s Night and Day (performed by Latin singer Carlos Ramirez) and 2004’s 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 Can’t 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.

More information on this tune...

Charles Schwartz
Cole Porter: A Biography
Da Capo Press; 1st Pbk edition
Paperback: 365 pages


(Porter biographer Schwartz tells anecdotes and analyzes the musical content of the song.)
See the Reading and Research panel below for more references.

- Sandra Burlingame

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Reading and Research
Additional information for "Begin the Beguine" may be found in:

Philip Furia
The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America's Great Lyricists
Oxford University Press; Reprint edition
Paperback: 336 pages


(2 paragraphs including the following types of information: lyric analysis.)

William G. Hyland
The Song Is Ended: Songwriters and American Music, 1900-1950
American Philological Association
Hardcover: 336 pages


(1 paragraph including the following types of information: history.)

David Ewen
Great Men of American Popular Song
Prentice-Hall; Rev. and enl. ed edition
Unknown Binding: 404 pages


(3 paragraphs including the following types of information: lyric analysis and music analysis. 2 paragraphs including the following types of information: history.)

David Ewen
American Songwriters: An H.W. Wilson Biographical Dictionary
H. W. Wilson
Hardcover: 489 pages


(1 paragraph including the following types of information: history and performers.)

Thomas S. Hischak
The American Musical Theatre Song Encyclopedia
Greenwood Press
Hardcover: 568 pages


(1 paragraph including the following types of information: summary and performers.)

Max Morath
The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Popular Standards
Perigee Books
Paperback: 235 pages


(1 paragraph including the following types of information: history and performers.)

Charles Schwartz
Cole Porter: A Biography
Da Capo Press; 1st Pbk edition
Paperback: 365 pages


(4 paragraphs including the following types of information: anecdotal. 1 paragraph including the following types of information: music analysis.)

Robert Kimball, Brendan Gill
Cole: A Biographical Essay
Overlook Press
Hardcover: 283 pages


(Includes the following types of information: song lyrics.)

Robert Gottlieb, Robert Kimball
Reading Lyrics
Pantheon
Hardcover: 736 pages


(Includes the following types of information: song lyrics.)

Roy Hemming
The Melody Lingers On: The Great Songwriters and Their Movie Musicals
Newmarket Pr; Reprint edition
Paperback


(2 paragraphs including the following types of information: history. (Page 163).)

Gerald Mast
Can't Help Singin'
Overlook Press; Rei edition
Paperback: 400 pages


(1 paragraph including the following types of information: lyric analysis and music analysis.)

Gary Giddins
Visions of Jazz: The First Century
Oxford University Press; New Ed edition
Paperback: 704 pages


(1 paragraph including the following types of information: style discussion.)
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Jazz History Notes

Pianist Eddie Heywood assembled a sextet in 1944 for an engagement at New York’s Cafe Society nightclub. At the same time he recorded a number of excellent sides for Milt Gabler’s indie label Commodore Records. A popular feature at the club was his solo rendition of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine.” The tune became Heywood’s theme song and a modest hit for Commodore.

Django Reinhardt’s version from a marathon 1949 recording session in Rome is marvelous, with fine playing by the great gypsy guitarist and his frequent cohort Stephane Grappelli.

Some musicians found the tune’s length and unusual format daunting, but the great alto saxophonist Charlie Parker was unfazed by the tune and recorded a superb Latin rhythm rendition in 1952.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian


Eddie Heywood
Begin the Beguine: 1939-1946
EPM Musique 156032

Django Reinhardt
Django in Rome 1949-1950
Jsp Records
Original Recording 1949
iTunes
Charlie Parker
South of the Border
Polygram Records 527779

iTunes
Written by the Same Composer(s)...
This section shows the jazz standards written by the same writing team.

Cole Porter

Year Rank Title
1930 8 What Is This Thing Called Love?
1930 30 Love for Sale
1932 33 Night and Day
1935 74 Just One of Those Things
1944 119 I Love You
1936 122 Easy to Love
1934 139 I Get a Kick Out of You
1936 160 I've Got You Under My Skin
1942 188 You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To
1937 209 In the Still of the Night
1944 220 Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye
1935 247 Begin the Beguine
1953 279 It's All Right with Me
1939 290 I Concentrate on You
1954 356 All of You
1950 390 From This Moment On
1938 410 Get Out of Town
1948 443 So in Love (Am I)
1934 509 All Through the Night
1953 553 I Love Paris
1938 584 My Heart Belongs to Daddy
1929 734 You Do Something to Me
1934 754 Anything Goes
1941 773 Ev'rything I Love
1928 797 Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)
1937 909 At Long Last Love
1941 910 Dream Dancing
1937 939 Rosalie
1934 940 You're the Top

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