Begin the Beguine
The Song that Started it All for Artie Shaw
The year is 1935. Close your eyes and imagine you’re on a long, white, cruise ship named RMS Franconia in the South Pacific. The oceans are calm, the air is warm, salty, and somewhat moist. During the day the sun starts life moving and like a band’s conductor controls the tempo and slows life down at just the right time. The water lapping against the bone white bow is the bluest of blues. At night the moon and stars light up the sky with a sober brightness, casting their sparkle on the mystery of the dark water below. This was the setting for Cole Porter when he first put pen to paper to allow the musical notes in his mind to flow through the ink of his pen and onto paper for the song that would be titled ‘Begin the Beguine’. On that particular day, Porter had little reason to suspect how impactful this song would be, or how many lives and destinies would be shaped and directed by the ink spots on that sheet of paper.
Songwriter Richard Rodgers wrote in his autobiography about a conversation in which Porter claimed to know the secret to writing hit songs. “I’ll write Jewish music,” he said. “I laughed at what I took to be a joke, but not only was Cole dead serious, he eventually did exactly that,” Rodgers said. He pointed to Begin the Beguine, Night and Day and Love for Sale as having ‘unmistakably eastern Mediterranean, minor-key melodies.’
( “Beguine” is pronounced: “Be-Geen” )
Through a series of circumstances the song written on that balmy day would find it’s way from the serenity of the South Pacific to the clamorous busyness of New York City. The tune was included in ‘Jubilee’, a musical comedy that opened on Broadway in October 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression. In the years that followed, the day would come when like a falling leaf in autumn, the song would land in the hands of a hardworking musician who was making a name for himself as Art Shaw. Shaw, who played both saxophone and clarinet, was hustling to make a living like most musicians in the big city. As an artist he had a natural talent for creating and sharing beauty in the world by changing ink spot notes on paper into audible music with such feeling and emotion that people had to stop what they were doing and allow themselves to get lost in the moment.
In July of 1938 Art Shaw signed a one-year contract for his band to make a record on RCA Victor’s budget label Bluebird. The first song he recorded was ‘Begin the Beguine‘, but the music execs at Bluebird were more excited about ‘Indian Love Call‘ which they put on side-A. It was this same year when a recording executive observed that “Art Shaw” sounded like “a fast sneeze” which lead to Shaw changing his name to “Artie Shaw”.
The record sold millions of copies, more than any instrumental recording in history.
What does 'Beguine' mean?
The beguine is a dance and music form, similar to a slow rhumba. It was popular in the 1930s, coming from the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean, where, in the local Creole language, beke or begue means a white male while beguine means a white female. The beguine dance is a combination of Latin folk dance and French ballroom dance, and is a spirited yet slow, close dance with a roll of the hips, a movement that was inherited from Rhumba. The Rhumba is the genre of ballroom music that became popular on the East Coast of the United States during the 1930s. The Rhumba combined American big band music with Afro-Cuban rhythms, primarily the son cubano, but also conga and rumba.
Who made 'Begin the Beguine' famous?
The Cole Porter classic ‘Begin the Beguine’ was introduced by June Knight in the Broadway musical ‘Jubilee’ in 1935. It was Artie Shaw’s 1938 instrumental version that went to #1 in the charts making the song famous.
What instruments are in 'Begin the Beguine'?
Artie Shaw, clarinet, and directing:
John Best, first trumpet; Chuck Peterson and Claude Bowen, trumpets; George Arus, first trombone; Harry Rodgers and Russell Brown, trombones; Les Robinson, first alto saxophone; Hank Freeman, alto saxophone; Tony Pastor and Ronnie Perry, tenor saxophones; Les Burness, piano; Al Avola, guitar; Sid Weiss, bass; Cliff Leeman, drums; Jerry Gray, arranger.
Artie Shaw and His Orchestra playing Begin the Beguine
Bluebird Record Label
Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell dancing to ‘Begin the Beguine’ from the movie “Broadway Melody of 1940“.
Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire in part 1 of the classical musical number “Begin The Beguine” from the 1940 movie “Broadway Melody of 1940“.
Lyrics to ‘Begin the Beguine’
When they begin the beguine
It brings back the sound of music so tender,
It brings back a night of tropical splendor,
It brings back a memory ever green.
I’m with you once more under the stars,
And down by the shore an orchestra’s playing
And even the palms seem to be swaying
When they begin the beguine.
To live it again is past all endeavor,
Except when that tune clutches my heart,
And there we are, swearing to love forever,
And promising never, never to part.
What moments divine, what rapture serene,
Till clouds came along to disperse the joys we had tasted,
And now when I hear people curse the chance that was wasted,
I know but too well what they mean;
So don’t let them begin the beguine
Let the love that was once a fire remain an ember;
Let it sleep like the dead desire I only remember
When they begin the beguine.
Oh yes, let them begin the beguine, make them play
Till the stars that were there before return above you,
Till you whisper to me once more,
“Darling, I love you!”
And we suddenly know, what heaven we’re in,
When they begin the beguine
Songwriters: Cole Porter
Begin the Beguine lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc
- “Begin the Beguine” was referenced by a character named The Boob in the Beatle’s 1968 movie “Yellow Submarine” after he fixes the Sub’s motor and quips, “I must complete my bust, two novels, finish my blueprints, begin my beguine.”
- The song title was also referenced in ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ season 1, episode 7
- The 1986 R.E.M. song “Begin the Begin” is a tongue-in-cheek reference to how so many people mispronounce “Begin the Beguine” as “Begin the Begin”
- In 1991 ‘Begin the Beguine’ is sung by actress Melora Hardin in the South Seas Club scene in the Walt Disney Pictures movie “The Rocketeer”
- “Begin the Beguine” is performed by Sheryl Crow in the 2004 movie about Cole Porter, “De-Lovely”.
- Additional references to ‘Begin the Beguine’