Arts and Leisure

The Jewish, New Haven Roots of ‘Begin the Beguine’

The popular song Begin the Beguine became the defining anthem of the Swing Era because of two men formed by New Haven, Conn. : Artie Shaw, the son of Jewish immigrants and Cole Porter, who said the secret to his hits was writing ‘Jewish songs.’

Begin the Beguine

Artie Shaw

Artie Shaw

Porter wrote the unusually long and complex Begin the Beguine in 1935 aboard the ocean liner Franconia while cruising between Kalabahi, Indonesia, and Fiji. Artie Shaw made it a World War II classic when he recorded it in 1938 with RCA Victor. Shaw was then a struggling bandleader looking for a hit, and he got it with the wildly popular recording.

Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell danced to it in Broadway Melody of 1940 (watch them here). Benny GoodmanTommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller recorded it as an instrumental. Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald sang it. And German Expressionist Max Beckmann even named a painting Begin the Beguine in 1946.

The song’s popularity continued well after the Swing Era ended.

President Bartlett sang it in a West Wing episode, the Beatles mentioned it in Yellow Submarine and Johnny Mathis recorded a disco version in 1979.

Julio Iglesias had a No. 1 hit with it in the UK in 1981 (following Queen’s Under Pressure), and then  Haruki Murakami wrote a short story about how sea turtles found Iglesias’ recording unbearable.

Artie Shaw

Artie Shaw was born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky in New York City on May 23, 1910. His family moved to New Haven, where he grew up. He started playing saxophone at 13 and left home at 16 to tour with a band as a clarinet player. His career was floundering when he insisted on recording Begin the Beguine to a skeptical RCA producer who said it was a song ‘nobody could remember from beginning to end.’ He put it on the B side of Indian Love Call.

It sold millions of copies, more than any instrumental recording in history.

Cole Porter at Yale

Cole Porter at Yale

Artie Shaw is best known for the women in his life. He married eight different wives, including Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, dated Judy Garland and hired Billie Holiday as a vocalist.

His marriages overshadowed his extraordinary musical career. Shaw sold more than 100 million jazz records, but also performed classical music with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.

Cole Porter

Cole Porter, the only son of a wealthy Protestant family, grew up in Peru, Ind. He studied classical music from a young age, but became one of the preeminent songwriters for the Broadway musical stage. Born June 9, 1891, he went to Worcester Academy in Massachusetts in 1905. He brought an upright piano to school and found he could make friends easily by entertaining them. In 1909 he entered Yale, where he wrote 30 songs, including football fight songs still played today.

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.’

Porter wrote many enduring hits with clever, sophisticated lyrics.  In You’re the Top he rhymes ‘Mahatma Gandhi’ with ‘Napoleon Brandy.’ In the film High Society, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby sing Did You Evah. Porter’s duet has a classic double entendre, “Have you heard that Mimsie Starr, She got pinched in the As-tor bar.”

I Get A Kick Out of You included the racy lines,

Some get a kick from cocaine
I’m sure that if
I took even one sniff
That would bore me terrif-
Ically, too
Yet, I get a kick out of you

‘Cocaine’ got changed to ‘perfume from Spain’ in some later versions.

Cole Porter died on October 15, 1964. Artie Shaw died Dec. 30, 2004.

Listen to Artie Shaw play Begin the Beguine by clicking here.

This story was updated in 2020.

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