“Begin the Beguine”
Composed by Cole Porter; arranged by Jerry Gray
Recorded by Artie Shaw and His Orchestra for RCA Bluebird on July 24, 1938 in New York.
Artie Shaw, clarinet, 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.
The story: This is truly a great performance of a great song by one of the titans of American Popular Song, Cole Porter. When this recording was made, Artie Shaw was still known as “Art Shaw.” This Shaw band (there had been an earlier version built around a string quartet which was a commercial failure), had been in existence for about 16 months.It was a solidly swinging and musical dance ensemble that was working steadily, though not yet profitably. Prior to making this record, Art Shaw had not made any commercial records for almost seven months. In mid-1938, the continuing existence of Shaw’s band depended on them playing as many one night stands as possible each week. Very often, even this did not cover the band’s weekly expenses, and Shaw was forced to borrow money to keep his band going.
Through a series of managerial maneuvers, Shaw was finally able to sign a one-year contract to record for RCA Victor’s budget label Bluebird in July of 1938. The first tune he recorded was “Begin the Beguine.” After studying about this for many years, I have come to the conclusion that Shaw recorded “Begin the Beguine” then only because he thought it would make a good dance band record. The people at Bluebird were certainly not as sanguine about this as Shaw. They were much more enthusiastic about the rollicking arrangement/parody of “Indian Love Call,” which they put on the “A” side of the record containing “Begin the Beguine.” I am quite certain that the arrangement Shaw’s chief arranger Jerry Gray (real name Generoso Graziano) wrote for the Shaw band on “Begin the Beguine” was tried out in ballrooms before it was recorded, and Shaw noticed that dancers seemed to like it. The tune itself came from a relatively unsuccessful Cole Porter Broadway show from 3 years before (Jubilee), and few recordings of it had been made. (Shaw is pictured at left with Benny Goodman. Their rivalry resulted in much wonderful music during the swing era.)
In addition, the form of “Begin the Beguine” is most unusual, an astonishing 108 measures. In 1938, the vast majority of popular songs contained eight measures of melody repeated three times, with an eight measure “bridge” or contrasting section, usually coming after the first sixteen measures and before the last eight, creating a thirty-two measure song. (This is the AABA 32 bar song form.) The eight bars of melody in most AABA thirty-two bar songs are what many people remember, and often can whistle. Try to whistle the melody of “Begin the Beguine.” If you get beyond eight bars, you have extraordinary musical talent.
So most indicators to most people surrounding the making of this recording were not too positive. Shaw harbored no doubts however.
The music: It appears that when Art Shaw assigned “Begin the Beguine” to Jerry Gray to arrange, he didn’t give Gray any specific guidelines as to how he wanted the arrangement on this unusual tune to unfold. Consequently, Gray delivered an arrangement that had a Latin-flavored Beguine rhythm. (The Beguine is a vigorous popular dance of the islands of Saint Lucia and Martinique that somewhat resembles the rumba.) Upon hearing this in rehearsal, Shaw immediately changed the rhythm to 4/4 meter, one of the main dance rhythms of the swing era. Although no definitive evidence exists as to what other changes Shaw may have made to Gray’s arrangement, the consensus of recollections of the musicians who were then in the Shaw band is that he did not make many. And why would he have changed anything else? Gray’s arrangement is perfect! (Shaw and Gray are pictured above right in May of 1939 when Shaw was hospitalized at Mary Clabby hospital with a serious blood disorder.)
After an four bar introduction that spots three brass “kicks” atop subtly riffing saxophones, Shaw plays the main melody of “Beguine” on his warm-sounding clarinet. Note the recurring, rhythmic saxophone motive behind Shaw. Despite the fact that this recording eventually became one of the largest selling records in American pop music history, when Shaw made it, his clarinet style was still evolving. Technically, he could do anything he wanted on the instrument by mid-1938. But he was still, at age 28, in the process of becoming a master of melodic paraphrase, and his lovely clarinet tone was in its final stages of development then. (Above left: Artie Shaw and bassist Sid Weiss.)
The next phase of this arrangement has the cup-muted trumpets playing rhythmically while the smooth-as-satin Shaw saxophone quartet of Les Robinson (lead), Hank Freeman, Tony Pastor and Ronnie Perry, carry the melody. Shaw reappears for a brief, tart transition, and then the warm open brass (led by trumpeter John Best) alternate the melody with the saxophones. The upward-moving tutti that follows is absolutely lovely: Shaw has the entire band playing with relaxed intensity through this passage. It ends with drummer Cliff Leeman’s snare drum cadence.Tenor saxophonist Tony Pastor (real name Antonio Pestritto) then has a melodic solo against a simple background rhythm, and Leeman’s strategically placed cymbal crashes. The contrast between this and what preceded it is marvelous. Toward the end of Pastor’s solo, we hear a cunning but subtle reed mix, yet another superb arranging touch by Jerry Gray. (Shaw and Pastor are pictured at right.)
Once again, Shaw provides a clarinet transition, this time moving toward what is the climax of the arrangement where the open brass sextet plays warmly and melodically, against tasty saxophone backgrounds. Yet another brief contrast follows where Shaw’s solo clarinet reminds the listener of the melody. Leeman’s cymbal crash returns the band to its former dynamic level, but now Artie plays along with the saxophones intensifying their sound. The trombone trio of George Arus (lead), Harry Rodgers, and Russ Brown then add yet another instrumental color as they play a harmonized four-bar melodic bit. (Shortly before this recording was made, Gray asked Shaw to expand the trombone section in his band from two to three so he could use it as a discrete section precisely as he does here. More sonic treats like this would follow in Gray’s arrangements for the Shaw band.) Then Shaw’s clarinet returns, weaving in and out of the other instruments for the high-note capper.
This is a superb performance where the song, arrangement, solos, and ensemble all mesh perfectly. Gray’s arrangement, which is a model of balance, shifting instrumental colors, and pacing, can justly be called a masterpiece in the swing idiom.
Digital remastering by Mike Zirpolo.
Here are links to other recordings by Artie Shaw here at swingandbeyond.com that you may enjoy: