Begin the Beguine

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"Begin the Beguine"
Single by Artie Shaw and His Orchestra (original issues as "Art" Shaw)
A-side"Indian Love Call"
RecordedJuly 24, 1938, New York City
Songwriter(s)Cole Porter; arranged by Artie Shaw and Jerry Gray

"Begin the Beguine" is a popular song written by Cole Porter. Porter composed the song between Kalabahi, Indonesia, and Fiji during a 1935 Pacific cruise aboard Cunard's ocean liner Franconia.[1] In October 1935, it was introduced by June Knight in the Broadway musical Jubilee, produced at the Imperial Theatre in New York City.[2] Beguine is a dance and music form, similar to a slow rumba.


Musicologist and composer Alec Wilder described it in his book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900–1950 as "a maverick, an unprecedented experiment and one which, to this day, after hearing it hundreds of times, I cannot sing or whistle or play from start to finish without the printed music ... about the sixtieth measure I find myself muttering another title, End the Beguine."[3]

Artie Shaw version[edit]

At first, the song gained little popularity, perhaps because of its length and unconventional form. Josephine Baker danced to it in her return to America in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, but neither she nor the song were successful. Two years later, however, bandleader Artie Shaw recorded an arrangement of the song, an extended swing orchestra version, in collaboration with his arranger and orchestrator, Jerry Gray.

After signing a new recording contract with RCA Victor, Shaw chose "Begin the Beguine" to be the first of six tunes he would record with his new 14-piece band in his first recording session with RCA. The session was held at RCA's "Studio 2" on East 24th Street in New York on July 24, 1938.[4] Until then, Shaw's band had been having a tough time finding an identity and maintaining its existence without having had any popular hits of significance. His previous recording contract with Brunswick had lapsed at the end of 1937 without being renewed.

RCA's pessimism with the whole idea of recording the long tune "that nobody could remember from beginning to end anyway" resulted in it being released on the "B" side of the record "Indian Love Call", issued by Bluebird Records as catalog number B-7746 B. Shaw's persistence paid off when "Begin the Beguine" became a best-selling record in 1938, peaking at no. 3, skyrocketing Shaw and his band to fame and popularity. The recording became one of the most famous and popular of the entire Swing Era. Subsequent re-releases by RCA Victor (catalog number 20-1551)[5] and other releases on LPs, tapes and CDs have kept the recording readily available continuously ever since its initial release.

Later popularity[edit]

After Shaw introduced the song to dance halls, MGM released the musical film Broadway Melody of 1940. The song is one of its musical numbers, first sung in dramatic style by mezzo-soprano Lois Hodnott on a tropical set, with Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire dancing in flamenco choreography. It is continued in the then contemporary jazz style by The Music Maids, with Powell and Astaire tap dancing to a big-band accompaniment.

In short order, all the major big bands recorded it, including Harry James, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller, often as an instrumental, as in the film. As a vocal song, it also became a pop standard, beginning with Porter and Tony Martin; new interpretations are often still measured against renditions by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, and Elvis Presley did an adaptation of his own. "Begin the Beguine" became such a classic during World War II that Max Beckmann adopted the title for a painting in 1946 (which the University of Michigan Museum of Art purchased in 1948).[6]

Notable releases[edit]

External audio
audio icon You may hear Xavier Cugat and his Waldorf-Astoria Orchestra performing Begin the Beguine in 1951 Here on
  • Xavier Cugat and his orchestra recorded one of the first versions in 1935, with a stronger Latin sound than later versions. The song was recorded as an instrumental, although a vocalist (Don Reid) sings the title and the beginning and end of the song. This recording reached the charts of the day.[7]
  • Leslie Hutchinson recorded a version on April 3, 1940. This recording was given to the Indian spiritual teacher Meher Baba, who later asked that it be played seven times at his tomb when his body was laid to rest, which occurred a week after his death on January 31, 1969.[8][9]
  • Adelaide Hall's recording of the song reached #28 in the U.K. singles charts in June 1940.
  • Eddie Heywood and his orchestra recorded a single version in 1944 and this reached the USA charts in 1945 peaking in the No. 16 spot.[10]
  • Frank Sinatra recorded a version on February 24, 1946[11] and this reached the Billboard charts in the No. 23 position.[12]
  • Ella Fitzgerald included this song on her Verve release Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook in 1956.
  • Pete Townshend delivered a version of it on his 1970 album devoted to the above-mentioned Meher Baba Happy Birthday, later issued as a bonus track to his 2006 expanded version of Who Came First.
  • Johnny Mathis recorded a popular disco version in 1978.
  • Julio Iglesias's 1981 version [in Spanish] reached No. 1 in the UK Singles Chart in December 1981.[13]
  • Melora Hardin performed the song in the 1991 film, The Rocketeer. It was featured on both the original and expanded motion picture soundtracks, released in 1991 and 2016 respectively.[14]
  • Michael Nesmith recorded a version released on his Tropical Campfires album in 1992.
  • Sheryl Crow recorded a version for the 2004 film De-Lovely.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Cryer, Max. "Love Me Tender: the stories behind the world's favourite songs" (Auckland: Exisie Publishing Co., 2008), pp. 86–89
  2. ^ Rice, Jo (1982). The Guinness Book of 500 Number One Hits (1st ed.). Enfield, Middlesex: Guinness Superlatives Ltd. p. 219. ISBN 0-85112-250-7.
  3. ^ Wilder, Alec. American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900–1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), pg. 240
  4. ^ Inventory of the Artie Shaw Collection, 1910–2005 (bulk 1936–1955) Collection Number: MMS 5 University of Arizona School of Music Archived May 29, 2015, at the Wayback Machine page 15 retrieved August 24, 2014
  5. ^ "RCA Victor 78rpm numerical listing discography: 20-1500 – 20-2000". Retrieved March 29, 2014.
  6. ^ "Exchange: Begin the Beguine". Retrieved March 11, 2020.
  7. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1986). Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954. Wisconsin, USA: Record Research Inc. p. 116. ISBN 0-89820-083-0.
  8. ^ Susan Kidder Herr, "Darshan I: A Fairy Tale for Old Souls," The Awakener Magazine, vol.13, nos. 1 & 2 (1970), p. 8.
  9. ^ Fred Marks, Thoughts on Begin the Beguine, The Awakener Magazine, vol. 21, no. 2 (1985), p. 40.
  10. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1986). Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954. Wisconsin, USA: Record Research Inc. p. 211. ISBN 0-89820-083-0.
  11. ^ "Frank Sinatra Discography".
  12. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1986). Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954. Wisconsin, USA: Record Research Inc. p. 392. ISBN 0-89820-083-0.
  13. ^ , he recorded 4 versions of this song in Italian Venezia a Settembre, French Une chanson qui revient, Spanish Begin the Beguine, German aber der Traum war sehr schön Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. p. 403. ISBN 1-904994-10-5.
  14. ^ "The Rocketeer: Expanded Motion Picture Soundtrack".