Begin the Beguine (1956)

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Cole Porter
Cole Porter

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"Begin the Beguine" is a song written by Cole Porter (1891–1964). Porter composed the song at the piano in the bar of the Ritz Hotel in Paris. In October 1935, it was introduced by June Knight in the Broadway musical Jubilee produced at the Imperial Theatre in New York City.

Based on the title dance, the song is notable for its 108-measure length, departing drastically from the conventional thirty-two-bar form. Where a typical "standard" popular song of its time was written in a fairly strict 32-measure form consisting of two or three eight-measure subjects generally arranged in the form A-A-B-A or A-B-A-C, "Begin the Beguine" employs the form A-A-B-A-C1-C2 with each phrase being sixteen measures in length rather than the usual eight. The final "C2" section is stretched beyond its 16 measures an additional twelve bars for a total of 28 measures, with the twelve additional measures providing a sense of finality to the long form.

The slight differences in each of the "A" sections and the song's long phrases to start with coupled with having the final elongated "C2" section at the end of the song make for it being a song of unique character and complexity. The fact that the song's individual parts hold up melodically and harmonically over such a long form also attests to Porter's talent and ability as a songwriter.

Porter once said of the song, "I can never remember it—if I want to play I need to see the music in front of me!" 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."[1]

Probably due to its exceedingly long form and not being "conventional" (i.e., thirty-two-bars) the song made little impact with regard to general popularity. Three years later, however, bandleader Artie Shaw wrote an arrangement of the song in collaboration with his right-hand Arranger / Orchestrator Jerry Gray.

Upon entering the recording studio after signing a new recording contract with RCA Victor records in the summer of 1938, Shaw called up "Beguine" to be the first of six tunes he would record at his initial recording session on July 24. Until then Shaw's band had been having a very 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.

Whatever the case, the release of Shaw's recording of "Beguine" skyrocketed him and his band to fame and popularity exceedingly fast. The recording, indeed, became one of the most famous and popular anthems of the entire Swing Era. At the time, though, recording managers at RCA Victor had no interest in Shaw recording the song and it was only as a result of Shaw's pleading that they allowed him to record it.

RCA's pessimism with the whole idea of recording the long tune "that nobody could remember from beginning to end anyway" sealed its fate as being released on the "B" side of the record it appeared on. Shaw's persistance to record it was justified, though, and it became a best-selling record in 1938 by Artie Shaw and His Orchestra issued by Bluebird Records as catalog number B-7746 B. Subsequent re-releases by RCA Victor as catalog number 20-1551[2] and other releases on LPs, tapes and CDs have kept the recording readily available continuously to the present ever since its initial release.

Later on, when composer Cole Porter met the by-then famous bandleader, he jokingly remarked to Shaw, "I'm glad to finally meet my collaborator." Shaw reportedly replied, "Does this mean I get half of the royalties?"

A beguine is a spirited ballroom dance. Since "begin" and "beguine" are often pronounced the same by some people, it is common to see the song's title misspelled as "Begin the Begin", as when used satirically by R.E.M. as the title to a track on Lifes Rich Pageant.

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