"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. In October 1935, it was introduced by June Knight in the Broadway musical Jubilee, produced at the Imperial Theatre in New York City.
A Beguine was originally a Christian lay woman of the 13th or 14th century living in a religious community without formal vows, but in the creole of the Caribbean, especially in Martinique and Guadeloupe, the term came to mean "white woman", and then to be applied to a style of music and dance, and in particular a slow, close couples' dance. This combination of French ballroom dance and Latin folk dance became popular in Paris and spread further abroad in the 1940s, largely due to the influence of the Porter song.
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, along with the song's long phrases and final elongated "C2" section at the end, give it 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.
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."
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 at this, 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. 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, though, 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 anthems of the entire Swing Era. Subsequent re-releases by RCA Victor (catalog number 20-1551) and other releases on LPs, tapes and CDs have kept the recording readily available continuously ever since its initial release.
After Shaw introduced the song to dance halls, MGM brought out the musical film Broadway Melody of 1940, in which Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell danced to "Begin the Beguine". 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 (now at University of Michigan Museum of Art).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 sings the title and the beginning and end of the song.
Tony Martin recorded Begin the Beguine at least twice: on March 14, 1939 for Decca Records (catalog numbers 2375a and later 25018 in 78 rpm, 9-25018 in 45 rpm) and for RCA Victor Records in the late 1940s (catalog number 20-2814, 47-3228).
In July 1939 Chick Henderson (singer) recorded a version of the song with the Joe Loss orchestra in London, on the Regal Zonophone label. The record sold over one million copies, a remarkable and almost unique achievement for the time, and did much to make the song a standard in the UK, whilst making household names of both the band and its singer.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.
Eddie Heywood and his orchestra recorded a single version in 1944.
Alys Robi made a 78 rpm version in 1944.
The Andrews Sisters recorded a single version in collaboration with Glenn Miller and his orchestra.
Larry Adler recorded a version with The John Kirby Orchestra in New York ca. 2/1944 Decca 22319.
Maurice Rocco recorded his version in the mid 1940s.
Jo Stafford released her version in the early 1950s.
Mario Lanza recorded a successful version in the late 1950s.
Berl Olswanger recorded his instrumental version on Berl Olswanger at the Piano (1953)
Pat Boone on the album Howdy! 1957
Frank Sinatra recorded a version, re-released on The Columbia Years (1943–1952).
Charlie Parker, in the album The Cole Porter Songbook (1950–54; re-released on CD in 1991)
Caterina Valente included a version on her 1956 album The Hi-Fi Nightingale.
Liberace recorded and performed a spirited version with his brother, George Liberace, on his live television show in 1956.
Ella Fitzgerald performed a version for the Cole Porter Songbook on Verve, 1956
The Flamingos performed a version on Flamingo Serenade, 1959.
Louis Prima and Keely Smith had a single version in 1961.
Al Hirt released a version on his 1961 album, The Greatest Horn in the World.
Elvis Presley recorded his own song in 1962, based on Porter's, entitled "You'll Be Gone". Presley co-wrote the original aspects of the song with his bodyguard Red West and assistant Charlie Hodge.
Andy Williams had a version in his 1964 album The Great Songs from "My Fair Lady" and Other Broadway Hits.
Tom Jones recorded a version in 1966 for his album From the Heart.
Django Reinhardt recorded several times a gypsy jazz version of Begin the Beguine.
Les Paul arranged a jazz guitar version.
Laventille Highlanders Steel Orchestra from Trinidad and Tobago, led by tuner Bertie Marshall, recorded a version on the steel pan.
Juan García Esquivel had a lounge music version of the tune.
Pete Townshend included a version in 1970 for his album Happy Birthday.
Johnny Mathis recorded an eight-minute-long disco version in 1979, as well as a samba rendition. The edited single of the disco version reached #37 on Billboard's Adult Contemporary survey in 1979.
Sammy Davis, Jr. recorded a version in 1979 for his album Hearin' is Believin'.
Julio Iglesias's 1981 version reached No. 1 in the UK Singles Chart in December 1981.
Richard Clayderman's album Music of love (1984) includes this song.
Dionne Warwick recorded a version in 1990 for her album Dionne Warwick Sings Cole Porter.
Tuck Andress recorded a version in 1990 for his album Reckless Precision.
Thomas Hampson's version on his Cole Porter album Night and Day for EMI (1991) features the original arrangements by Robert Russell Bennett, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by John McGlinn.
Michael Nesmith recorded a version in 1992 for his solo album Tropical Campfires.
Pearl Django had a gypsy jazz version in 2000 in the album Avalon.
Frank Holder recorded a bossa nova version on his album Interpretations Frank Holder and Shane Hill in 2012
Violinist Vov Dylan released this song with Accordionist Enzo Toppano in the album "Cafe Classics" released 2016
Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell danced to an instrumental version in Broadway Melody of 1940.
Deanna Durbin sang it in Hers to Hold (1943).
In the 1946 Porter biographical film Night and Day, Latin singer Carlos Ramirez performed this song.
"Begin the Beguine" was referenced in the 1968 animated movie Yellow Submarine in a conversation between the characters John and Jeremy.
It was also sung by Sammy Davis Jr. in Moon Over Parador.
Begin the Beguine was the chosen English title for Volver a Empezar (José Luis Garci, 1982), the first Spanish film to win an Academy Award in Hollywood for a foreign language movie. Garci includes another tribute to Cole Porter in another of his films, You're the One (2000).
The song is featured in the 1989 documentary The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, during the chapters in which Greenberg is drafted into the armed forces and in a part of the chapter about the relationship between Greenberg and his wife Carol.
"Begin the Beguine" is sung by actress Melora Hardin in the South Seas Club scene in The Rocketeer (1991).
An instrumental march arrangement appears on the soundtrack of Evil Under the Sun (1982).
Sheryl Crow performs the song in De-Lovely (2004), a biographical film about Porter.
Instrumental music played during a ballroom scene in the 2008 movie Australia includes "Begin the Beguine", performed by Australian clarinetist Andy Firth and the Ralph Pyle Big Band.
In Hope and Glory, the song is sung by the character Dawn (Sammi Davis) while her family is repairing windows broken during an air raid.
It is played in The Josephine Baker Story (1991).
It is used in Ballet Shoes (2007).
It is used extensively, in three different forms, in Undertaking Betty (2002).
It is mentioned in the 1989 film The Little Mermaid in the song Under the Sea.
A character in Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero (2007) refers to this song several times.
A heavily modified Mustang P51 racing aircraft called Beguine was fielded in the 1949 National Air Races, the musical score was painted in gold over the dark blue fuselage. It crashed on a nearby house in Berea, Ohio, during the race killing pilot Bill Odom and two people in the house. The National Air Races were discontinued after the accident.
The song is quoted musically and affectionately parodied in Noël Coward's tongue-twisting 1944 song Nina.
It is mentioned several times in Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex. Milton Stephanides, father of the novel's main character, Cal, plays the song on his clarinet to woo Tessie, Cal's mother.
In the short story "Julio Iglesias" by Haruki Murakami, Iglesias' recording of the song proves to be unbearable to a group of sea turtles.
Fictional Medal of Honor recipient Ernie Yost sings the song in an episode of NCIS when he proclaims his love for Artie Shaw over Benny Goodman in the episode "Call of Silence".
The song is mentioned on the television sitcom Mama's Family Season 2 Episode 1
In a sixth-season The West Wing episode called "A Good Day", President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) sings part of the song while dancing in the Oval Office with the First Lady, Abby (Stockard Channing).
The song is played aboard the Bianca Pride in Paule Marshall's novel, Praisesong for the Widow.
There is a reference to the song in a lyric in Under The Sea from Disney's The Little Mermaid when Sebastian sings "Under the sea, under the sea, when the sardine begin the beguine it's music to me".
Leland Palmer calls out the song's title after fainting in the first episode of the second season of Twin Peaks.
The song plays in the background of a scene in the 2006 South Park episode, "Smug Alert!".
Tim Curry sings begin the beguine in the song "Anything Can Happen on Halloween" from The Worst Witch (film).