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."
Artie Shaw version
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.
In July 1939Chick 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 3 April 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 31 January 1969.
Eddie Heywood and his orchestra recorded a single version in 1944.
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.
^, 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 schönRoberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. p. 403. ISBN1-904994-10-5.