In his 1949 novel, The Mating Season, P G Wodehouse introduces us to Cora “Corky” Pirbright, the sister of Bertie Wooster’s boyhood friend, “Catsmeat” Potter-Pirbright. Cora is beautiful and charming, and making her way as a Hollywood actress, under the stage name Cora Starr.
Poor Cora is frequently besieged by fans. She recounts to Bertie how one particular fan had exhausted her with an in-depth knowledge of Hollywood gossip (“she even knows how many Warner Brothers there are”):
She even knows how many times Artie Shaw has been married, which I bet he couldn’t tell you himself. She asked if I had ever married Artie Shaw, and when I said No, seemed to think I was pulling her leg or must have done it without noticing. I tried to explain that when a girl goes to Hollywood she doesn’t have to marry Artie Shaw, it’s optional, but I don’t think I convinced her.
Whether marrying Artie Shaw was optional or not in Hollywood at the time, there was clearly at least a degree of compulsion. Shaw married eight times, his wives including screen legends such as, Lana Turner and Ava Gardner. At other times he dated equally legendary figures such as Betty Grable and Judy Garland. But let’s leave Shaw’s love-life aside, with the passing comment that musical ability is so often held to have aphrodisiacal effects.
Here is Shaw as bandleader and clarinettist in one of his big hits, Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine. I love the call-to-attention of those brisk staccato chords at the opening, before Shaw’s solo clarinet takes on the melody, insouciant and seductive.
Because Cole Porter was such a great lyricist, we’re often in danger of overlooking his exceptional musicianship. Porter’s deftness in turning banal colloquial phrases to poetry, his almost uncanny ability to find unexpected, but nonetheless uncontrived rhymes and his sly wit made for great comedy songs. Yet he is equally successful in love ballads, where the slickness of his writing does not, as one might expect, obtrude on the sentiments being expressed. His smartness and sophistication somehow amplify the underlying pathos. As a result, Porter’s love-songs are as moving, and as true, as any.
As for his music, at its best it provides a telling close fit for those stylish words and at times he could be as musically inventive as Kern or Gershwin. Begin the Beguine is a case in point. An elegantly crafted arch of melody which runs for its three-minute-plus length without any simple repeats. Porter here uses 16-bar units rather than the more orthodox eight which gives the whole structure a grandness and sweep. He begins with an AABA structure: an unremarkable approach which gains its character from the organic way in which the melody unfolds over those lengthy 16-bar sections. Then he surprises us by introducing a new idea (again 16 bars) which nonetheless grows entirely naturally from the preceding melodic flow. It’s a thrilling moment. He repeats this C section, but the repeat is extended to 28 bars to incorporate a short coda. I don’t know of any other pop song that runs for 108 bars.
One hundred and eight bars. That’s a long tune. If you listened to the song I suspect that the melody will be playing inside your head for days now. I don’t apologise for this. Indeed, I think you might thank me for it. Unlike most melodies that anchor themselves, maddeningly, tapeworm-like, in the mind, this one deserves a bit of welcoming brain-room. It is probably the longest ear-worm that popular music has to offer.