Shaw, Artie (originally, Arshawsky, Arthur Jacob)

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Shaw, Artie (originally, Arshawsky, Arthur Jacob)

Shaw, Artie (originally, Arshawsky, Arthur Jacob), American bandleader, clarinetist, and songwriter; b. N.Y, May 23, 1910. Shaw was among the most successful bandleaders of the Swing Era as well as an accomplished clarinetist. Musically restless and temperamentally unsuited to the demands of being an entertainer, he formed and dissolved orchestras frequently, then retired permanently less than 20 years after his debut as a leader. But in the late 1930s and 1940s he repeatedly placed among the top recording and performing artists in the U.S., his major hits including “Begin the Beguine,” “Frenesi,” and “Star Dust.”

Shaw’s father, Harry Arshawsky, was a photographer; his mother, Sarah Strauss Arshawsky, was a seamstress. The family moved to New Haven, Conn., in 1916, and Shaw took up the ukulele at age ten, changing to saxophone by the age of 12. At 15 he dropped out of high school to play professionally and by the summer of 1925 was in a band led by Johnny Cavallaro that toured as far south as Fla. By 1926 he had switched to clarinet and moved to Cleveland, where he worked in the band led by violinist Austin Wylie. After three years he joined Irving Aaronson’s Commanders, then moved to N.Y, where he established himself during the early 1930s as a successful studio musician.

As early as the mid-1930s, Shaw doubted that he wanted to pursue a permanent career as a musician, also considering farming and writing as professions. But in May 1936 he made a sensational appearance at a Swing concert at the Imperial Theater in N.Y., leading a band that featured a string quartet, and he was offered the financial backing to form his own orchestra. This he did, and Art Shaw and His New Music, including the string section, made its first recordings for Brunswick on June 11, 1936, and appeared at the Lexington Hotel in N.Y.

The band struggled until March 1937, when Shaw broke it up and, in April, formed a more conventional 14-piece Swing band on the formula of more successful rivals such as Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. It took a while even for this unit to catch on, but Shaw reached the hit parade for nine weeks starting in February 1938 with “Goodnight, Angel” (music by Allie Wrubel, lyrics by Herb Magidson). Though it did not reach the hit parade, Shaw’s debut single for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label, “Begin the Beguine” (music and lyrics by Cole Porter)/“Indian Love Call” (music by Rudolf Friml, lyrics by Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II), recorded July 24 and released in August, became a massive hit, one of the first million-selling records since the onset of the Depression.

Shaw’s increasing prominence led to a major N.Y. booking at the Hotel Lincoln, beginning Oct. 26, and a feature on the nationally broadcast radio series Melody and Madness, beginning Nov. 20. In December, “Deep in a Dream” (music by James Van Heusen, lyrics by Eddie DeLange) began a 14-week run in the hit parade, followed by “They Say” (music by Paul Mann and Stephan Weiss, lyrics by Edward Heyman) and “Thanks for Everything” (music by Harry Revel, lyrics by Al Dubin), both of which entered the chart in January 1939. “I Poured My Heart into a Song” (music and lyrics by Irving Berlin) had nine weeks in the hit parade starting in July; “Comes Love” (music and lyrics by Sam H. Stept, Charles Tobias, and Lew Brown) was listed for seven weeks starting in August; and “Melancholy Mood” (music and lyrics by Vick Knight) was in the listings in October. November saw the release of the first film featuring Shaw and his band, Dancing Co-Ed, for which he wrote the music.

Shaw was absent from the bandstand periodically due to illness during 1939, and on Nov. 18 he suddenly walked out on the band, his radio program, and an engagement at the Pennsylvania Hotel in N.Y., moving to Mexico for a couple of months. By January 1940, however, he was in Hollywood filming another motion picture, Second Chorus. Shaw had been married twice by this time. His first marriage, to Jane Cams, was annulled; his second, to Margaret Allen, a nurse, ended in divorce. On Feb. 13, 1940, he married film actress Lana (Julia Jean Mildred Frances) Turner; they divorced on ce.On Sept. 12, 1941.

Shaw returned to recording with a studio orchestra in March, and on July 1 began accompanying comedians George Burns and Gracie Allen on their radio show. He organized a new touring band again using strings and debuted with it in San Francisco on Sept. 12. By then his March recording of a song he had heard in Mexico, “Frenesi” (music by Alberto Dominguez), was in release; it topped the charts in December, becoming the second-biggest hit of 1940, outdistanced only by Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.” In January Second Chorus was released, and from its score “The Love of My Life” (lyrics by Johnny Mercer) earned Shaw an Academy Award nomination. That same month his instrumental recording of “Star Dust” (music by Hoagy Carmichael, lyrics by Mitchell Parish) entered the Top Ten on its way to selling a million copies, followed in February by another million-seller, “Summit Ridge Drive” (music by Shaw), on which Shaw was accompanied by his small group, The Gramercy 5, and the Top Ten hit “Concerto for Clarinet” (music by Shaw) from Second Chorus. In March he made the Top Ten with the hit instrumental “Dancing in the Dark” (music by Arthur Schwartz, lyrics by Howard Dietz).

Notwithstanding this success, Shaw again disbanded and moved to N.Y., where he studied orchestration with Hans Burns. By September, however, he had again reorganized and launched Artie Shaw and His Symphonic Swing, scoring a Top Ten hit in January 1942 with “Blues in the Night” (music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Johnny Mercer). With U.S. entry into World War II, Shaw disbanded and enlisted in the navy, organizing a service band that played in the Pacific combat zone. Discharged in 1944, he married Elizabeth Kern, daughter of composer Jerome Kern; they had a com but divorced in 1945.

Shaw reorganized his band in the fall of 1944 and scored Top Ten hits with “It Had to Be You” (music by Isham Jones, lyrics by Gus Kahn; a reissue of his 1938 recording) in November and “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” (music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Johnny Mercer) in February 1945. His album Artie Shaw was a Top Ten hit in July.

Shaw married film actress Ava Gardner on Oct. 17, 1945. Upon their divorce in October 1946 he married novelist Kathleen Windsor, author of Forever Amber; this marriage ended in divorce in 1949. Leaving RCA Victor, Shaw recorded for Musicraft Records in 1946 with a band that featured vocalist Mel Tormé, but he again disbanded and was inactive in music until the spring of 1949, when he formed a new band that leaned toward bebop. By September he was leading a more conventional big band again, but it proved short-lived. Signed to Decca Records, he scored two Top Ten records in 1950, one co-billed with singer Dick Haymes, “Count Every Star” (music by Bruno Coquatrix, lyrics by Sammy Gallop) in August, the other co-billed with orchestra leader Gordon Jenkins, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” (music by John W. Kellette, lyrics by Jean Kenbrovin), in October.

In May 1952, Shaw published The Trouble with Cinderella, a ponderous autobiography that detailed his ambivalence about the music business and popular success. On June 12 he married for the seventh time, to Doris Dowling; they had a son and divorced in 1956. He re-formed the Gramercy 5 in October 1953 and toured with it into 1954 before breaking it up to run a dairy farm. He returned to perform with a big band briefly in 1955, then left music for good, moving to Gerona, Spain. In 1956 he married film actress Evelyn Keyes; they formally divorced in the early 1980s, having separated long before.

Shaw returned to the U.S. in 1960. He owned a gun manufacturing company, ran a film distribution and production company, lectured at universities, attempted to produce a stage adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, and wrote fiction. In 1983 he allowed an Artie Shaw Orch. to be formed under the direction of Dick Johnson and made appearances with the band, though he did not play.


Three Variations on a Theme, A Clarinet Method; The Trouble with Cinderella (An Outline of Identity) (autobiography; N.Y., 1952); I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead!(fiction; 1965); The Best of Intentions and Other Stories(fiction; Santa Barbara, 1989).


E. Blandford, A. S.: A Bio-Discography (Hastings, England, 1974); B. Korst and C. Garrod, A. S. and His Orch.(Spotswood, N. J., 1974; rev. ed. Zephyrhills, Fla., 1986).

—William Ruhlmann

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