Oscar-nominated clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw, whose recording of “Begin the Beguine” epitomized the Big Band era, died Thursday at his home in Thousand Oaks. He was 94.
Shaw had long had diabetes and likely died of complications of the disease, said Larry Rose, his personal assistant since 1993.
At his peak in the 1930s and ’40s, Shaw pulled in a weekly five-figure salary and ranked with Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller as the bandleaders who made music swing. But he largely left the music world behind in the mid-’50s and spent much of the second half of his life writing and following other pursuits.
His band’s recording of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” was intended to be the B side of the record. Instead, it became a huge hit, topping the charts for six weeks in 1938 and making Shaw famous at age 28.
Among his other hits, some with his big band and some with the Gramercy Five (comprising players from the bigger group): “Frenesi,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Nightmare,” “Back Bay Shuffle,” “Accent-tchu-ate the Positive,” “Traffic Jam,” “They Say,” “Moonglow,” “Stardust,” “Thanks for Ev’rything,” “Summit Ridge Drive” and “My Little Nest of Heavenly Blue.”
He composed some of his songs, such as “Interlude in B Flat,” a 1935 tune that featured an unusual combination of clarinet, strings and drums.
He worked with such jazz legends as Buddy Rich, Mel Torme, Gordon Jenkins and, at a time when most white bandleaders refused to hire blacks, Billie Holiday, whom he hired to sing with the band on tour.
Another famous roster: his wives. They included actresses Lana Turner (wife No. 3, 1940), Ava Gardner (No. 5, 1945), Evelyn Keyes (No. 8, 1957) and novelist Kathleen Winsor, author of 1944 bestseller “Forever Amber” (No. 6, 1946).
“None of them were real marriages,” said Shaw. “They were legalized affairs. In those days you couldn’t get a lease on an apartment if you were living in sin.”
Entertainment mogul Merv Griffin, himself a former big band crooner, praised Shaw’s musical accomplishments Thursday and said his romantic exploits made him the “Howard Hughes of the clarinet.”
After his first burst of stardom, Shaw’s good looks made Hollywood come calling. It was while filming “Dancing Coed” in 1939 that he met Turner. In 1940, he appeared in another musical, “Second Chorus,” and received two Oscar nominations for his musical contributions — for score and song (“Love of My Life”).
Shaw, however, eventually chafed at his stardom and loss of privacy. A volatile and superbly intelligent man, he had little use for signing autographs and once caused an uproar by called jitterbugging fans “morons.” He later said he was just referring to the rowdy ones.
Left it all behind
He walked away from the biz for a short time in 1939 (“I got miserable when I became a commodity,” he said), and put down his clarinet for good in 1954, saying his search for unattainable perfection was making him miserable. He lived in Spain for a time, operated a dairy farm and turned to literature full-time; he was a voracious reader from childhood and had produced an autobiography, “The Trouble With Cinderella,” in 1952.
Shaw put out two collections of short fiction, “I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead!” (about disintegrating marriages) and “The Best of Intentions.” He spent years working on a autobiographical novel tracing the rise of a young jazz musician.
Shaw left a planned boxed set of his work incomplete when his health began to deteriorate after he broke his left leg in 1995.
Shaw was born Arthur Arshawsky in New York City in 1910; his immigrant parents struggled to earn a living in the clothing business.
He began his professional career while still in his teens, first playing saxophone, then switching to clarinet to take advantage of a job opportunity.
By the time he was in his early 20s, he was a highly paid member of a CBS radio orchestra. After the first of his many retirements from the music business, he returned to New York and began assembling his first orchestra. “Begin the Beguine” and fame followed not long afterward.
He enlisted in the Navy during WWII and wound up spending most of his time leading a band, giving shows for the troops.
His only musical activity in recent years was conducting a revival band he organized in the early 1980s, featuring arrangements Shaw’s bands had used in the past. He did not play his clarinet.
Shaw was often asked about his supposed rivalry with fellow clarinetist Goodman. He said: “Benny, who was every bit as dedicated as I was, wanted to be an instrumentalist — he was a superb technician — while I wanted to be a musician. I think my mind was more complex than his.”
Funeral arrangements were pending, but public services were expected to be held in early January in Westlake Village, his assistant said.