Artie Shaw overcame anti-Semitism to become bandleader, superstar

thousand oaks | Artie Shaw, the clarinetist and bandleader whose recording of “Begin the Beguine” epitomized the Big Band era, died at age 94 on Dec. 30.

Arthur Jacob Arshawsky was born in New York in 1910 to a financially strapped family of immigrant dressmakers. According to his autobiography, he was a shy youth made more so by the anti-Semitism he encountered growing up in New Haven, Conn. This may have also been the reason he changed his name.

At his peak in the 1930s and ’40s, Shaw ranked with Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller as musicians whose swinging tunes kept a generation jumping and jittering.

He was frequently in competition with Goodman, another prominent Jewish band leader.

Shaw died at his home. He had long suffered from diabetes and likely died of complications of the disease, said Larry Rose, his personal assistant since 1993. “He just reached a point where he was tired of fighting. He wasn’t able to really enjoy life anymore,” Rose said.

Shaw’s attorney and longtime friend Eddie Ezor said he had been in declining health for some time.

His band’s recording of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” topped the charts for six weeks in 1938 and made Shaw famous at age 28.

Among his other hits, some with his big band and some with his quartet, the Gramercy Five: “Frenesi,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Nightmare,” “Back Bay Shuffle,” “Accent-tchu-ate the Positive,” “Traffic Jam,” “They Say,” “Moonglow,” “Thanks for Ev’rything,” “Summit Ridge Drive” and “My Little Nest of Heavenly Blue.”

“You were sort of awed by him,” said pianist Hank Jones, who played with the Gramercy Five during the 1950s. “He was never satisfied until he was doing the very best he could do and he wanted the same from those around him.”

Another famous roster: his wives. They included actresses Lana Turner (wife No. 3, 1940), Ava Gardner (No. 5, 1945), and Evelyn Keyes (No. 8, 1957) and novelist Kathleen Winsor, author of the 1944 best-seller “Forever Amber” (No. 6, 1946).

After his first burst of stardom, his 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 got two Academy Award nominations for his musical contributions — for best score and best song (“Love of My Life”).