Best Known For
Artie Shaw was known for his role as a 1930's and 1940's jazz bandleader and clarinetist, known as the "King of the Clarinet".
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Reworking the music of Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and Jerome Kern among others, Shaw made these standards swing. He scored his first big success in 1938 with his version of Porter’s “Begin the Beguine.”
Around this time,
Shaw hired up-and-coming African American jazz singer Billie Holiday as the vocalist for his band. He was one of the first big band leaders to try to integrate his group, but Holiday eventually quit after encountering racial prejudice while on the road, especially in the South. She did, however, stick around long enough to record one of Shaw’s most famous songs, “Any Old Times,” with the band.
Soon tired of all of the attention, Shaw became irritated with his fans, calling them “morons.” Shaw walked off stage in 1939 during a gig in New York City and went to Mexico. After a few months, Shaw resurfaced, returning to fulfill his contract obligations with his recording company RCA Victor. He scored a hit with a song he discovered in Mexico called “Frenesi.”
More hits followed, Shaw soon cemented his status as one of the most popular figures in swing music. His success rivaled the other big names of the time, such as Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. Since both he and Goodman were clarinetists, the rivalry was more intense between them. While he respected Goodman’s technical abilities, Shaw thought that they had very different approaches to their music. He believed that he was more focused on being innovative instead of pleasing the masses. “I was playing; he was swinging,” Shaw once said.
Whatever his intentions, Shaw’s music really struck a cord with audiences. This handsome performer also became a fixture in the gossip columns for his romances. He was able to attract the attentions of the beautiful actress Lana Turner. The two met while making the film Dancing Coed (1939). Wed in 1940, they divorced after several months together. Shaw scored two Academy Award nominations that year for his work on Second Chorus (1940)—for his film score and the song “Love of My Life.” He wrote the music for the song while Johnny Mercer created the lyrics.
In 1941, Shaw married Elizabeth Kern, daughter of composer Jerome Kern, and then shortly thereafter he joined the military. He eventually formed a band that played for the troops serving in World War II in the Pacific. Keeping up a relentless schedule, he and the band played throughout the southwest Pacific in jungles, on islands, and aboard ships. Shaw became so exhausted—some reports indicate he suffered a mental breakdown—that he received a medical discharge in 1944. Shaw and his fourth wife split up after having one son, Steven, together.
Again charming one of Hollywood’s most attractive leading ladies, Shaw wed actress Ava Gardner in 1945. The union lasted about a year. He quickly moved on to novelist Kathleen Winsor and another short marriage. In the late 1940s, Shaw continued to experiment with his music, recording classical as well as jazz pieces.
Brutally candid, Shaw wrote his autobiography, The Trouble with Cinderella: An Outline of Identity, which was published in 1952. He married again that year, this time to actress Doris Dowling.
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