Keeping the GAS (Great American Songbook) Flame Alive: “Autumn Leaves”

By Roger Crane the Song Scout

“Autumn Leaves” – two words that sound like a line from Haiku and, in fact, the song’s origin was a French poem “Les Feuilles Mortes,” written by Jacques Prevert. That title roughly translates to “Dead Leaves.” Prevert’s poem was set to music by composer Joseph Kosma and introduced in a 1946 French film titled Les Portes de la Nuit by actor Yves Montand, who briefly sings (and hums) it in a nightclub scene. Thereafter, the beautiful and haunting song became popular in France.

Johnny Mercer

Four years later a batch of records were sent from Paris to Johnny Mercer’s Capitol Records to see if the staff thought any of the songs or recordings were worthy of release to the US audience. Fortunately the Capitol folks realized that this song was exceptional. Mercer was given the record and a copy of the French lyrics and reportedly, while on a short train trip, wrote the poetic English lyric. Although retaining the original concept, his lyric is not a translation from the French but a new story of its own. Kosma’s melody has 68 notes and Mercer used just 58 words to match the melody. They are Mercer at his usual best with such lines as –

The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold
I see your lips, the summer kisses,
The sunburned hands I used to hold.

Little known is the fact that “Autumn Leaves” has a 16-bar verse. Unlike the chorus, it is written in 6/8 time. Although possessing a beautiful theme the verse is seldom performed. The lyrics to that verse were not written by Mercer but by Geoffrey Parsons.

Autumn leaves fall and are swept out of sight.
The words that you said have come true.
Autumn leaves fall and are swept out of sight.
So are the mem’ries of love that we knew.
The wind of forgetfulness blows them,
Into a night of regret.
The song you would so often sing
Is echoing, echoing, yet.

Two early 1950 recordings of the new song with Mercer’s lyrics were by Jo Stafford and Edith Piaf. In the succeeding 65 years there have been many hundreds of additional recordings – both vocal and instrumental – and the song is now firmly ensconced in the Great American Songbook. In 1955 Roger Williams recorded the song in his florid “piano dusting” arpeggio style and it went to number one where it remained for four weeks.

In 1956 Hollywood released a movie titled Autumn Leaves staring Joan Crawford and the theme is used throughout the film. This movie also has Nat Cole singing the song over the film’s credits. (By the way, the movie’s title was changed to Autumn Leaves due to the popularity of the song. It’s original title was The Way We Are.)

Since those early ‘50s many of the great masters of music – pop, jazz and even country – have recorded “Autumn Leaves” including pianists Bill Evans (more than once), Oscar Peterson and Keith Jarrett, Trumpeters Miles Davis (with his harmon mute) and Dizzy Gillespie (with a big band) have both recorded the song.

Vocalists, of course, love it and recordings include Frank Sinatra (with Gordon Jenkins), Mel Torme, Eva Cassidy, Doris Day, and even Willie Nelson and Placido Domingo. Interestingly, American jazz vocalist Karrin Allyson recorded it as “Les Feuilles Mortes” singing in French and then singing-swinging it in English as “Autumn Leaves” (link below). Saxophonists seem to favor the song and recordings include Stan Getz, Coleman Hawkins, Cannonball Adderley, Zoot Sims and Art Pepper who recorded it more than once, first with Warne Marsh. Some of the guitarists to record “Autumn Leaves” include Barney Kessel and Jim Hall in a beautiful duo recording with bassist Ron Carter.

Five Sample Recordings

1) An impassioned 5-minute version by the glorious Eva Cassidy, just vocal and guitar. This is from her 1996 Live at Blues Alley recording. Unfortunately, Cassidy died at only 33 (of cancer) before she became a star. She was the rarest of the rare – a truly genre-free vocalist – rock, pop, gospel, jazz, folk. (Eva just sang and to heck with labels.)

2) Bill Evans, with bassist Scott Le Faro from their 1959 Portrait in Jazz album.

3) Chet Baker, with saxophonist Paul Desmond and bassist Ron Carter from their 1974 Together – Complete Studio Recordings CD (originally from a Columbia LP She Was Too Good to Me).

4) Nat King Cole, from his 1954 Two in Love recording, with Nelson Riddle orchetra.

5) Karrin Allyson, in both French and English, from her 1996 Collage CD.

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