I have a new song stuck in my head that at least has the virtue of being seasonally appropriate, “Autumn Leaves” was originally titled “Les Fueilles Mortes,” which means “Dead Leaves”. The music was written by composer Joseph Kosma – a Hungarian-French composer – with the music set to a poem by poet and screenwriter Jacques Prevert. It was written in 1945 and officially introduced by Yves Montand in the 1946 French film Les Portes De La Nuit (released in America as Gates of the Night).
The song was not well known in America, however, until 1949, when Johnny Mercer rewrote the lyrics in English and Jo Stafford recorded the song. It received modest attention, but according to JazzStandards.com really became a popular standard in 1955, when pianist Roger Williams recorded an instrumental version that was a number 1 hit.
The song was then used in1956 for the movie Autumn Leaves – thus titled to capitalize on the popularity of the song – that starred Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson. The song plays over the opening credits and is sung by Nat King Cole.
The song in the original French has someone reminiscing about how much they love someone, who has parted from them. The singer is comparing life and memories to fallen leaves, which can be blown away, but the singer has not forgotten yet. But there seems to be a shade of sadness, as though even those memories will be blown away inevitably, just as the two lovers were. The English version, written by Johnny Mercer, is a simplified version of the song, about how the singer misses someone most during the fall. There is less imagery of how the memories will blow away and a more general Autumnal sadness with all its inherent nostalgic imagery.
Here is Yves Montand’s version that was introduced in Les Portes De La Nuit. I don’t understand French, so I’m not sure what the man is talking about before the song begins. The song begins officially at 0:50 in the video.
Doris Day is without doubt one of my favorite singers. This version was recorded in 1956, a year after the song became popular because of the pianist Roger Williams.
And here is Roger Williams’ version. I’m not sure I’m a fan, though. It lacks that reflective, wistful quality I like in Day’s interpretation. Frankly, it sounds florid and melodramatic.
I have to include Nat King Cole, who had a hit version in 1956.
And just to mix it up a little, Eva Cassidy does a more quiet, soulful rendition in 1996 which I found very moving.
To end things, Andrea Lundgren reminded me that Victor Borge did an absolutely hysterical comedy routine involving this song. Not to be missed.