The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold
I see your lips, the summer kisses
The sun-burned hands I used to hold
So go the opening bars of the immortal jazz standard “Autumn Leaves.” With autumn now in full swing, let’s get in the swing with some swingin’ versions of this timeless ballad.
Although “Autumn Leaves” is often associated with The Great American Songbook, the song isn’t entirely American. “Autumn Leaves” is based on the French tune “Les Feuilles Mortes” (which translates to “The Dead Leaves”). Composed by Joseph Kosma with lyrics by Jacques Prévert, the song was included in Marcel Carné’s 1946 film Les Portes de la nuit (Gates of the Night). In 1948, French singer Cora Vaucaire cut the first commercial recording.
The “Autumn Leaves” that many Americans know and love was penned by Johnny Mercer in 1950. Mercer wrote English lyrics after hearing the “Les Feuilles Mortes” melody and not knowing French. He reportedly wrote the lyrics in a mere 10 minutes while he was waiting for publisher Mickey Goldsen, who was running late for their meeting. According to Mercer’s biographer Gene Lees, Goldsen said “tears came to my eyes” when he first heard it.
While Mercer’s lyrics are different from the French original, they’re both somber, beautiful songs that use dead leaves as a metaphor for lost love. The original is darker, and Mercer’s is more wistful, but both are ultimately about death. (The original: The north wind takes them into the cold night of oblivion – Mercer’s: Soon I’ll hear old winter’s song)
Traditional pop vocalist Jo Stafford was the first to record “Autumn Leaves,” and Édith Piaf sang the French and English versions on a nationally syndicated radio program on Christmas Eve 1950. However, the song didn’t get a lot of attention until pianist Roger Williams recorded it in 1955. Williams had a million-seller and No. 1 hit with his arpeggio-heavy version, the first and only piano instrumental to top the Billboard pop charts.
“The first thing that came to mind was to play all those runs down the keyboard,” Williams, who died in 2011, told the Los Angeles Times. “I tried to make it sound like falling leaves.”
Williams and Mercer both claim to have made more money from “Autumn Leaves” than any other song in their catalog. The song has added to Paul McCartney’s fortune as well; his MPL Communications controls its publishing rights.
As one of the most covered jazz standards of all time, many artists have recorded a version of “Autumn Leaves,” including Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. Most notably, Nat King Cole had a big hit with it, and also recorded versions in French and Japanese.
Bob Dylan, who covered the tune on 2015’s Shadows in the Night, told AARP The Magazine: “You sing that and you have to know something about love and loss and feel it just as much, or there’s no point in doing it. It’s too deep a song. A schoolboy could never do it convincingly.”
For many jazz students, “Autumn Leaves” is among the first standards they learn to play because of its basic jazz chord progression and harmony. Austin-based jazz drummer Daniel Dufour, who spoke with 360° earlier this year, said “Autumn Leaves” is one of the first jazz tunes he learned. He told us why he didn’t include a version on his recent recording, Standards (read our review).
“It is such a beautiful song but difficult for me to want to record a version at the moment,” Dufour said. “There are so many classic recordings that I have chosen to leave ‘Autumn Leaves’ out of the mix in the studio. My favorites include Sarah Vaughan’s from Crazy and Mixed Up and Wynton Marsalis’s from Standard Time, Vol. 1. It’s a tune so many people know and play, but it’s incredibly humbling when you listen to the classic recordings.”
Now take a listen to a sampling of ten notable versions of both “Autumn Leaves” and its inspiration, “Les Fueilles Mortes.” Let autumn begin!
from the live album Concert By The Sea
from the album Where Are You?
from the album Somethin’ Else
from the album Portrait in Jazz
from the album As Is
the album Fame
from the album Crazy and Mixed Up
from the album Philosophy
from the album Collage
from the album Préliminaires
Since you went away the days grow long
And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall