Autumn Leaves (Les feuilles mortes)
This page was originally published on 5 October, 2010, but has been periodically revised and often edited since then. Latest edit: 11 August 2016.
(below, left) Joseph Kosma, Jacques Prévert, (right) Joseph Kosma
(below) Prévert in Paris, 1945
Les feuilles mortes (m. Joseph Kosma, w. Jacques Prévert)
In his article “History and Analysis of ‘Autumn Leaves’,” Philippe Baudoin says,
“Les feuilles mortes” (literally ‘The Dead Leaves’) was originally a melody composed by Joseph Kosma  as a pas de deux (choreographed duo) for the ballet Le Rendez-vous, with a plot by Jacques Prévert.  It was introduced by Roland Petit in 1945, without words. The copyright is dated February 27, 1946 and it was first published by Enoch (Paris, France) in 1947.
The complete original
lyric, not easily found in online searches, is available at the site Hommage à Jacques Prévert, here: Prévert en musique. The site’s author indicates that the poems (presumably meaning lyrics as well) included on the website are all extracted from a 1945 collection titled Paroles. See Menu principal for additional lyrics and poems, arranged by category.
The lyric begins with the refrain which is repeated twice, each time after a longer verse. I found several small changes in the repetitions as compared to the first instance (a word changed, a word removed, two commas deleted, two commas added, and a line division). A comma and the word “les” are removed from line 3 (“Et nous vivions tous, les deux ensemble”) in the repetitions. The deleted word seldom appears in lyrics for the song found in Google searches, despite the fact that it is normally sung.
Autumn Leaves, an English language version with words by Johnny Mercer, was evidently first recorded by Jo Stafford in 1950, though it’s unclear when the lyric was written.
Disagreement on the date of the Johnny Mercer lyric:
- 1947 — Wikipedia says, “The American songwriter Johnny Mercer wrote English lyrics in 1947 and Jo Stafford was among the first to perform this version.”
- 1949 — JazzStandards.com says, “In 1949 Johnny Mercer wrote English lyrics for the tune changing the original French title to Autumn Leaves.” JazzStandards also indicates that Jo Stafford was the first to record the song with the Mercer lyric.
- 1950 — In “History and Analysis of ‘Autumn Leaves’,” Philippe Baudoin says that Mercer wrote the “Autumn Leaves” lyric in 1950, at the request of the head of Capitol’s music publishing department, Michael Goldsen. The story told by Goldsen as quoted in Baudoin’s article suggests the lyric was written in a matter of minutes while Mercer was waiting for a ride to the train station.
Yves Montand sings “Les feuilles mortes” in the film Les Portes de la nuit (1946)
I presume the first verse, which mentions les feuilles mortes (dead leaves), may have been cut by the video editor of the following clip. Neither Autumn nor leaves are mentioned or referred to in the chorus, or refrain, sung by Montand here, the only metaphor being the tide erasing the footsteps in the sand made by lovers, after they are broken apart. Montand recorded the first verse elsewhere. Most of the recordings of the song up to the early 1960s that I’ve heard incorporate the first verse, including those by Lucille Dumont, c.1950; Juliette Gréco,1951; and Jean-Claude Pascal, 1962. The second verse of the poem (fourth of five sections) is used in no versions of the song that I’m aware of.
(below) Jean Vilar, as le clochard “Le Destin” (the tramp named Destiny), plays the tune on harmonica for Yves Montand (Diego)
Selected recordings of Les feuilles mortes
From Philippe Baudoin’s webpage History and Analysis of “Autumn Leaves“:
The premier recording of “Les feuilles mortes” was by French singer Cora Vaucaire (January 1948, Chant-du-Monde) or perhaps by Jacques Douai in 1947…
In his book Jacques Prévert: From Film and Theater to Poetry, Art and Song (2002), Michael Bishop says, on p. 137:
The beautiful voice of Cora Vaucaire is the first, however, to record Les Feuilles mortes, in 1948. It is, of course, a finely arranged composition by Kosma, but Cora Vaucaire’s pacing and range of power, her exquisite articulation, the vibrant intimacy she generates with such naturalness guarantee the magnificent response audiences gave her in live concert performance.
A recording by Vaucaire was one of the earliest, if not the first, to be released. It was issued in (January?) 1948 on the 78 rpm single Le Chant du Monde 1536, b/w “Deux escargots vont à l’enterrement.” The following video claims to contain the “version originale” by Vaucaire, but the date is questionable since, according to rateyourmusic.com (see previous link), the 1948 side was 3:00 in length while the length of the recording in this audio file seems to be about 2:20.
Lucienne Delyle — Columbia (France) BF 286, issued in 1949, b/w “Si tu viens danser dans mon village”
- arranged by –
- conductor –
- chorus – les
Dany Dauberson — released in 1949, according to the website “The Originals,” by Arnold Rypens
Lucille Dumont — RCA Victor (Canada) 78 rpm single “Les feuilles mortes” b/w “C’est pas banal” (56-5201, 57-0080), released in 1950
- Wikipédia (français)
- Québec Info Musique (français)
- The Canadian Encyclopedia (English) — article by Suzanne Thomas, published 07/17/07
radio transcription from The Big Show, 24 December 1950
On December 24, 1950, French singer Edith Piaf rendered both French and English versions of this song on the radio program The Big Show, hosted by Tallulah Bankhead.
In the following excerpt from a broadcast transcription, we hear, prior to and after the song, scripted dialogue involving Tallulah Bankhead, Margaret O’Brien & Ed Wynn which may or may not be performed live. The vocal by Piaf might have been performed live, as it sounds slightly different than the undated studio recording in the second video below, but I don’t believe it was because the orchestra behind her and the choral introduction sound like studio product. Alternatively, the dialogue and the song might have each been recorded for the radio program separately and combined later. Compare the first video (with dialogue) to the second (without). Each has choruses sung in two languages, first in English then in French, and finally back to English again.
(below) studio recording, date unknown
Juliette Gréco — 1951 recording and selected live performances
1951, avec André Popp et son orchestre
live performance — 24 mars 1966 (Ina.fr vidéo)
Berlin — live, 1967
live, 28 March 1968
16 February 1972 — live at Bobino, Paris (YouTube)
- 16 février 1972 — en direct de Bobino, Paris (Ina.fr vidéo) — link fixed 23 November 2015
live, c. 1972(?)
Jacqueline François avec Paul Durand et son orchestre — 1953(?)
Yves Montand – Date unknown — I don’t know how often Montand was asked to perform this song, but it must have been many hundreds of times. Some of his other live performances can be found in audio and video libraries. Details of this particular occasion are unknown to me. It seems to be what we’d call in the US a television “talk show.” While Montand appears momentarily reluctant before agreeing to sing, the presence of a free microphone resting on the table by his left hand suggests that the performance wasn’t entirely impromptu (This sequence is omitted from the present clip, replaced on 8 February 2016.). Despite seeming rather unprepared, he delivers a beautiful rendition, a cappella until the refrain, where a pianist provides minimal accompaniment.
An article by Bill DeMain at performingsongwriter.com titled Behind the Song “Autumn Leaves” notes that Montand continued to perform and record the song up until his death in 1991.
Cora Vaucaire — date unknown
Lisa Ono — from her 2003 CD Dans Mon Île
Selected recordings of “Autumn Leaves” (lyric by Johnny Mercer)
Jo Stafford with orchestra conducted by Harold Mooney — recorded on 13 July 1950, according to Second Hand Songs; issued as the A-side of Capitol F1248, b/w “Autumn in New York” (Note: Multiple videos on YouTube presently identify the same recording as that by Jo Stafford with Art Van Damme for the 1957 Columbia album Once Over Lightly. Art Van Damme was an accordionist, and the arrangement of the song for that album was quite different than that of this 1950 recording.
Stan Getz Quintet — one of two takes recorded on 19 December 1952 — musicians: Stan Getz (tenor sax), Duke Jordan (piano), Jimmy Raney (guitar), Bill Crow (bass), Frank Isola (drums)
Getz had participated in his first recording session (in Wichita Falls, TX) at age 16 in 1943 with the Jack Teagarden Orchestra. He led his first session, according to jazzdisco.org, on 31 July 1946 when the Stan Getz Quartet recorded four songs, including And the Angels Swing, and Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me.
Wikipedia notes his growing status over the next few years:
After playing for Stan Kenton, Jimmy Dorsey, and Benny Goodman, Getz was a soloist with Woody Herman from 1947 to 1949 in ‘The Second Herd’, and he first gained wide attention as one of the band’s saxophonists, who were known collectively as ‘The Four Brothers’, the others being Serge Chaloff, Zoot Sims and Herbie Steward. With Herman, he had a hit with “Early Autumn” and after Getz left ‘The Second Herd’ he was able to launch his solo career. He would be the leader on almost all of his recording sessions after 1950.
Roger Williams – 1955
Initially the public showed little interest in “Autumn Leaves.” In 1955 that changed, however, as pianist Roger Williams…recorded a million-seller, number-one hit rendition of the song that stayed on the charts for 6 months. Williams’ success opened the door… [read more]
In 1955 Williams recorded “Autumn Leaves”, the only piano instrumental to reach #1 on Billboard’s popular music chart. While many other recordings have been made of this song, Williams’ version is easily the best known and most played. It sold over two million copies, and was awarded a gold disc.
Nat King Cole – recorded 23 August 1955 and used in the Joan Crawford feature film Autumn Leaves, released in 1956
Cannonball Adderley – recorded 9 March 1958 at Van Gelder Studios, Hackensack NJ, released on Somethin’ Else, 1958
Somethin’ Else is a 1958 album by jazz musician Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, regarded as a landmark album in the hard bop and cool styles. This critically-acclaimed [sic] album is notable for the presence and prominent contributions of Miles Davis, in one of his few recording dates for Blue Note Records. Many critics and jazz fans consider Somethin’ Else to be among the greatest jazz albums of all time.
- Cannonball Adderley – alto saxophone, Leader
- Miles Davis – trumpet
- Hank Jones – piano
- Sam Jones – bass
- Art Blakey – drums
Benny Golson – from Gone with Golson, 1959
Bill Evans Trio – recorded 28 December 1959, NYC – released on Portrait in Jazz
Bill Evans Trio — recorded live 28 October 1966 in Oslo, Norway — Bill Evans: piano, Eddie Gomez: bass, Alex Riel: drums
In June 2006, while introducing himself at an allaboutjazz.com forum thread, Alex Riel said:
I had the huge pleasure to play with Bill Evans and Eddie Gomez back in 1966 when we toured Scandinavia. As I’ve explained in the Evans-thread it was of course a very memorable experience for me – and something that has meant a great deal for my carreer [sic] and for me personally. [read more]
Chet Baker – from the album She Was Too Good to Me, recorded at Van Gelder Studios, NYC 17 July 1974
Barney Kessel Trio — Live in Switzerland, 1979 — Barney Kessel: guitar, Jim Richardson: bass, Tony Mann: drums
There are multiple defects in the last minute and a half of the audio file used in the following video. Will replace it ASAP.
On Eva Cassidy’s version of Autumn Leaves:
Eva Cassidy created a sensitive and unique interpretation of Autumn Leaves, a compelling mixture of classical and blues influences. Her version has been influential, if one can judge by the number of covers in video libraries specifically citing or obviously using it as a model. These may either follow her arrangement (or a part of it), adopt a similar style, or both. A classical-sounding note pattern fingerpicked on guitar, a much slower than normal but perfectly natural tempo, powerful blues vocalizations, and a melody which due to elongation and elaboration only faintly resembles the original are among the factors which combine to make Cassidy’s version strikingly different.
At the Autumn Leaves Page of EvaCassidy.org, guitarist Keith Grimes (former lead guitarist of the Eva Cassidy Band) comments on Cassidy’s interpretation, suggesting that one of the reasons for the significant variance of her version is that she didn’t know her way around at least one of the chords played in most covers of the song.
I really like the fact that she doesn’t use the normal chords to ‘Autumn Leaves.’ There’s a set of chords that 99% of the population is out there playing, and Eva does something that’s just slightly different. It’s refreshing. I know it’s because the minor seven flat five that’s in there, that most people play, is a chord that she didn’t know.
Also on the Autumn Leaves Page at EvaCassidy.org are quotes referring to the well-known recorded performance by Cassidy at Blues Alley (in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C.) in January 1996. During a solo acoustic set, she is supported on this song by a piano break played by Lenny Williams, but it may have been the first time the two had performed the song together.
The way Chris Biondo [Cassidy recording engineer] remembers it, Lenny’s piano solo was a very spur-of-the-moment addition. “Lenny told me that when she did it live at Blues Alley, he’d never rehearsed it with her before. Eva asked him to come up and play it that night. He’d done the song a million times, but not with Eva. He took a little bit of a guess on the key. Lenny’s got perfect pitch, but it’s a little scary to just go up and come in the middle of the song on a piano solo, and not have discussed the key or the chords changes ahead of time.”
After all this time, Lenny isn’t sure if that’s the way it happened or not. “I do remember it was in a weird key, and that I was petrified that I would get the key wrong and come in wrong. It was in five flats. I didn’t know whether I should play from the beginning or not. Eva looked at me, but I was listening to what she was doing with the song and I didn’t play, but then right before the break Eva gave me another look, like, ‘You’d better come in now and play something because I don’t have a solo prepared,’ so I did. It’s a nice little part, I was going for something that was a little bit classical-sounding.”
That Eva had been suffering from unexplained health issues at the time of the performance and was diagnosed with terminal cancer several months later, that she had less than a year left to live, and that the LP Live at Blues Alley on which the recording appears was the last Eva Cassidy album released prior to her death, make the performance the more poignant.
Eva Cassidy — January 1996 — The video was
evidently reportedly  shot with a camcorder by a friend on either the 2nd or 3rd of January 1996 as she was being recorded for Live at Blues Alley.
* According to Baudoin, the melody was displaced for the second printing, making the first three notes the anacrusis, and eliminating the awkward need for an extra half bar appended to the chorus before the final four-bar section. However, if I understand correctly, the aforementioned progression would have been merely shifted on the sheet music, but otherwise unaffected by the modification.