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Autumn Leaves (Les Feuilles Mortes) (1947)

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Origin and Chart Information
Yves Montand introduced the song ‘Les Feuilles Mortes’ in the 1946 film Les Portes De La Nuit, a gloomy urban drama set in post World War II Paris.”

- JW

AKALes Feuilles Mortes (Autumn Leaves)
Rank 11
Music Joseph Kosma
Lyrics Johnny Mercer
Jacques Prevert

Composer Joseph Kosma and Jacques Prevert created one of the songs for Les Portes De La Nuit by setting a Prevert poem to music, “Les Feuilles Mortes.” In 1949 Johnny Mercer wrote English lyrics for the tune changing the original French title to “Autumn Leaves.” Not surprisingly, Jo Stafford was the first to record “Autumn Leaves.” From 1943 until 1950 she was under contract with Capitol Records, a company founded and co-owned by Mercer. Following Stafford’s recording were a number of covers including renditions by Bing Crosby, Edith Piaf, Artie Shaw, and Jo Stafford’s husband, Paul Weston.


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The Italian born, French singing idol Yves Montand introduced the song “Les Feuilles Mortes” in the 1946 film Les Portes De La Nuit, a gloomy urban drama set in post World War II Paris. Scriptwriter and poet Jacques Prevert and director Marcel Carne (1909-1996) had been responsible for a string of films spawning the French “poetic realism,” a genre upon which the American film noir movement was based. Although Les Portes De La Nuit was a commercial failure it fared much better when released in the United States several years later under the title Gates of the Night.


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Initially the public showed little interest in “Autumn Leaves.” In 1955 that changed, however, as pianist Roger Williams (1925-) (renowned for the instrumental hits “Near You” (1958), and “Born Free” (1966)) recorded a million-seller, number-one hit rendition of the song that stayed on the charts for 6 months. Williams’ success opened the door for a second spate of covers by Steve Allen, Mitch Miller, the Ray Charles Singers, Jackie Gleason, and Victor Young. These would be followed by hundreds of renditions in subsequent decades.

As the 1940’s waned so too did the public’s appetite for the Tin Pan Alley style ballad. With decreasing demand for his sophisticated talents, lyricist Johnny Mercer found himself penning words for instrumentals. In the case of “Les Feuilles Mortes,” Mercer would not have thought twice about renaming what was literally “The Dead Leaves” to “Autumn Leaves.” “The Dead Leaves” may have been an appropriate song title for the somber Les Portes De La Nuit, but it would not do for an American popular song.


More on Johnny Mercer at JazzBiographies.com

In 1956 Columbia Pictures produced a film entitled Autumn Leaves starring Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson. It is a generally well-reviewed tale of a spinster marrying a young man who has mental problems as a result of his ex-wife’s (Vera Miles) affair with his father (Lorne Green). Nat King Cole sang his hit version of “Autumn Leaves” during the credits.

More information on this tune...

Philip Furia
Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer
St. Martin's Press; 1st edition
Hardcover: 320 pages

(Furia’s biography of the lyricist devotes two pages to analysis of the song’s lyric.)
See the Reading and Research panel below for more references.

- Jeremy Wilson

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