Autumn Leaves (1945 song)

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"Les Feuilles mortes"
Song by Jacques Prévert and Joseph Kosma, English lyrics by Johnny Mercer
English title"Autumn Leaves"
Released1946 by Enoch & Cie (Enoch (édition musicale) [fr])
GenreChanson, pop
Composer(s)Joseph Kosma
Lyricist(s)Jacques Prévert (French), Johnny Mercer (English)

"Autumn Leaves" is a popular song based on a French song "Les Feuilles mortes" ("The Dead Leaves") composed by Joseph Kosma in 1945. The original lyrics were written by Jacques Prévert in French, and the English lyrics were by Johnny Mercer. An instrumental version by pianist Roger Williams was a number one best-seller in the US Billboard charts of 1955.

"Autumn Leaves" has become a jazz standard and it is one of the most recorded songs by jazz musicians. More than a thousand commercial recordings are known to have been released by mainstream and jazz musicians.[1][2]


Kosma was a native of Hungary who was introduced to Prévert in Paris, and they collaborated on the song "Les Feuilles mortes". The song was legally deposited in 1945, and published in 1947.[3] The song has its origin in the ballet music written by Kosma for Le Rendez-vous by Roland Petit, performed in Paris at the end of the Second World War. Large parts of the melodies are exactly the same as the ballet music,[4] which was itself partially similar to "Poème d'octobre No. 4" by Jules Massenet.[5] This portion of the tune has also been noted to be near-identical to a passage in Tchaikovsky's 1888 composition Hamlet Overture-Fantasia, Op. 67.[6][7] Marcel Carné used "Les Feuilles mortes" for the 1946 film Les Portes de la nuit (Gates of the Night), where it was sung/hummed in parts by Irène Joachim and Yves Montand.[8]

The most successful commercial recording of "Les Feuilles mortes" was by Yves Montand (Columbia) in 1949, which sold a million copies within 5 years.[3][9] Cora Vaucaire [fr] recorded it (1947 or 1948),[3][10] as did Juliette Gréco who first recorded a version in 1949.[3]

In 1950, Johnny Mercer wrote the English lyric and gave it the title "Autumn Leaves". The English lyrics are significantly shorter than the French version, consisting of only two verses. In the French original, the crucial line "C'est une chanson" starts at the 13th bar, while in English the line "the autumn leaves" starts at bar 1.[3] Mercer was a founder and partner in Capitol Records at the time, and he selected Capitol recording artist Jo Stafford to make the first English-language recording in July, 1950.[3][8]

Structure and chord progression[edit]

The song is in AABC form.[11] "Autumn Leaves" offers a popular way for beginning jazz musicians to become acquainted with jazz harmony as the chord progression consists almost solely of ii–V–I and ii–V sequences which are typical of jazz. Although it is mostly played in G minor, the original key of the composition was A minor.[2]

The song's iv7–bVII7–bIIImaj7–bVImaj7–iiø7–V7–i chord progression is an example of the circle-of-fifths progression.[12]

\relative c' {
\partial 2.
\new ChordNames {
\set chordChanges = ##t
\chordmode { r2. c1:m7 f:7 bes:maj7 ees:maj7 a:m7.5- d:7 g:m}

\new Staff {
\tempo "Medium jazz"
\key g \minor
g'4 a bes | ees1~ | ees4 f, g a | d2 d2~ | d4 ees, f g | c1~ | c4 d, e fis bes1

Roger Williams' recording[edit]

"Autumn Leaves"
Single by Roger Williams
from the album Autumn Leaves
B-side"Take Care"
Composer(s)Joseph Kosma
Lyricist(s)Jacques Prévert, Johnny Mercer
Roger Williams singles chronology
"Autumn Leaves"
"Wanting You"

Roger Williams was signed by Dave Kapp of Kapp Records when he heard Williams playing in a hotel lounge. He was asked to change his birth name Louis Jacob Weertz to Roger Williams. Williams released an album The Boy Next Door, which failed to make an impact, and then the song "Autumn Leaves". "Autumn Leaves" was recorded at the suggestion of Kapp one Friday, and Williams, who had previously thought that the song was titled "Falling Leaves", said: "The first thing that came to mind was to play all those runs down the keyboard, I tried to make it sound like falling leaves."[13] He created the arrangement that Friday and the following Saturday night, and recorded the song on Monday.[13] Williams played the tune with descending arpeggios its dominant feature, backed by an orchestra conducted by Glenn Osser. The first recording was just over 3 minutes long, and Kapp suggested that it be sped up to keep it under 3 minutes, which Williams duly did.[13]

The song became a number-one hit in the U.S. in 1955,[8] the first piano instrumental to reach number one.[14] It stayed at No. 1 for four weeks in the bestsellers chart. The song is said to have sold two million copies around the world,[15] and it remains the best-selling piano record of all time.[16]

Kapp released a new version with choral and orchestral backings to celebrate its 10th anniversary in 1965.[17]


Chart (1955) Peak
US Best Seller in Stores (Billboard)[18] 1
US Cash Box[19] 1

Other versions[edit]

The song was recorded steadily throughout the 1950s by leading pop vocalists including Steve Conway (1950),[20] Bing Crosby (1950), Steve Allen (whose rendition was the only other version to chart in 1955),[21] Nat King Cole (included in the 1955 album re-release of Nat King Cole Sings for Two in Love, and used in the 1956 film Autumn Leaves whose title was inspired by the song), Doris Day (1956), and Frank Sinatra (1957). It was also used in the 1959 film Hey Boy! Hey Girl! performed by Louis Prima and Keely Smith.[3]

A half-French half-English version was released by Édith Piaf in 1951.

The song was also quickly adopted by many instrumental jazz artists, including Artie Shaw (1950); Stan Getz (1952); Cal Tjader in his 1954 album "Mambo with Tjader" with Cal Tjader's Modern Mambo Quintet;[22] Ahmad Jamal (1955); Erroll Garner in his 1955 album Concert by the Sea, Duke Ellington (1957, Ellington Indigos); Cannonball Adderley in his 1958 album Somethin' Else featuring Miles Davis who also recorded it live for Miles Davis in Europe in 1964; Vince Guaraldi (1958); Bill Evans (1959, Portrait in Jazz); John Coltrane (1962); and Ryo Fukui (1976).[3][8] It became the signature tune of Ben Webster in his later career. A few jazz vocalists have also recorded the song, including Sarah Vaughan in her 1982 album Crazy and Mixed Up.[3]

Composer Terry Riley has written a contrafact of the song (1965), using the same principle of small repetitive cells of melody and rhythm first put in use in his breakthrough piece, In C (1964).[23]

In 2012, jazz historian Philippe Baudoin called the song "the most important non-American standard" and noted that "it has been recorded about 1400 times by mainstream and modern jazz musicians alone and is the eighth most-recorded tune by jazzmen."[2]

The song is the official corps song of the Bluecoats Drum and Bugle Corps.[24]


  1. ^ "Autumn Leaves". AllMusic. Archived from the original on July 12, 2019.
  2. ^ a b c Baudoin, Philippe (2012-07-01). "History and Analysis of 'Autumn Leaves'". Retrieved 2021-12-14.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Franz Kerschbaumer; Laurent Cugny; Luca Cerchiari, eds. (2012). Eurojazzland: Jazz and European Sources, Dynamics, and Contexts. Northeastern University Press. pp. 110–117. ISBN 9781584658641.
  4. ^ "EXTRAIT] LE RENDEZ-VOUS by Roland Petit (Alice Renavand & Mathieu Ganio)". Opéra national de Paris – via YouTube.
  5. ^ Massin, Brigitte (1999). Les Joachim: Une famille de musiciens. Paris: Fayard. ISBN 978-2213604183.
  6. ^ Gioia, Ted (2021). The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire. Oxford University Press. pp. 30–31. ISBN 9780190087173.
  7. ^ "Tchaikovsky: Hamlet, Overture-Fantasia, Op. 67". Leonard Bernstein – via YouTube.
  8. ^ a b c d Gioia, Ted (2012). The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire. New York City: Oxford University Press. pp. 24–26. ISBN 978-0-19-993739-4.
  9. ^ "Les Feuilles mortes; Yves Montand". Bibliothèque nationale de France. 1950.
  10. ^ "Cora Vaucaire / Ses Plus Jolies Chansons". EPM.
  11. ^ Spitzer, Peter (2001). Jazz Theory Handbook, p. 81. ISBN 0-7866-5328-0.
  12. ^ Kostka, Stefan; Payne, Dorothy; Almén, Byron (2013). Tonal Harmony with an Introduction to Twentieth-century Music (7th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. pp. 46, 238. ISBN 978-0-07-131828-0.
  13. ^ a b c Nelson, Valerie J. (October 9, 2011). "Roger Williams dies at 87; 'Autumn Leaves' pop pianist found commercial success". Los Angeles Times.
  14. ^ Anonymous. "Roger Williams". Nebraska Music Hall of Fame. Archived from the original on 2015-09-07. Retrieved 2006-11-07.
  15. ^ Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (2nd ed.). London: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd. pp. 77–78. ISBN 0-214-20512-6.
  16. ^ "Famed Pianist Roger Williams Dies at Age 87". Associated Press. October 9, 2011 – via Billboard.
  17. ^ "Kapp Launches Williams Push". Billboard. September 25, 1965. p. 16.
  18. ^ "Best Sellers in Store". Billboard. September 29, 1955. p. 30.
  19. ^ "The Cash Box Best-Selling Singles: Week ending October 29, 1955".
  20. ^ Henson, Brian (1989). First hits, 1946–1959. Colin Morgan. London: Boxtree. ISBN 1-85283-268-1. OCLC 19389211.
  21. ^ Tyler, Don (2007). Hit Songs, 1900-1955: American Popular Music of the Pre-Rock Era. McFarland. p. 334. ISBN 9780786429462.
  22. ^
  23. ^ Carl, Robert (2009). Terry Riley's In C. Oxford University Press. p. 72. ISBN 9780199717132.
  24. ^ "Bluecoats remain fan favorite after nearly 30 years". 2022-12-15. Archived from the original on 2022-12-15. Retrieved 2023-11-19.

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