French Connection: The Story Behind Johnny Mercer’s “Autumn Leaves”

French Connection: The Story Behind Johnny Mercer’s “Autumn Leaves”

Savannah native Johnny Mercer, widely regarded as one of America’s greatest songwriters and lyricists, wrote over 1,400 songs during his career including “Moon River,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Blues In The Night” and “Come Rain or Come Shine.”

One of his oft-recorded standards, “Autumn Leaves,” originated in 1945 as “Les Feuilles Mortes” (translated as “dead leaves”), a poem written by French screenwriter and poet Jacques Prévert for a ballet. A year later, Hungarian-French composer Joseph Kosma set the lyrics to music for its inclusion in Marcel Carné’s film Les Portes De La Nuit, a moody drama depicting post-World War II Paris. The film starred Yves Montand, the singer and actor who had been discovered by Édith Piaf, who made the song a part of his repertoire for the rest of career.

In his 2004 biography, Portrait of Johnny: The Life of John Herndon Mercer, author Gene Lees explains that in 1949, the song came to the attention of Michael Goldsen, an executive in charge of publishing at Capitol Records (the label co-founded by Johnny Mercer in 1942). He optioned it with the French publisher, was given three months to come up with English lyrics and convinced Mercer to write them. Lees shares Goldsen’s recollection:

I waited a couple of months. Finally it had, like, three weeks to go, and no lyric. I said, ‘Hey, John, I’ve only got three weeks to go and I lose the song.’ He said, ‘I’m going to New York on Friday. I’ll write it on the train and send it to you from New York. You’ll have it within a week. Pick me up and take me to the train station.’ They lived on De Longpre. I was delayed. I was fifteen minutes late, but we had time. I saw Johnny on the porch, and he’s nailing something to the door. I said, ‘Hey, John, I’m sorry I’m late, but we’ve got plenty of time.’ He said, ‘I thought maybe you had an emergency. While I was waiting, I wrote the lyrics.’ We got into the car and he read me the lyric. Tears came to my eyes. Everybody I played that song for flipped out.

Jo Stafford, a Capitol artist, was the first to record “Autumn Leaves” with Mercer’s lyrics. Over the decades, pop and jazz interpretations of the song have been recorded by artists including Nat King Cole, who had a #1 hit with it in 1955, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Eartha Kitt, Sarah Vaughan, Artie Shaw, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Cannonball Adderly and Jackie Gleason, among others. The haunting version below was recorded by the late singer/songwriter Eva Cassidy at the Blues Alley jazz supper club in Georgetown, DC, on the Jan. 3, 1996.

To learn more about Johnny Mercer, visit the Johnny Mercer Collection online at the Special Collections Library, Georgia State University.

To learn more about Johnny Mercer, visit the Johnny Mercer Collection online at the Special Collections Library, Georgia State University.

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