SONG: Autumn Leaves
ARTIST: Jo Stafford
Listen to it here:
“Autumn Leaves” was composed by Joseph Kosma, with original lyrics by Jacques Prevert (French lyrics) and later English lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Joseph Kosma was a Hungarian composer who met Jacques Prevert in Paris. They collaborated on a few songs and eventually, Les Feuilles mortes (“The Dead Leaves”). When Johnny Mercer wrote the English lyrics, he changed the title to the more well known “Autumn Leaves”. As Mercer was a partner in Capitol Records at that time, he was able to use his connections to convince Capitol recording artist Jo Stafford to make the first ever English-language recording in July of 1950. Stafford’s recording was only the beginning as other leading vocalists of the day continued to record the song for the remainder of the decade, including Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Doris Day, and Frank Sinatra. The song was also quickly adopted by jazz artists including Artie Shaw, Stan Getz, Erroll Garner, Duke Ellington, and Cannonball Adderly with Miles Davis. Today, the piece is considered one of the most important jazz standards, and the eighth most-recorded tune. It’s also often one of the first tunes that students learn when they’re learning to improvise, thanks to its relatively simple and often imitated chord progression.
Jo Elizabeth Stafford was a classically trained singer, and occasional actress whose career spanned 50 years. Her musical life started at age 12 when she performed in a vocal trio with her two older sisters called The Stafford Sisters. In 1938, the Stafford sisters were cast in the movie Alexander’s Ragtime Band, and it was there that Stafford met the future members of her group The Pied Pipers and became their lead singer. Bandleader Tommy Dorsey hired them a year later to perform back-up vocals for his orchestra.
She soon began singing solo with Dorsey, recorded pop standards for Capitol Records, and worked with the United Service Organizations giving concerts for soldiers during World War II. Her nickname on this concert tour was “G.I. Jo”. After the war, Stafford maintained her varied career by hosting an NBC radio series, appearing in TV specials, including two series called The Jo Stafford Show, and developing a comedy routine with her husband Paul Weston, where they portrayed two incompetent lounge singers. Stafford’s career in the music industry continued into the 1980s, though she retired from performing in 1960.
- Autumn Leaves was originally composed as a pas-de-deux duo choreographed dance for a French film
- This is the eighth most recorded jazz standard in history
- Johnny Mercer wrote the English lyrics in 15 minutes
This is not my first foray in Autumn Leaves, but maybe embarrassingly my first listen to Jo Stafford, and I have to say, she has a really beautiful voice! She has kind of that early code-era MGM musicals type of texture to her voice. Like a better Judy Garland (sorry Judy). I am definitely more familiar with jazzier versions of this song – lots of brassy trumpet, tinkly piano, brushes on the snare drum, so this one is a departure for me, and I actually really like it! Probably thanks to how warm Jo’s voice is. I think she does a good job of showing the right amount of emotion, because it would be quite easy to slip in corny and sappy territory with this song, especially with the heavy orchestral accompaniment, which I don’t hate. I was also unaware that the song was originally French! I find myself hurrying to my record collection to see if my Edith Piaf albums have her version (they don’t!), but now listening to her version I think I need to add it to my collection! I would have loved to hear an early Serge Gainsbourg version of this too, but I’ll save my love for Serge for a future post. Anyway, in conclusion, I like this version of this song! But I don’t love it.
This was kind of a weird listen for me. I know this song as a jazz standard, but there’s nothing particularly jazzy about this 1950, heavily orchestrated version. This version really does sound like something taken from the French original, and if you want to hear a great French version, take a listen to Edith Piaf’s version, which is definitely one of my favourites ever. However, I do like Jo Stafford’s unadorned, melancholy voice. A lot of different emotions really come out in this version, more so than many others and you can hear a clear progression from melancholy, to hopeful, to happy, to dejected. Jo Stafford chose to sing a very simple, unburdened interpretation, without overwrought emotions and ornamentation and I think this song is all the stronger for it. I think the orchestration is what bothers me. But, if this version popularized the song that would become many budding jazz musicians’ first foray into improvisation, then I have to give it some respect.
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song:
Holly’s favourite vocal version – Edith Piaf:
This version is from a Cannonball Adderly album, and features Miles Davis and is probably my favourite instrumental interpretation:
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Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist: