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Nostalgia For a Lost Love

Autumn-Leaves
The Beatles’ 1965 song Yesterday may be the most recorded song according to The Guinness World Records, but Autumn Leaves has to rank up there pretty high, as evidenced by the number of recordings in this post. And these recordings are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Originally, Autumn Leaves was a 1945 French song entitled Les Feuilles Mortes (literally “The Dead Leaves”) with music by Hungarian-French composer Joseph Kosma and lyrics by French surrealist poet Jacques Prévert. The Hungarian title is Hulló levelek (“Falling Leaves”).

Movie poster for the film Les Portes de la Nuit

Movie poster for the film Les Portes de la Nuit


The Italian born, French singing idol Yves Montand introduced the song in the 1946 film Les Portes de la Nuit, a gloomy urban drama set in post World War II Paris. Scriptwriter and poet Jacques Prevért and director Marcel Carné had been responsible for a string of films spawning the French “poetic realism,” a genre upon that 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.

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.

Initially the public showed little interest in Autumn Leaves. Jo Stafford was among the first to perform the Mercer version. Autumn Leaves became a pop standard and a jazz standard in both in French and English, both as an instrumental and as a vocal number. There is also a Japanese version called Kareha sung by none other than Nat “King” Cole!

On December 24, 1950, French singer Edith Piaf sang both French and English versions of the song on the radio program The Big Show, hosted by Tallulah Bankhead. The Melachrino Strings recorded an instrumental version of the song in London in August, 1950.

In 1955, however, all that changed. Pianist Roger Williams recorded a million-seller, number-one hit rendition of the song that stayed on the Billboard charts for six months. Williams’ recording is the only piano instrumental to ever reach the number one position on the Billboard chart. Williams’ success opened the door for a second spate of covers by Steve Allen, Mitch Miller, Jackie Gleason, Victor Young, and the Ray Charles Singers. All of these versions charted on Billboard’s chart. These covers would be followed by hundreds of renditions in subsequent decades.

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 once again sang the song (this time in English) during the credits.

Frank Sinatra included a version of the song on his 1956 album Where Are You? Andy Williams released a version of the song on his 1959 album, Lonely Street. Raquel Bitton recorded a version in 2000 that appears on her album Raquel Bitton sings Edith Piaf. Jerry Lee Lewis released a version that is a real surprise. This version is from the unissued Caribou sessions from 1980, produced by Eddie Kilroy while Jerry Lee Lewis was with Elektra. Around forty tracks were taped at the Caribou ranch in Colorado in November and overdubs were made in 1981 and 1982, but no tracks were officially released. Listen to it and see what I mean.

In 1962, Serge Gainsbourg wrote a song entitled La Chanson de Prevert. This is a song about a song, for it is about Les Feuilles Mortes and how its power to revive memories kept dead loves alive. References to Verlaine’s Chanson d’Automne hint at its relation to classical French literature.

Greek-Cypriot recording artist Alexia Vassiliou recorded the song for her first 1996 album, In a Jazz Mood. The song also appears on Iggy Pop’s 2009 album Préliminaires as the opening track. A version by Eva Cassidy is one of the highlights of her seminal live album Live at Blues Alley (1996). The Electronic duo Coldcut recorded a cover of the song for their 1993 album Philosophy, featuring guest vocalist Janis Alexander on vocals.

And finally in the Pop field, British blues/rock guitarist Eric Clapton recorded a cover of Autumn Leaves in 2010.

In the jazz genre, this tune took almost ten years to catch on as a jazz number, and 1957 saw three excellent recordings. There were versions by Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington.

The Ellington version, taken at a very slow tempo, and featuring Ray Nance on violin is a delight. Nance’s violin playing represented almost the total opposite of his trumpet playing, and he is at his soulful best on Autumn Leaves, where he plays an exquisite, emotional solo; he then fills along with vocalist Ozzie Bailey. The album, Ellington Indigos, offered a different, more sentimental side of the Ellington ensemble and has rarely been out-of-print since it was released.

Singer/pianist Patricia Barber mesmerizes with her version of Autumn Leaves. With her rendition, the song is refurbished with a torch singer’s touch.

The 1958 Cannonball Adderley recording of Autumn Leaves has inspired generations of jazz players. The arrangement, commonly credited to Miles Davis (who is also featured on trumpet here) actually comes mostly from Ahmad Jamal. Nonetheless, this is a recording that really caught on. The following year, Bill Evans made his recorded debut with his groundbreaking trio alongside bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian. Their version of Autumn Leaves is comparably influential to the Adderley version and offers an essential look at the interplay of these three musicians.

Finally, Autumn Leaves has been included in at least these films: Les Portes de la Nuit (1946, Yves Montand), Autumn Leaves (1956, Nat King Cole), Hey Boy! Hey Girl! (1959, Keely Smith), Addicted to Love (1997, Stephane Grappelli), Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil (1997, Paula Cole), and Sidewalks of New York (2001, Stan Getz)

LYRICS
Autumn Leaves [Les Feuilles Mortes]
Music: Joseph Kosma
French Lyrics: Jacques Prévert
English Lyrics: Johnny Mercer

The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold
I see your lips, the summer kisses
The sun-burned hands I used to hold

Since you went away the days grow long
And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall

C’est une chanson, qui nous ressemble
Toi tu m’aimais et je t’aimais
Nous vivions tous, les deux ensemble
Toi que m’aimais moi qui t’aimais
Mais la vie sépare ceux qui s’aiment
Tout doucement sans faire de bruit
Et la mer efface sur le sable les pas des amants désunis

THE RECORDINGS

1. CHARTED VERSIONS [1955]
Roger Williams
Steve Allen/George Gates
Mitch Miller
Jackie Gleason
Victor Young
Ray Charles Singers

2. OTHER RECORDINGS
Jo Stafford
Nat King Cole [Japanese Version]
Edith Piaf
The Melachrino Strings
Serge Gainsbourg: La Chanson de Prévert
Frank Sinatra
Andy Williams
Raquel Bitton
Jerry Lee Lewis
Alexia Vassiliou
Iggy Pop
Eva Cassidy
Coldcut [Janis Alexander, vocals]
Eric Clapton

3. JAZZ VERSIONS
Cannonball Adderley
Bill Evans Trio
Coleman Hawkins
Dizzy Gillespie
Duke Ellington
Patricia Barber

4. MOVIE VERSIONS
Yves Montand Les Portes de la Nuit (1946)
Nat King Cole Autumn Leaves (1956)
Keely Smith Hey Boy! Hey Girl! (1959)
Stephane Grappelli Addicted to Love (1997)
Paula Cole Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil (1997)
Stan Getz Sidewalks of New York (2001)

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Melancholic Spring Fever

Since Twentieth Century-Fox could not make a film version of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Oklahoma! in 1945 because that particular Broadway musical would remain a “hot ticket item” until near the end of the decade. The production ran for 2,212 performances, finally closing on 29 May 1948. That being the case, the studio did the next best thing. They hired Rodgers and Hammerstein to pen the score for State Fair, Fox’s remake of the non-musical film of Philip Duffield Strong’s 1933 novel, State Fair. Directed by Walter Lang, the film starred Janet Gaynor and Will Rogers in the leads and was an Oscar© nomination for Best Picture in 1933.

Movie poster for State Fair (1933)

Movie poster for State Fair
(1933)


The 1945 musical remake downplayed the older characters in favor of the younger members of the cast. Set during the annual Iowa State Fair, the story concentrates on the Frake family. Each family member has his own reason for attending the fair: Abel Frake (Charles Winninger) intends to win the blue ribbon with “Blue Boy,” his prize hog. Melissa Frake (Fay Bainter) hopes to defeat her longtime snooty rival in the food contest. She wins when the judges become intoxicated on the alcohol in her entry. Margy Frake (Jeanne Crain) falls in love with fast-talking journalist Pat Gilbert (Dana Andrews), and Wayne Frake (Dick Haymes) woos footloose and fancy-free vocalist Emily Edwards (Vivian Blaine). Even Abel’s prize hog “Blue Boy” perks up when he sees the sow in the next judging pen!
Movie poster for State Fair (1945)

Movie poster for State Fair
(1945)

Though the film follows the time-honored template of musicals in the 1940s, this musical foreshadows the rest of the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon and demonstrates the undetectable complexity of pure narrative songwriting. The story is simple enough and Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote only six songs for the film. But those six songs were so well placed that no one felt shortchanged. For example, It Might As Well Be Spring is arguably one of the finest songs that Rodgers and Hammerstein ever wrote and it deservedly won the Oscar© for Best Song in 1945. It is a perfect marriage of melodic line and lyric. Just listen to Rodgers’ twitchy melody on Hammerstein’s lyrical line “jumpy as a puppet on a string” and you hear the genius that was Rodgers and Hammerstein.

State Fair may not be one of the all-time great musicals, but it is one of the tenderest and sweetest ones that has ever come to the silver screen. State Fair is the only Rodgers and Hammerstein musical written directly for film rather than for the stage. It is not about spectacle or riches; it is about family and the lives of everyday people. Not much happens in the film, at least not in terms of action, but emotionally, we run through what feels like a lifetime of emotions and every one of them is as sweet and as sincere as the last.

Living the small-time life causes young Margy to yearn for more. She is in a melancholy mood, singing It Might As Well Be Spring, as she packs for the Iowa State Fair. She muses about how the fair will at least give her a break from seeing and doing the same old things every day on the farm. She has the affection of a kind, but extremely boring young man, Harry Ware (Phil Brown) who she is expected to marry one day and live the same life her mother does. Of her life and her boring beau, Margy sings:
The things I used to like
I don’t like anymore.
I want a lot of other things
I’ve never had before.
It’s just like mother says…
I sit around and mope.
Pretending I am wonderful.
And knowing I’m a dope.

I’m as restless as a willow in a windstorm,
I’m as jumpy as a puppet on a string.
I’d say that I had spring fever,
But I know it isn’t spring.

I’m starry-eyed and vaguely discontented
Like a nightingale without a song to sing.
Oh, why should I have spring fever
When it isn’t even spring?

I keep wishing I were somewhere else,
Walking down a strange new street.
Hearing words that I have never heard
From a man I’ve yet to meet.

I’m as busy as a spider spinning daydreams,
I’m as giddy as a baby on a swing.
I haven’t seen a crocus or a rosebud
Or a robin on the wing.
But I feel so gay,
In a melancholy way,
That it might as well be spring,
It might as well be spring.

Reprise I
I keep wishing I were somewhere else
Walking down a strange new street
Hearing words that I have never heard
From a man I’ve yet to meet.

He would be a kind of handsome combination
Of Ronald Coleman, Charles Boyer and Bing…

(Voices or sound-alikes of Coleman, Boyer, and Crosby are heard)

Reprise II
In our air-conditioned, patent leather farmhouse,
On our ultra-modern, scientific farm,
We’ll live in a stream-lined heaven,
And we’ll waste no time on charm!
No geraniums to clutter our veranda,
Nor single little sentimental things,
No Virginia Creepers, nothing useless!

Jeanne Craine in a scene from State Fair (1945)

Jeanne Crain sings It Might As Well Be Spring in a scene from State Fair (1945)


The film helped make the naturally beautiful Jeanne Crain a star. No wonder, what with those very generous close-ups of her singing. While her voice was dubbed by Louanne Hogan, she does a very good job of acting the songs, especially the song that introduces her and her indecisive character, It Might As Well Be Spring.

The film was remade in 1962 with the same title, this time starring Pat Boone, Bobby Darin, Ann-Margret, Tom Ewell, Pamela Tiffin and Alice Faye. While the stage musical, 1933 and 1945 film were set at the Iowa State Fair, the 1962 version was filmed in Dallas, Texas, where the State Fair of Texas takes place every year in Fair Park.

Movie poster for State Fair (1962)

Movie poster for State Fair
(1962)


Though his writing partner, Oscar Hammerstein II died in 1960, Richard Rodgers wrote additional songs, both the music and the lyrics, for this film version that included Never Say No To A Man, Willing And Eager, This Isn’t Heaven, The Little Things In Texas, and More Than Just A Friend. All of these Richard Rodgers songs are easily forgettable.

But not the original and enduring It Might As Well Be Spring.

Of the recordings of It Might As Well Be Spring, three versions reached the Billboard charts. Dick Haymes, the original Wayne Frake, made the first hit recording of the song, His recording reached the Billboard magazine Best Seller chart on 8 November 1945 and lasted 12 weeks on the chart, peaking at #5.

The recording by Paul Weston/Margaret Whiting reached the Billboard magazine Best Seller chart on 22 November 1945 and lasted 6 weeks on the chart, peaking at #6.

The recording by Sammy Kaye reached the Billboard magazine Best Seller chart on 20 December 1945 and lasted 4 weeks on the chart, peaking at #8.

Through the years, there have been other significant recordings that have contributed to the song being considered a “Standard” in both the pop and the jazz fields. A partial list artists that have produced significant recordings of this song include Shirley Bassey, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone (on her first album entitled The Amazing Nina Simone, Blossom Dearie (in French) on her Blossom Dearie album, Julie Andrews, Ray Conniff and his Orchestra and Chorus, Andy Williams, Jane Monheit, and Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau and his trio.

To listen to a version of the song, click on the song title. To download a song, right click on the song title, and then right click on Save target as
CHARTED RECORDINGS:
Dick Haymes, Victor Young and his Orchestra It Might As Well Be Spring
Paul Weston and his Orchestra, vocals by Margaret Whiting It Might As Well Be Spring
(Swing and Sway with) Sammy Kaye, vocals by Billy Williams It Might as Well Be Spring

OTHER SIGNIFICANT REPRESENTATIVE RECORDINGS:
Shirley Bassey It Might As Well Be Spring
Ella Fitzgerald It Might As Well Be Spring
Sarah Vaughan It Might As Well Be Spring
Nina Simone It Might As Well Be Spring
Blossom Dearie (in French) It Might As Well Be Spring
Julie Andrews It Might As Well Be Spring
Ray Conniff and his Orchestra and Chorus It Might As Well Be Spring
Andy Williams It Might as Well Be Spring
Jane Monheit (performs the song as an up-tempo swing waltz on Live at the Rainbow Room) It Might As Well Be Spring
Brad Mehldau and his trio in a version that runs at about 280 beats per minute in a 7-in-a-bar meter. (The shorter version at the same tempo and meter, without improvised solos but with an extended improvised coda on the turnaround is heard here.) It Might As Well Be Spring

BONUS TRACKS
From the 1945 soundtrack of State Fair
Jeanne Crain (voice dubbed by Louanne Hogan) It Might As Well Be Spring
Jeanne Crain (voice dubbed by Louanne Hogan: Reprise I) It Might As Well Be Spring: Reprise I
Jeanne Crain (voice dubbed by Louanne Hogan: Reprise II) It Might As Well Be Spring: Reprise II

From the 1962 soundtrack of State Fair
Pamela Tiffin (voice dubbed by Anita Gordon) It Might As Well Be Spring (1962)

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