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Les Feuilles Mortes & Édith Piaf

 


Excerpts from past posts


Les Feuilles Mortes

Linnaea Mallette

I have posted on the Most Covered Pop Songs and Artists, which was me sort of cherry-picking to the exclusion of songs from Plays, Movies and Christmas songs. If we look at the top 10 and only exclude Christmas songs, I have written about all of them with the exception of the top non-English song, "Les feuilles mortes" (Dead Leaves). Originating from a composition for a Ballet written by Joseph Kosma, lyrics were later written by Jacques Prévert for his critically designated ‘flop’ of a French film titled Les portes de la nuit released in 1946. With only fragments of the song used in the movie itself, one of the stars was Yves Montand. He recorded the whole song (reportedly) in 1946 and it was later released as a single in 1949. I have found a few references including a quote from the famous French singer and actor Cora Vaucaire that she was the first to do the song, recording it and releasing it in 1948. On discogs.com, I did find the 78 rpm record from the French label Le Chant Du Monde, catalog number 1536, it is dated 1948-50 so I'm inclined to believe her claim. Secondhandsong.com has her first recording in 1965 on an different label. Often referred to as just "the french song" it is one of the most important songs to come from France, so I did go to some length to try and get things right!  Most will only recognize the song's English translation, unlike the great Édith Piaf singing French on her original song "La Vie en rose" or her version of "Non, je ne regrette rien" that I recall from a commercial for chocolates and more recently in a spot for an insurance company.

Regardless, French Pianist and Jazz Historian Philippe Baudoin said it is "the most important non-American standard". Many agree, judging by the hundreds of versions of the English translation (called “Autumn Leaves") written by the great Johnny Mercer, they even surpassed the number of French covers of the song. Johnny Mercer would change the lyrics to suit the English language so there's not a direct translation of the original. But it is the instrumental version that gets the most attention, making up over half the 1,200 plus covers. Dizzy Gillespie was the first to record the song as an instrumental in 1950 with the Johnny Richards Orchestra. Along with Oscar Peterson, the two liked the song so much they recorded it four times. Here is the version with Oscar and Dizzy Gillespie, released in 1975. I was surprised to see some of the names on the instrumental list, for example: here is the actor Dudley Moore playing some impressive Jazz Piano with his Trio in 1965. Another comedic actor, Harpo Marx was an amazing harpist Autumn Leaves (1957). And, any excuse to get in some fingerstyle guitar, here is Lenny Breau from 1981.

All combined, this puts the song as the third most covered (non-Christmas) song of all time after "Summertime" and "Over the Rainbow". The first English vocal version of Autumn Leaves, by the way, was by the great Jo Stafford released in 1950, and I found references to her performing the song live in 1949. Not unlike the instrumentals, I found some interesting names that recorded the English vocal version: The Coasters (1960), The Everly Brothers (1962), Manfred Mann (1966), Willie Nelson (1983), Eric Clapton (2010) and Bob Dylan (2015). This forlorn song seemed a fitting combination with Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to End of Love", released in 2020 by Argentinian Jazz singer, Karen Souza. Many artists agee this is an important song and it continues to be covered several times a year.

Édith Piaf

Her remarkable story begins with being abandoned by her mother at birth in 1915 and due to his war service, her father passed her from home to home including his mother’s brothel in Normandy. After WWI, her father made a living doing acrobatic street performance's, he reclaimed Édith at age 14 and had her sing as part of the shows. There is much more to her story but part of her legacy is the beautiful and poignant song she wrote herself ,“La Vie En Rose”, from 1946, with music composed by Marguerite Monnot. The two also collaborated on the lovely “Hymne à L'amour” (1950). Upon first hearing what she thought was “Formidable” (Fantastic) from composer Charles Dumont and Lyricist Michel Vaucaire (whom she disliked) she was the first to record the sublime “Non, je ne regrette rien” (1960).

In 1915 in Belleville, Paris, France, a little girl named Édith Giovanna Gassion was abandoned by her mother at birth and dropped off by her father on his way to fight in WW1 to be raised by his mother in her brothel in Bernay, Normandy. There is a story she (and others) had told that she was blind from the ages of 3 to 7 when she was miraculously cured after a religious pilgrimage. By age 14 she had left the brothel and rejoined her father who was a street performing acrobat. She soon met her half sister Simone "Mômone" Berteaut and in 1930 the two began singing and performing together, earning enough to rent their own room at the Grand Hôtel de Clermont. Soon after Édith's boyfriend moved in to the tiny room and at the age of 17 she had a little girl. Ill equipped to handle a child, relationship and a more than full time job singing, sadly the little girl Marcelle would die at age two while living with her father, apparently from meningitis.



In 1936 Édith's now burgeoning career was sidelined after her possible involvement in the death of nightclub owner Louis Leplée. She changed her name to Édith Piaf and in 1944 met Yves Montand at the Moulin Rouge. She wrote "Mais qu’est-ce que j’ai ?" (music by Henri Betti) for Yves. Édith revolutionized cabaret performing while becoming the most popular singer in France. She toured internationally and "La Vie en rose" would become her signature song and is still known word for word in France generations later. With eight appearances on the Ed Sullivan show and two at Carnegie Hall she was an American superstar. Her life was shortened by pain, unbearable tragedy, controversy, alcohol and drugs. She died in 1963 of liver cancer, at age 47. While Piaf wrote the song 'La vie en rose' (with the Louis Guglielmi) she first offered it to singer Marianne Michel who recorded it in 1945. Piaf would be the next to record it in 1947. There are over 320 versions of this song of love and happiness. I believe the first english version is by Bing Crosby (1950), Yves Montand (1967), Grace Jones (1977), Michael Bublé featuring Cécile McLorin Salvant (2018) and seemingly the most popular version ever, at least on YouTube at over 44 million views is Daniela Andrade from Montreal.


Note these are Excerpts from previous posts
















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