Every season is celebrated in art, in song, in dance, and in words but Autumn, it seems, is bittersweet. It is a time of transition from the warm, sultry days of summer to the cold, harsh days of winter. Autumn falls in between these seasons and evokes such emotions! From love possessed to love lost; middle-age melding into old; and wondrous days fading as they drift into memory. Autumn is a journey that leads you from one point to another and along the way—if you are true to yourself—you will discover you can never lose something unless you had it in the first place.
No other city in America has inspired more songs than New York, Autumn in New York among them. Recorded by numerous artists, including greats such as Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, Sarah Vaughan, and Diana Krall, only Frank Sinatra’s version hit the charts—No. 27, in 1949. Nonetheless, it is a standard of the American jazz catalog–with a remarkable backstory.
Exactly one century ago, in 1921, Vladimir Dukelsky left Kiev and immigrated to America He was among the “First Wave” of hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews who fled their homeland during the Russian Revolution of 1917 to avoid prosecution. They established a ghetto in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, an impoverished district of densely populated tenements packed with more than 700 people per acre, then the most crowded neighborhood on earth. There Dukelsky met a young man his own age by the name of Jacob Gershowitz. Both were gifted musicians who were determined to make something of themselves.
Fast-forward 13 years. Dukelsy had changed his name to Vernon Duke. He’s in Westport, Connecticut working on Walk a Little Faster and the Ziegfeld Follies of 1934, two musical revues that are headed for Broadway. Although he’s only a couple of hours from home in New York, in “a genuine emotional outburst” he writes a poem for no other reason than to assuage his feeling of homesickness. Meantime, back in Manhattan, Murray Anderson, who’s working on a new revue, Thumbs Up, needs one more song so he wires Duke and Duke sets his poem to music. Autumn in New York is full of modulations from key to key, which makes it a difficult song to sing but Anderson decides to make it the finale. Later he would call Thumbs Up “a decent, average revue that received decent, average notices.” It only ran on Broadway for five months. Ten years go by. Then Harry James and Charlie Spivak, two of the biggest Big Bands, rediscover Autumn in New York and play it simultaneously on the radio. In 1946, both Louanne Hogan and Charlie Parker make recordings—and a flood of recordings by famous artists continue to flow till as recently as 2011 when two were made. The song inspired the 2000 romantic film starring Richard Gere and Winona Ryder.
Duke would achieve fame as a composer of classical works; however, he also wrote popular songs for musical comedies, collaborating with Johnny Mercer, Sammy Cahn, and others with such hits as April in Paris, I Can’t Get Started. . . and Autumn in New York.
As for Jacob Gershowitz, he changed his name, too—to George Gershwin—and went on to make musical history. But that’s another story.
In 1945, Hungarian composer Joseph Kosma and French lyricist Jacques Prévert were introduced to one another in Paris. That auspicious introduction led to a collaboration that created one of the most haunting songs in the catalog of popular jazz music. Entitled Les Feuilles Mortes (The Dead Leaves) for the 1946 film, Les Portes de la nuit (Gates of the Night), it was first sung by French soprano Irène Joachim. The song was first recorded in 1950 by the incomparable chansonnier Cora Vaucaire, whose “half-speak, half-sing” interpretation inspired all who would follow. It was the great American lyricist and songwriter Johnny Mercer who wrote the English lyrics and titled the song Autumn Leaves for Jo Stafford, who made the first English language recording in July 1950.
The Incomparable French chanteuse Edith Piaf made Autumn Leaves one of her signature songs.
That Christmas Eve, the immortal Edith Piaf sang both the French and English versions on nationally syndicated radio. However, it was not until 1955, when American popular pianist Roger Williams interpreted the song with his dramatically arpeggio-heavy version that Autumn Leaves became a No. 1 hit—the only piano instrumental to ever top the Billboard pop charts. Since then, it has been recorded by countless recording artists, such as Yves Montand, Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Joan Baez, Andrea Bocelli, Jack Jones, Edith Piaf, Susan Boyle, and Nat King Cole, in 1955, who made it one of his hallmark hits. But the most poignantly beautiful recording of this song is the recording made by Frank Sinatra. Listen for the last bar that goes from a dissonant minor to major, as if offering a note of hope.
“Folk luminary” Cheryl Wheeler has recorded thirteen folk albums and has toured throughout the United States for more than thirty years. The Boston Globe wrote: “Over decades, she’s built a cult following through Boston radio and the New England folk circuit for her uncanny ability to have her audiences laughing during one song and silently tearing up with the next and [when] she starts singing, her voice is spellbinding.”
Born and raised in Maryland, as a child, she made up melodies to the poems in the children’s classic, The Golden Book of Poetry. She attended college, always wondering whether she could make a career of folk singing, only to conclude after two years, “I quit because I was in 15th grade, and enough was enough already.” In 1976 she moved to Providence, Rhode Island and began playing at folk clubs throughout New England with the likes of Tom Rush and Gordon Lightfoot. Gaining popularity, she released her first album in 1983, Newport Songs, and immediately followed with two others. Addicted which she recorded in 1986 in her eponymous album, was recorded by Dan Seals and became a No. 1 hit in Billboard’s Top 40 Country Chart of 1988. After that, she signed on with Capitol Records and made four albums. Her last and 13th, recorded in 2012, was Cheryl Wheeler Live. Over and beyond her own popularity, her songs have been recorded by Kathy Mattea, Garth Brooks, Kenny Loggins, Melanie, Bette Midler, and the classic folk trio of Peter, Paul, and Mary. Over half the songs she sings in her live performances have never been recorded. The lilting melody that accompanies her poetic song, When Fall Comes to New England, evokes clear thoughts and warm feelings of the season for those of us who know and love that part of the world.