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The European Song Cover
These standards started out as genuinely popular songs in Europe, but once imported to the United States, were sweetened up, smoothed out, and kitsched up into exotica/easy listening hits. As you read this, these tunes are probably playing in the imitation cafes and cobblestone streets of Disney World.
Music by Joseph Kosma"A French chanson about dead plants"--Will Friedwald
Ironically, while it's considered by many to embody the worst of easy-listening music, Roger Williams' 1955 version of "Autumn Leaves" was first number one instrumental recording of the rock-and-roll era.
Yes, that epitome of ersatz, its tinkling arpeggios haunting countless dentist offices, elevators, and supermarkets. "Autumn Leaves."
Surprisingly, "Autumn Leaves" had been around quite a while before Roger Williams made it a hit. It began in France in 1948 as "Les Feuilles Mortes," (literally, "The Dead Leaves"), with music by Joseph Kosma and words by the poet Jacques Prevert. Prevert was a little like the French Rod McKuen--a poet with great popular success, many of whose poems were turned into songs. Except that unlike McKuen, Prevert was held in some measure of esteem by critics and serious readers.
Someone with Capitol Records heard it in late 1949 and suggested to Johnny Mercer, songwriter and partner in Capitol, that he add English lyrics to the tune. One of Capitol's top female vocalists, Jo Stafford, recorded it soon after, but the record didn't sell. Bing Crosby cut it for Decca with the same results. It took piano prodigy Roger Williams to make it a hit.
Williams was discovered in 1953 by Dave Kapp, founder of Kapp records, playing in the lounge of the Madison Hotel in New York. Light classical and cocktail lounge piano trios were at the height of their popularity. Recordings by Liberace, Norman Paris, and Shura were all selling well, and Kapp obviously wanted to get a piece of the market. He encouraged Williams to emphasize his virtuosity but avoid the bathos of light classical pianists such as Eddy Duchin. And, most importantly for sales, he convinced Williams to dump his birth name, Louis Weertz, in favor of the solidly WASP-ish "Roger Williams."
Williams' recording of "Autumn Leaves" debuted as a Kapp single in late October, 1955 and stayed in the number one position on Billboard's Top 40 pop chart for the next 4 weeks. Early the next year, "Autumn Leaves" was taken as the title for one of Joan Crawford's great spinster melodramas, with Nat "King" Cole singing it over the opening and closing credits.
For all its sappiness, "Autumn Leaves" has been among the most popular of the exotica standards. All the greats of exotica--Les Baxter, Esquivel, Enoch Light--recorded it. So did virtually all the top instrumental artists, from The Melachrino Strings to Billy Vaughn and Lawrence Welk. Johnny Mercer's lyrics were good enough to stand up to renditions by most of the mainstream pop singers. But, surprisingly, a good number of serious jazz artists recorded it as well, including Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley, on their great LP, "Something Else."
Williams even cashed in on it again ten years later, with "Autumn Leaves 1965," which added a Ray Conniff-like chorus to Roger's cascading keys.
"Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White"
Music by "Louiquy" (pen name of Louis GuigliemI)So closely associated with Perez Prado that many assume he wrote it, "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White" is probably among the top ten most-recorded exotica standards. It was, in fact, a cover of a French hit. Prado had the inspiration to give the melody lead to a trumpet (played by Billy Regis) and add the long bent-note hesitation at the end of the first measure that became the song's signature. Virtually every version since has been more an imitation of Prado's version than a rendition of the original. The song was introduced to American audiences in the adventure movie, "Underwater," where it was used to introduce the buxom Jane Russell, and it's retained a certain sexy suggestiveness ever since.
"Poor People of Paris"
French words by Rene Rouzaud"Lisbon Antigua" was knocked out of the number one spot by Les Baxter's version of this French hit. This time, the music wasn't the only thing Americans messed with. The original title was "La Goulante du Pauvre Jean," or "The Ballad of Poor John," but someone in Capitol Records' offices wrote down "Gens" for "Jean," and hence "John" became generalized into "People."
Portugese words and music by Raul Portela, Jose Galhardo, and Amadeu do ValeThis song was originally written in Portugal in 1937 as "Lisboa Antigua," or "Old Lisbon." The melody kicked around the world for years until Nat King Cole's manager, Carlos Gastel, played Nelson Riddle a version of the song by a Mexican big band. Riddle's version was an immediate hit, introduced in February 1956 and spending 4 weeks as the number one song. Riddle reused the song later that year when he was hired to score a Ray Milland technicolor drama titled, fortuitously, "Lisbon."
"April in Portugal"
Music by Raul FarraoOne of the earliest bastardizations of a European original, "April in Portugal" took its melody from a Portugese "fado" titled, "Coimbra." The "fado" is rather like the Portugese blues, usually an account of a lost love, a failed ambition, or a tragedy at sea. In its Hollywood rendition, however, in the 1953 film, "April in Portugal," it became a light-hearted, charming air. Just right for the checkered tablecloth and a straw-bottomed bottle of Chianti. George Melchrino featured it in his Portugese theme album for RCA, "Lisbon at Twilight," and lounge scene singer Joey Altruda recently acknowledged its place in the exotica pantheon by including it in his CD, "Cocktails with Joey."
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