Was “Softly As I Leave You” Written by a Man on His Deathbed?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about music and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the music urban legends featured so far.

MUSIC URBAN LEGEND: “Softly as I Leave You” was written by a dying man as his wife slept at his bed side.

The song, “Softly as I Leave You,” was a pretty big hit for a number of singers, most particularly Matt Monro and Frank Sinatra (both during the early 60s). A lot of other people have recorded it over the years, including Elvis Presley, who is actually quite important for this story.

In any event, as the story goes, “Softly As I Leave You” was written by a dying man while his wife slept next to him.

Softly, I will leave you softly
For my heart would break if you should wake and see me go
So I leave you softly, long before you miss me
Long before your arms can beg me stay
For one more hour or one more day
After all the years, I cant bear the tears to fall
So, softly as I leave you there

(softly, long before you kiss me)
(long before your arms can beg me stay)
(for one more hour) or one more day
After all the years, I cant bear the tears to fall
So, softly as I leave you there
As I leave I you there
As I leave I you there

As you can see, the lyrics pretty clearly show that it is a guy sneaking out on a woman he’s been in a long-term relationship with. It’s actually a fairly cowardly act (but it’s a beautiful song). I think, just based on the lyrics, that it is a bit of a stretch to read it as a story of a dying man with his wife beside him, but I guess it isn’t 100% counting such a reading out.

But in any event, no, that’s not what happened. Some time before the song became a hit, composer Antonio De Vita wrote an instrumental song that he simply called “(Piano) Softly.” Popular pop Italian songwriter, Giorgio Calabrese, wrote Italian lyrics to the song, and it became a minor hit in Italy.

Songwriter Hal Shaper “wrote” English lyrics, but what he really did was just translate the Calabrese lyrics.

So it became a hit for a few artists.

But neither De Vita, Calabrese nor Shaper were ever in said situation. Calabrese is even still alive [EDITED TO ADD: Calabrese has since passed away. He died in March 2016 – BC]!

No, this story came about because of Elvis Presley, who started AND propagated this rumor to add some schmaltz to his performances of the song during the 1970s.

Here is what Elvis would say when he introduced the song…

This next song, lady’s and gentlemen, is a song that’s been around for a long time. And uh, I’ve never recorded it. I know you’ve heard it, you know, by a lot of different people, but I’d like to give you the story behind the song.

There’s a man who was dying in the hospital and his wife has been sitting by his bedside for 3 days and 3 nights. And somewhere on the 3rd day between midnight and day, she laid down beside him and dozed off to sleep. And he felt her when she dozed off to sleep and at the same time he felt himself start to die. And he didn’t want her to see him…. pass away. So he took his notepad from the side of the bed and he wrote…..

(cue song)

So yeah, it is all malarky created by Elvis.

The legend is…

STATUS: False

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

21 Replies to “Was “Softly As I Leave You” Written by a Man on His Deathbed?”

  1. I had forgotten this song until I heard it played on the radio very shortly after my husband of 50 years passed away in his sleep. The words meant so much to me, I pulled to the side of the road and cried. I’ve been wanting to get the album/CD of Elvis singing this song but am unable to locate it. Perhaps you can help.

    Thank you.

  2. The Elvis version of the story was also used on “Thee Muppet Show”. I think that it is more satisfying notion than the thought of wimpy guy who is just ditching his long term girlfriend.

  3. It’s Serril Nielsen that sings, while Elvis talks. Elvis joins Sherrie for the ending 3 words only.
    Just wondered if Elvis ever sang the song.

  4. My husband left me softly as i fell asleep in a chair next to his bed in hospis hospital after 3 months. He fought so hard to stay for me God bless who wrote this song.

  5. … might it equally be a woman leaving a man? Or a woman leaving a woman, or a man leaving a man… so many possibilities… lovely melody with the distraction of the words

  6. I always thought of this song as being a man leaving his lover behind while he or she was still sleeping. However, I am choosing songs for my eventual memorial of life service and would like this played for my adult children and husband, so am looking for one sung by a woman, alththough I Love everything sung by Elvis and many others in that time period.
    What would life be without music?

  7. If you are looking for a version sung by a female, Brenda Lee recorded “Softly as I leave you” on an album called (I believe) Bye-Bye Blues, circa `1965. (my personal favorite) I think Anne Murray may have recorded it too, but I have not heard that one.

  8. I think that the best version of this song is by the “We Five”.

    To Charee Fleshren: If you are looking for a version sung by a female, this might be the one for you. The We Five is a group of young adults who recorded in the sixties. Although it is a group of five singers, it is the sole female — Beverly Bivens — who dominates the song and gives it it’s character. This is a beautiful version of the song. You will like it.

  9. OK, I get your interpretation of this song and it’s lyrics.
    But, would you be willing to accept another’s opinion of how moving the song can be for someone who is considering suicide, and possibly even only moments away from doing so. Such a person can relate to the song and try to use it to communicate to a loved one some sincere emotions about the saddness of yielding to the great, and ultimately unbearable pain of living, but leaving the loved one without much of an explanation, beyond the lyrics.

  10. Of course, Leo, you can interpret a song however you’d like. It’s just a question of “Is this why the song was written,” ya know?

  11. Aw, you just spoiled one of my favorite songs by saying it’s a cowardly playboy sneaking off into the sunset. I never heard the Elvis interpretation. I think I’ll content myself witj just fantasizing that it’s a guy going off to a long term assignment far, far away.

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