Lest the obvious need restating — everybody loves a character. It’s likely that few fit that description in Hollywood’s record biz history better than EDEN AHBEZ, the man who penned one of pop-song’s most enduring pieces, “Nature Boy.” If not for the plethora of evidence confirming his life story, one wouldn’t be out of line thinking it a made up fairy tale, but it goes like this.
June 1948 shot of ahbez in NYC looking at a promotional blowup of the “Nature Boy” sheet music.
In 1947, Capitol recording artist Nat King Cole’s valet handed him a piece of sheet music received from a stranger backstage during a spring gig at Downtown L.A.’s Lincoln Theater. Cole began playing the song for live audiences, who immediately took to its haunting melody, somber harmonics and mystical lyrics about a boy who wandered across the earth communicating man’s greatest natural desire — “to love and be loved in return.” One problem: When Cole sought to record the song (titled “Nature Boy”), he could not track down its composer to firm up contractual obligations. Thus a sort of Hollywood-insider APB was put out in search of the stranger who dropped “Nature Boy” off that fated night at the Lincoln.
Nat “King” Cole and eden ahbez, c. 1948.
When Cole’s management finally found its composer, eden ahbez (pronounced “ah-bee”), legend has it that he was living with wife under the first “L” of the HOLLYWOOD sign. No hard evidence has been found to verify this notion, though his friends from that period claim that he did, indeed, camp out on Mount Lee (where the sign resides). He was also said to have slept in the backyard orchard of John and Vera Richter, a husband/wife team of raw foods enthusiasts who lived on Avenel Street in Silver Lake, and who owned several heath food restaurants in Los Angeles. Quite unique looking for his time, ahbez wore long unkempt hair, a bronze beard and a flowing white toga with leather sandals.
The public response to “Nature Boy” was overwhelming, though it would take another twenty years before flower-power would become commonplace.
Even more improbable for a first-time composer was that “Nature Boy” shot to #1 on the Billboard charts on May 15, 1948, and remained there for seven consecutive weeks during that spring. When the press caught wind of ahbez’s off-kilter lifestyle, a media frenzy ensued. He was covered simultaneously in Life, Time and Newsweek magazines during the summer of 1948. Dick Haymes, Herb Jeffries, John Laurenz, Mantovani, Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughn all released versions of “Nature Boy” around the same time, and in fact, while Cole’s version rode the top of the Billboard charts throughout May and June of ’48, the Sinatra and Haymes versions also ran steadily in the Top 10. The public seemed hungry for more from whence came this “liturgical road song,” as one writer called it.
Frank Sinatra and eden ahbez from an issue of “Modern Screen” magazine, c. 1948.
Born George Alexander Aberle on April 15, 1908 in Brooklyn, NY, ahbez was adopted by a Chanute, Kansas family and raised under the name George McGrew. During the ’30s, McGrew/ahbez moved to Kansas City to partake in the burgeoning Swing music scene. In between his move to Kansas City and his appearance in Hollywood around 1941, ahbez’s whereabouts are shrouded in mystery.
A high school picture of George McGrew of Chanute, KS. He would leave the Midwest during the mid-1930s to make his transformation into eden ahbez.
He claimed at one time to have lived in New York City during the late 1930s. Some have speculated that it was during this time that ahbez came in contact with the Yiddish theatre popular in New York City during the ’30s, based around plays by composer Herman Yablokoff. Papirosn was one of Yablokoff’s more popular stage projects from that period and featured a song titled “Sveig Mein Hartz” (“Be Still My Heart”), which in 1948, when ahbez’s “Nature Boy” was a smash hit, lawyer’s representing Yablokoff sued ahbez for stealing the melody and lyrics from. Yablokoff wrote about the lawsuit with a full chapter in his 1981 autobiography, Der Payatz (Bartleby Press), which states that he settled out of court for $25,000, but not before the two had a phone conversation where, according to Yablokoff, ahbez pleaded his case for not having ripped off “Sveig Mein Hartz” in any form whatsoever. (In fact, ahbez told the press that he heard the melody in the solitude of a cave, a notion he reiterated throughout his life.)
The sheet music to “Schweig Mein Hartz,” which Yablokoff claimed ahbez stole the lyrics and melody from to create “Nature Boy.”
What is certain is that ahbez arrived in Los Angeles in 1941, and began playing piano at the Eutropheon, the Richter’s health food store on Laurel Canyon Boulevard (which counted movie star Gloria Swanson among its regulars). John Richter gave lectures throughout the Greater Los Angeles area during the 1940s, and some of the employees at the Eutropheon were young Americans who had adopted Richter’s transcendentalist philosophy, wearing long hair and beards, eating only raw fruits and vegetables. These were soon dubbed “The California Nature Boys.” Some of the familiar names include Bob Wallace, Emile Zimmerman, Gypsy Boots, Buddy Rose and ahbez. In On the Road, Jack Kerouac wrote that he saw “an occasional Nature Boy saint in beard and sandals” while he was passing through L.A. in 1947.
With his Nature Boy pals, ahbez slept outdoors in Topanga Canyon and the desert caves of Tahquitz Canyon, near Palm Springs. It was in Tahquitz that ahbez first encountered his mentor, William Pester, a German immigrant who taught radical philosophies of the day, including nudism and natural medicine. It is likely that ahbez also discovered Eastern philosophy and mysticism during this period, adopting the name “eden ahbez” and choosing to spell his name with lower-case letters, claiming only nature and divinity worthy of capitalization. His name change was approved by the New York State court on November 17, 1943 and approved by the Commissioner of Health on March 8, 1951.
The California Nature Boys: (L to R, top row) Gypsy Boots, Bob Wallace, Emil Zimmerman; (bottom row) Fred Bushnell, eden ahbez, Buddy Rose, unknown.
During this time, ahbez met Anna Jacobson, who became his wife and the mother of his only child, Zoma. Little is known about the lives of Anna and/or Zoma Ahbez. Some pictures remain, showing Anna as a kindred earthy spirit to ahbez, as well as photos of Zoma from childhood through his teenage years. Later photos have Zoma sitting in the mountains meditating with his father, their likeness uncanny. Anna Ahbez died in 1964 at the age of 32, from cancer. Footage from her funeral shows family members and friends looking on as ahbez sits crossed-legged by Anna’s gravestone, playing a gong and reciting some unknown words (the footage being silent). This clip was posted in 2006 to the shadowboxstudio.com website. Anna’s brother, Al Jacobson, started the Garden of Eatin’ health food manufacturing company in 1971.
(L to R) eden, Anna and Zoma Ahbez.
Zoma Ahbez died of a drug overdose in 1969, having been found seated in a lotus position. Some claimed foul play was involved. The child of eden and Anna Ahbez had not yet been born when “Nature Boy” hit the charts in 1948, but Anna was said to be pregnant in interviews that ahbez did with Life, Time and Newsweek, as well as a first-time meeting with Nat King Cole during the television show We the People, from June 1948.
Sometime during ahbez’s working days at the Eutropheon restaurant, he met Cowboy Jack Patton, a songwriter and radio personality in the Western genre. Patton later became a spa and health guru to the stars, but during the mid-’40s, he was a mentor of sorts to ahbez, providing financial support and record biz advice. It is believed that Patton (with the help of songwriter Johnny Mercer) was the one who helped ahbez first plug “Nature Boy.”
Cowboy Jack Patton (right) helped ahbez (left) get “Nature Boy” into the hands of Nat “King” Cole.
Soon after “Nature Boy” hit the top of the charts, R.K.O. Pictures optioned the rights to turn the song into a feature-length movie script, which likely melded into the late 1948 film, Boy with the Green Hair (directed by Joseph Losey, starring Dean Stockwell); the picture featured “Nature Boy” throughout and ahbez’s name was amongst the first in the opening credit roll.
In 1949, ahbez followed-up “Nature Boy” with a Nat King Cole exclusive titled “Land of Love (Come My Love and Live with Me).” While the arrangement for “Land of Love” was just as sophisticated as “Nature Boy,” perhaps the lyrics rambled a bit and the overall tune lacked the intrigue of its predecessor. Cole had actually recorded “Land of Love” much earlier, but by the summer of 1949, pop-jazz singer Doris Day had gotten a hold of it and was ready to release her version with Columbia Records when Capitol Records was granted an injunction to stop the single from hitting the market. The parties settled with Cole’s version of “Land of Love” given a few week’s lead time. It didn’t matter; the song flopped. The Ink Spots tried the song again in 1950 for Decca but fared no better. (Neo-jazz singer Eve Zanni also covered “Land of Love” for her 2002 album Songs for Modern Mermaids.)
Sheet music from 1949′s “Land of Love,” ahbez’s follow-up to “Nature Boy.”
According to a brief bio on Cowboy Jack Patton from Hillbilly-Music.com: “Jack and Eden got written up in Life magazine and elsewhere and other songwriters began to contact him [Jack] for advice or help in promoting their songs. One was Stan Jones. Stan had been reciting a poem on the radio called ‘Rangers in the Sky’ on Jack’s radio show. This poem was said to be written by an old Texas ranger way back when, who was no longer living. Jack advised Stan Jones to turn it into a song, using public domain music. He played around with it and a few years later, came back with the song ‘Riders in the Sky.’ Jack then had another idea for Stan — add the word ‘ghost’ to the song title. The three of them — Stan, Jack and Eden — agreed to handshake agreement of a three way split on the song. Jack and Eden pitched the song to a singer by the name of Burl Ives. His recording of it reached #14 on the musical charts. Not to be deterred, the boys pitched it again, after getting it signed to B.H. Morris Publishing Co. and in 1949, a recording by Vaughn Monroe was released. This one rocketed to the top of the charts and stayed at the top for eleven weeks.”
Stan Jones (right), the writer of “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” hanging with eden ahbez (left), who helped Jones get the song into the hands of Vaughn Monroe.
For a brief period following “Nature Boy,” some of the biggest jazz and pop artists of the day took an interest in working with ahbez and recorded his songs as distributed on the biggest record labels in America. In 1950, ahbez’s own Nature Boy Orchestra (Mercury Records) released “End of Desire” b/w “California”; the latter was also recorded by Hoagy Carmichael, re-titled “Sacramento,” about a vagabond traveling the California coast by freight train. “End of Desire” was also recorded by Jack Powers (Lotus Records), backed with another ahbez original, “Guitar Totin’ Cowboy.” April Stevens recorded a version of “End of Desire” (Society Records), as well. Later that year, ahbez penned several other quality cuts released for 78 RPM — “Carlos Ybarra” by Shirley Bates (Fabor Records), “Wine, Women and Gold” by the Carsons (a bold philosophical jump number about man’s excesses) and “The Shepherd” (Columbia Records) by Herb Jeffries.
Herb Jeffries was known as “The Black Singing Cowboy” featured in several Western films of the 1930s and ’40s, and was male-vocalist in the Duke Ellington Orchestra during the Billy Strayhorn years. Jeffries sang lead on the Ellington hit “Flamingo” and was the leading role in Ellington’s Back-to-Africa play, Jump for Joy (1944). Jeffries and ahbez spent time together at Lake Shrine, the Southern California ashram of Paramahansa Yogananda, and in 1948, ahbez wrote a four-page article on mysticism for Yogananda’s Self-Realization magazine. In 1954 Jeffries and ahbez collaborated on an album titled The Singing Prophet (which included the only recording of ahbez’s four-part “Nature Boy Suite”).
Part of an article that ahbez wrote for Yogananda’s “Self Realization” magazine (Nov./Dec. 1948).
Next up for ahbez was “Hey Jacque,” a song written with new collaborator Wayne Shanklin, whom ahbez composed over a dozen songs with during the 1950s (only “Hey Jacque” would ever hit vinyl). Released in 1954 by Eartha Kitt, “Hey Jacque” was obscured somewhat due to it being the B-side to Kitt’s holiday smash, “Santa Baby” (RCA Victor). Millions of homes unknowingly had another ahbez masterpiece on their hands if they’d only turned the record over. And though “Hey Jacque” itself was not a hit, its dense orchestration (by Henri Rene) was the perfect foil for Eartha Kitt’s somber vocal, reminiscent of Parisian chanteuse Edith Piaf.
Following “Hey Jacque,” ahbez penned tunes for various white jazz/standard performers, such as Giselle McKenzie (“They’re Playing Our Song,” RCA Victor), Vicki Young (“Let Me Hear You Say I Love You,” Capitol Records), Kay Brown (“Run-away Boy” b/w “Teen-Age Love”), Tony Fontane (“Wedding at Monaco” b/w “They’re Playing Our Song”) and television personality Frankie Laine (“The Jalopy Song,” Mercury Records and “Rockin’ Mother,” Columbia Records). “The Jalopy Song” began life as an independent single (on Gold-Tone Records) first recorded by ahbez’s friend Cowboy Jack Patton — a novelty song featuring early eco-conscious lyrics over a background of party sounds (simulated in the studio). Then ahbez also wrote two rock ‘n’ roll novelty singles during the mid-’50s — “Elvis Presley Blues” by Anita Ray & the Nature Boys and “Song of the Fool” by the Crew-Cuts (of “Sh’Boom” fame).
Rare 1956 single written by ahbez, featuring pop singer Tony Fontane on vocals.
Throughout the ’50s ahbez continued recording with prominent black artists, including Sam Cooke, whose 1958 “Lonely Island” (Keen Records) would be the second (and final) ahbez composition to hit the Top 40. Gene Chandler (of “Duke of Earl” fame) also recorded a near-identical version of “Lonely Island” that same year. In 1958 ahbez produced a doo-wop version of “Nature Boy” by R&B vocal group the Shields (featuring Jesse Belvin).
His first foray into the instrumental genre now know as exotica came in 1956, with three cuts that ahbez wrote for Bob Romeo & his Jungle Sextet’s, Aphro-Desia: ”Lisbon Street Dance,” “Zen” and “Sahara.” The album jacket was graced by Anita Ekberg (replete with gypsy costume), and featured West Coast cool jazz giant Laurindo Almeida on guitar. Bob Romeo (who played flute on a 1954 James Dean session) met ahbez’s Middle Eastern chord structures with proto-exotica percussion and abstract flute tones. (The cover also warned that the primitive rhythms therein could arouse uncommon emotions for the unaccustomed listener). In 1958, ahbez wrote the Anglo-Mambo single “Ahbe Casabe” for Howdy Doody Show actress Marti Barris. That same year, the ahbez-written “Teen-Age Love” by Richard Day & his Music (Kem Records) was a very good Percy Faith knock-off, while 1959′s “Palm Springs” (recorded by the Ray Anthony Orchestra) combined ahbez’s signature somber tones with an exotic arrangement indicative of the oncoming swarm of ’50s bohemia.
During the 1940s through ’60s, ahbez played at coffeehouses like the Insomniac (above), the Gas House (Venice Beach) and the Caffe Galleria (Laurel Canyon Blvd.).
In 1960, ahbez got his first crack at recording a solo long-player, Eden’s Island (Del-Fi Records). He had spoken of a “spiritual song cycle” as far back as 1958 (in an interview he did with the Associated Press), and often performed bongo, flute and poetry gigs at L.A. beatnik coffeehouses such as the Insomniac Café (Hermosa Beach) and the Gas House (Venice Beach). Eden’s Island seemed to be the grandiose summation of ahbez’s philosophic idealism, couched in a beachcomber context of Martin Denny-esque arrangements, with ahbez himself reciting poems about his own mystical hideaway. The album flopped.
A masterpiece in proto-psychedelia: Del-Fi’s “Eden’s Island” album (1960).
After that time, eden ahbez’s appearance on vinyl grew scant. During the ’60s, he released only five singles: “John John” b/w “Surfer John,” an optimistic double-shot of surf-exotica by Nature Boy & Friends (Bertram International Records), “Yes, Master” b/w “Jungle Bungalow,” a strong pair of pagan burlesque numbers by Don Carson & the Casuals (also on Bertram), the unbelievable siren vocals of “Nature Boy” b/w “Lonely King of Rock and Roll” by Don Reed & Lorelei (A&R Records), a jungle-rock single titled “Wild Boy” by Rocky Holman/Mort Wise & the Wisemen and a “Tequila”-inspired novelty tune titled “Mr. K” by John Bean (Reprise Records). On January 5, 1967, ahbez was photographed with Brian Wilson during a “Heroes & Villains” session for the latter’s Smile album. That same year, UK folk singer Donovan tracked ahbez down in Palm Springs for what was, reportedly, a near-telepathic conversation between the two “wanderers.” Perhaps public consciousness was catching up with ahbez, just as the youth counter-culture was reaching its ’60s zenith. Recognizing the pacifism of ahbez’s message, groups such as Great Society (Grace Slick’s pre-Jefferson Airplane band) and Gandalf recorded versions of “Nature Boy” during the psychedelic era. A ten-minute version by UK prog act Accolade came out in 1970, followed by Big Star’s power-pop version of “Nature Boy” for their album Third in 1977.
Western Studios, January 1967: eden ahbez (left) hangs out with Brian Wilson (right) during sessions for the Beach Boys’ “Smile” album.
From 1970 onward, ahbez released very little. There was a 1971 home-made 45 on Elefunt Records, “Divine Melody” b/w “Richard Milhaus,” which was little more than bloated hippy intrigue. The A-side of this single was released again in 1980 (with a song titled “Blessed Be the One” on the B-side) and again in 1982 as a square-shaped flexi-disc (minus the B-side). There was also the ridiculous “Salutation,” sung by Knarig M. Boyadjian, the B-side of a tribute 45 to Queen Elizabeth II’s silver jubilee in 1977. Thereafter ahbez faded into obscurity, but never stopped recording entirely.
He passed away on March 4, 1995 due to injuries incurred from an auto accident. At the time of his death, ahbez had been working on a book and album titled The Scriptures of the Golden Age. Only a small sampling of various prose and poetry have been found from the book, while his last collaborator Joe Romersa retains an archive of over 100 songs (in various states of completion) recorded for the Scriptures of the Golden Age project. Unfortunately ahbez’s estate has blocked Romersa from releasing this material to the public. Perhaps with more light shed on the talent and legacy of eden ahbez, public demand can one day force its release. Until then, “The Secret of Love,” “Nature Girl,” “Anna Was Mine” and “The Path” — from the Scriptures of the Golden Age sessions — have been released; these on a posthumous CD put out by the ahbez estate titled Echoes from Nature Boy, featuring an additonal six ahbez cover songs by Lawrence Welk guitarist Buddy Merrill, plus one demo tape of ahbez singing the endearing “No Bums Allowed.”
Also, just prior to ahbez’s death, a resurgence of interest came about for his 1960 Del-Fi solo album Eden’s Island. By 1994, a heady swirl of exotica, lounge, surf music, swing and burlesque hit the post-rock environment like a storm. While Eden’s Island was far from the focus of this pop culture trend, it was viewed as a true oddity worth seeking out according to Andrea Juno and V.Vale’s seminal book Incredibly Strange Music. Soon after that, author Domenic Priore made an attempt to find ahbez and interview him for the Del-Fi CD reissue of Eden’s Island. Priore’s liner notes for the CD booklet turned out to be the first shot at telling the composer’s life story, culled from a variety of sources, including four Nat King Cole biographies. No interview with ahbez ensued, and he soon-thereafter passed away. However, Priore was able to get an unreleased 1960 ahbez song titled “Surf Rider” onto the disc as a bonus track.
In 1998, the Australia Broadcasting Company ran a radio program devoted to ahbez broadcast on the show Imaginary Island, hosted by lounge DJ Brent Clough. Around this time, psych-pop band the Wondermints recorded ahbez’s “Full Moon (Tropical Blend)” for the Del-Fi compilation Delphonic Sounds Today, while Victoria Williams covered “Mongoose” on her Sing Some Ol’ Songs album. Both of these cuts were culled from the Eden’s Island LP. Meanwhile, ahbez’s last collaborator Joe Romersa launched shadowboxstudio.com, a website that offered the first real insight into what ahbez was like in his private life. The site hosted video clips and pictures from ahbez’s life, as well as stories and quotes, plus several MP3 clips of the elderly ahbez calling Romersa on the phone and leaving messages on his answering machine.
In 2001, director Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge featured “Nature Boy” as its theme in the Paris-based film about a bohemian quest for universal love. “Nature Boy” was utilized throughout the movie to convey the plot and played under the closing credits in a version by David Bowie. Further ahbez excursion into film came from the BBC-Scotland’s documentary The Secret Map of Hollywood (2004), which featured a nine-minute segment on the life of ahbez (filmed by yours truly, Brian Chidester, with Domenic Priore). Priore had previously followed his Eden’s Island liner notes with a biographical article on ahbez in issue #3 of Cool and Strange Music magazine, while Chidester penned an expanded portrait of the man in an issue of Record Collector News from 2006. He also hosted a pair of two-hour ahbez-centric episodes on the radio show Beatnik Beach (LuxuriaMusic.com), which featured over seventy seldom-heard ahbez tunes.
For Crescent magazine’s winter ’05/’06 issue, an ahbez article was written by a yoga instructor named M.L. Youngbear Roth. Rather than focusing on ahbez’s music, Youngbear told his story of meeting ahbez in 1971, after the former had spent several years running from the law. The 63-year-old ahbez not only taught Youngbear about how to clean up his act, but also gave him important lessons in mental and physical health.
In the spring of 2007, a YouTube.com account registered as “ultimessence” posted a five minute hand-held video clip of ahbez from 1992 in the California desert town of Indio, reluctantly filmed standing by his white van, where he has a bed stashed in the back. The videographer convinces ahbez to talk about various philosophies in a somewhat paranoid tone. (The owner of this video hypothesized that ahbez was the basis for R. Crumb’s ZAP Comix character “Mr. Natural.”)
In the fall of 2010, BBC-4 radio released a half-hour program titled A Strange Enchanted Boy chronicling the life of eden ahbez. Actor Clark Peters narrated the piece, which featured interviews with Donovan Lietch, Bas Luhrman, Gordon Kennedy, Herb Jeffries, Brian Chidester and others.
The quest for answers, as well as fascination, for this enigmatic character continues to grow.