Lest the obvious needs restating, everyone loves a character—and 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 mountain of evidence confirming his life story, one wouldn’t be out of line thinking it a made up fairy tale, but it goes something like this.
In spring 1947 Capitol recording artist Nat “King” Cole’s valet handed him a piece of sheet music received from a stranger backstage at a gig at Downtown L.A.’s Lincoln Theater. Cole began playing the song live during the summer and audiences took immediately to its haunting melody, somber harmonics, and mystical lyrics about a boy who wanders 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 couldn’t locate its composer to firm up contractual obligations. Thus a sort of Hollywood-insider APB was put out in search of the stranger who dropped the sheet music off that fated night at the Lincoln.
When Cole’s management finally did find its composer, Eden Ahbez (pronounced “ah-bee”), legend has it he was living with his wife Anna under the first “L” of the HOLLYWOOD sign. No hard evidence has been found to verify this, though friends who knew him in this period claim he was, indeed, camping out on Mount Lee (where the sign resides).
He also slept in the backyard orchard of John and Vera Richter, a husband/wife team of raw food enthusiasts who lived on Avenel Street in Silver Lake, and who owned several heath food cafes in Los Angeles. Unique for his time, Ahbez wore long unkempt hair, a bronze beard, and a flowing white toga with leather sandals.
Born George Alexander Aberle on April 15, 1908, in Brooklyn, NY, Ahbez was adopted by a Chanute, Kansas family in 1917 and raised under the name George McGrew. During the 1930s, McGrew/Ahbez—according to a childhood friend who was interviewed in 1948—left Chanute to play music in the Kansas City area, then began wandering the country as a hitchhiker and itinerant worker for most of the decade. In between his move from Kansas and his appearance in Hollywood, around 1940, Ahbez’s whereabouts are mostly shrouded in mystery. (On the 1940 Federal Census he has reverted back to the name “Alexander Aberle” and is already listed as living with the Richters on Avenel Street.)
He claimed at one time to’ve lived in New York City again during the late 1930s, and some have speculated this is when Ahbez might’ve come into contact with the Yiddish musical theatre, then popular on the Lower East Side and on radio, based in plays by composer Herman Yablokoff and others.
Papirosn was one of Yablokoff’s more popular stage projects—from 1935—and featured a song titled “Sveig Mein Hartz” (“Be Still My Heart”), which, when “Nature Boy” was a smash hit in 1948, lawyers representing Yablokoff sued Ahbez for stealing the melody and lyrics from.
Yablokoff wrote about the lawsuit in a full chapter of his 1981 autobiography Der Payatz (Bartleby Press), claiming that he settled out of court for $25,000, though not before the two had a phone conversation where, according to Yablokoff, Ahbez pleaded his case for not having ripped off “Sveig Mein Hartz,” claiming rather that he heard the melody in the solitude of a cave—a notion he reiterated throughout his life.
What is certain is that Ahbez washed dishes, kneaded sun-dried bread, and played live 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’d adopted his transcendentalist philosophy, wearing long hair and beards (like Ahbez), eating only raw fruits and vegetables. These were soon dubbed “California Nature Boys.” Some of the familiar names include: Bob Wallace, Emil Zimmerman, Gypsy Boots, Buddy Rose, and Eden Ahbez. In On the Road, Jack Kerouac wrote that he saw “an occasional Nature Boy saint in beard and sandals” as he passed through L.A. in 1947.
With his Nature Boy pals, Ahbez slept outdoors in Topanga Canyon and Tujunga in L.A. County, and the desert caves of Tahquitz Canyon, out near Palm Springs. It was in Tahquitz that Ahbez may have encountered the original California Nature Boy, William Pester, a German immigrant who lived primitively during the 1920s and ’30s, and was known as the “Hermit of Palm Springs.” (No evidence of Ahbez and Pester having met has yet materialized.)
It is likely that Ahbez also discovered Eastern philosophy during this period, having attended lectures by Indian-born gurus Paramahansa Yogananada and Jiddu Krishnamurti, and changed his name to “Eden Ahbe,” no “z” yet. (It is this spelling that was approved by the New York State Court on November 17, 1943, and approved by the Commissioner of Health on March 8, 1951.) He still spells it that way, in fact, as late as 1946 when the first sheet music book of “Nature Boy” is published by Goldenheart Press (Miami, FL). Some time between 1946 and ’48, when the song was released and becamesa media sensation, the composer added the “z” to his last name, and also insisted his full name be spelled all-lowercase, claiming only nature and divinity worthy of capitalization. (From 1948 to 1995, when he died, the spelling varied on sheet music, records, and signed documents, often being written in regular caps, sometimes in all-caps, and sometimes still all-lowercase.)
During this time, Ahbez met Annette “Anna” Jacobson (b. 1919) who became his wife and the mother of his only child, Tatha Om (b. 1948), nicknamed “Zoma.” Little is known about the lives of either, though pictures remain showing Anna a kindred spirit to the earthy Ahbez, while photos of Zoma from childhood through his teenage years portray a remarkable resemblance between father and son.
Anna Ahbez died in 1963, age 44, from bone cancer. Footage of 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, with financial help from Ahbez.
Zoma Ahbez died in 1967, age 19, having been, according to friends, found floating in a river. High school classmate Kathleen Liggett claimed he was found dead and seated in a lotus position. Craig Chereek, a friend of the elderly Ahbez during the 1970s, claimed Zoma died of an overdose, though other friends said foul play may have been involved. David Janowiak, the later trustee of Ahbez’s estate, told one interviewer that the Ahbez progeny’s death was a suicide.
The child of Eden and Anna Ahbez had not yet been born when “Nature Boy” hit the charts in spring 1948, though Anna was said to be pregnant in the interviews Ahbez did with Life, Time, and Newsweek, as well as a first-time meeting with Nat “King” Cole during a television appearance on the show We the People (June 1948), and news coverage of Zoma’s birth was abundant in October of that year.
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-1940s 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, helped Ahbez first plug “Nature Boy” to potential singers.)
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 melded into the 1949 film The Boy with the Green Hair, directed by Joseph Losey, starring Dean Stockwell. The film featured “Nature Boy” as a leitmotif and Ahbez’s name was amongst the first in the opening credit roll. (The composer also claimed he received an option offer from Columbia Pictures in 1948.)
In May 1949, Ahbez appeared on the radio program This Is Broadway, a talent show featuring guest panelists like big-band legend Artie Shaw and author Clifton Fadiman. The latter told Ahbez, who debuted a silly jive number titled “Real Gone Yogi,” to “go back to what worked so well” for him—meaning more songs like “Nature Boy.” The advice was heeded when 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” not long after “Nature Boy” became a hit in spring ’48, though by the summer of 1949 pop-jazz singer Doris Day had gotten a hold of it too, and was ready to release her own version with Columbia Records before Cole’s came out on Capitol. (Cole and Capitol were granted an injunction to stop hers from hitting the market before his.)
The parties eventually settled, with Cole’s version of “Land of Love” given a few week’s lead time, but it didn’t matter. Both versions flopped. The Ink Spots tried the song again in 1950 for Decca Records, but fared no better, and contemporary jazz singer Eve Zanni covered “Land of Love” much later, for her 2002 album Songs for Modern Mermaids.
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.”
For a brief period following “Nature Boy,” some of the top-selling jazz and pop artists of the day took an interest in working with Ahbez, and recorded his songs as distributed on the biggest labels in America. In 1950, Ahbez’s own Nature Boy Orchestra (Mercury Records) released “End of Desire” b/w “California”; the latter song 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 by another Ahbez original titled “Guitar Totin’ Cowboy,” and April Stevens recorded her version of “End of Desire” on Society Records in 1951.
Throughout the early/mid-’50s, Ahbez penned several other quality cuts released to 78 RPM, including “Carlos Ybarra” by Shirley Bates (Fabor Records), “Wine, Women and Gold” by the Carsons (Kem Records), and “The Shepherd” (Columbia Records) by Herb Jeffries. Jeffries was known then as the “Black Singing Cowboy” and featured in several Western films of the 1930s and ’40s; he was also male-vocalist in the Duke Ellington Orchestra during the Billy Strayhorn years. Jeffries sang lead on the Ellington hit “Flamingo” and took the starring role in Ellington’s Back-to-Africa play Jump for Joy in 1944.
Jeffries and Ahbez used to spend 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 1955 Jeffries and Ahbez collaborated on an album titled The Singing Prophet which included the only full recording of Ahbez’s five-part “Nature Boy Suite.”
Next up for Ahbez was “Hey Jacque,” a song written with new collaborator Wayne Shanklin, whom Ahbez composed half a dozen songs with during the 1950s and ’60s. Released in 1954 by Eartha Kitt, “Hey Jacque” was obscured somewhat due to it being the B-side to Kitt’s holiday hit, “This Year’s Santa Baby” (RCA Victor). Thousands of homes unknowingly had another lush Ahbez ballad on their hands—if they’d only turned the record over. Despite “Hey Jacque” itself not being a hit, the song’s dense orchestration, by Henri Rene, was the perfect foil for Kitt’s somber vocal, which was reminiscent of Parisian chanteuse Edith Piaf.
Following “Hey Jacque,” Ahbez penned tunes for various white pop/jazz performers, including Gisele McKenzie (“They’re Playing Our Song,” RCA Victor); Vicki Young (“Let Me Hear You Say I Love You,” Capitol); Kay Brown (“Run-away Boy” b/w “Teen-Age Love,” Sunset Records); Tony Fontaine (“Wedding at Monaco” b/w “They’re Playing Our Song,” also Sunset); and television personality Frankie Laine (“The Jalopy Song,” Mercury Records and “Rockin’ Mother,” Columbia). “The Jalopy Song” began life as an independent single on the indie Gold-Tone Records, recorded initially by Ahbez’s friend Cowboy Jack Patton as a pure novelty song, replete with early eco-conscious lyrics over a background of simulated party sounds. (Also during the mid-’50s Ahbez wrote a few rock ‘n’ roll novelty singles—“Frankie’s Song” b/w “Elvis Presley Blues” by Annita Ray & the Nature Boys and “Song of the Fool” by the Crew-Cuts of “Sh’Boom” fame).
By 1957, Ahbez had a new 45 titled “Two Shades of Blue,” featuring Don Reed as singer on the Encino Records disc. Reed was actually Peter Sterling Radcliffe who re-released the title as Don Sterling in 1958 on Corvette Records. Radcliffe—as Don Carson that same year—also cut the Ahbez-penned single “Yes Master!” b/w “Jungle Bungalow” for Bertram International Records. Radcliffe (aka Don Reed/Don Sterling/Don Carson) would pen and record a number of other songs together with Ahbez throughout the 1950s and ’60s—many of them unreleased to this day.
Throughout the ’50s Ahbez continued recording with prominent black artists as well, including Sam Cooke, whose 1958 “Lonely Island” (Keen Records) would be the second and final Ahbez composition to hit the Top 40. (It went to #21 on Billboard that February.) Gene Chandler—of “Duke of Earl” fame—recorded a near-identical version of “Lonely Island” in 1960.
In 1958, Ahbez also produced a doo-wop version of “Nature Boy” by R&B vocal group the Shields, featuring Jesse Belvin. R&B baritone George “Biggie” McFadden then recorded Ahbez’s “The Lesson of Love” for Jackpot Records that year, and in an interview with the Associated Press from June ’58, the composer called “Lesson” his true follow-up to “Nature Boy,” saying it was part one of his newest suite, titled “The Rock ‘n’ Roll Spiritual.”
His first foray into the instrumental genre now known as exotica came in 1956, with three cuts that Ahbez penned for Bob Romeo & his Jungle Sextet’s Aphrodisia: “Lisbon Street Dance,” “Zen,” and “Sahara.” The album jacket was graced by Anita Ekberg, who wore a gypsy costume, and featured West Coast cool jazz giant Laurindo Almeida on guitar. Bob Romeo, who is probably best remembered for his flute work 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).
1958 also yielded the Ahbez mambo “Ahbe Casabe”—a Keen Records 45 by Howdy Doody Show actress Marti Barris. That same year the Ahbez-written “Teen-Age Love” was re-recorded by Richard Day & his Music (Kem Records) in a very good Percy Faith knock-off. 1959 had Ahbez’s “Palm Springs,” recorded by the Ray Anthony Orchestra, which combined the songwriter’s signature somber tones with an exotic arrangement indicative of the oncoming swarm of fifties bohemia. There was also the jungle-rock single titled “Wild Boy,” performed by Rocky Holman/Mort Wise & the Wisemen, written by Ahbez, which may be the composer at his most zany. And finally, Ahbez closed the 1950s with a single titled “The Song of Old Paree,” another re-make of “Teen-Age Love,” this time on Jamie Records—performed by the Sheiks and produced by Joe Saraceno.
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 that interview 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 grand summation of Ahbez’s philosophic idealism up to that point. Couched in a beachcomber context of Martin Denny-esque arrangements, the LP showcases Ahbez reciting poems about a private pleasure cove, one where he can escape the troubles of the world and be free. According to the album’s producer Bob Keane it sold less than 100 copies.
After that time, Eden Ahbez’s appearance on vinyl grew scant. During the 1960s,he released four known singles: “John John” b/w “Surfer John,” an optimistic double-shot of surf-exotica by Nature Boy & Friends on Bertram International Records, the unbelievable siren vocals of “Nature Boy” b/w “Lonely King of Rock and Roll” by Don Reed & Lorelei (A&R Records), “The Star of Love” by Martha Shanklin (on Yankee Doodle Records), and a “Tequila”-inspired novelty tune titled “Mr. K” by John Bean (Reprise Records).
On January 5, 1967, Ahbez was photographed with Beach Boys 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 finally caught up to Ahbez just as the youth counter-culture was reaching its sixties zenith. Recognizing his pacifism, groups such as the Great Society (Grace Slick’s pre-Jefferson Airplane band), John Coltrane’s Quartet, and Gandalf all 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, though from1970 onward, Ahbez himself released very little.
There was a 1971 home-made 45 on Elefunt Records—“Divine Melody” b/w “Richard Milhous”—which was an attempt by Ahbez, then 63-years-old, to speak directly to the hippie generation through song. The B-side was re-recorded in 1975, and released on Melody Records, along with a new song titled “Blessed Be the One.” The 1971 recording “Divine Melody” was released again—in 1982 (again on Elefunt)—as a square-shaped flexi-disc (minus the B-side). There was also the ridiculously camp “Salutation,” sung by Knarig M. Boyadjian, the B-side of a tribute 45 to Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee of 1977.
After Elvis Presley’s death in August ’77, Ahbez’s old songwriting partner P. Sterling Radcliffe (aka Don Sterling, aka Don Reed) re-recorded “The Lonely King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the tune they’d written and released in 1960, as a new single on Via Records. Radcliffe, however, left Ahbez off the credits this time. Thereafter the elderly nature boy faded into obscurity—though he 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 suite-like album project, titled The Scripture 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, all recorded for the Scripture 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 a release. Until then, “The Secret of Love,” “Nature Girl,” “Anna Was Mine,” and “The Path”—from the Scripture of the Golden Age sessions—have been released; these on a posthumous CD put out by the Ahbez estate titled Echoes from Nature Boy. The CD features 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 retro, lounge, surf music, swing, and burlesque hit the underground music world like a storm; and while Eden’s Island was far from the focus of this pop culture trend, his original LP was viewed as a true oddity according to Andrea Juno and V. Vale’s seminal book Incredibly Strange Music. Soon after, 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’s booklet turned out to be the first shot at telling the composer’s larger story, culled from a variety of sources, including four Nat “King” Cole biographies. No interview with Ahbez ensued and he soon-thereafter passed away. Priore, however, 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 that broadcast on the show Imaginary Island (hosted by lounge DJ Brent Clough). Around this time psych-pop band the Wondermints also 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 are cuts taken from the newly-popularized Eden’s Island LP.
Meanwhile, Ahbez’s last collaborator, Joe Romersa, launched shadowboxstudio.com, a website that offered the first real insight into what the late songwriter was like in his private life. It hosted video clips and intimate pictures of Ahbez, as well as stories and quotes, plus several MP3 clips of the elderly nature boy calling Romersa on the phone and leaving messages on his answering machine.
In 2001 director Baz Luhrman’s film Moulin Rouge featured “Nature Boy” as a leitmotif that expressed the protagonist’s search for universal love amidst the soaring idealism (and decadence) of Belle Epoche Paris. “Nature Boy” also played under the closing credits in a version by David Bowie and Massive Attack.
Further Ahbez excursion into film came from the BBC-Scotland’s documentary The Secret Map of Hollywood (2004), which featured a six-minute segment on the life of Ahbez, produced 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 in 2006. The latter 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 therapist named M.L. Youngbear Roth. Rather than focusing on the nature boy’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 Roth 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 had a bed stashed in the back. The videographer convinces Ahbez to talk philosophically and recite some otherwise unheard poems—though in a somewhat paranoid tone. (The owner of this video suggests 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 narrates the piece, which features interviews with Donovan Lietch, Baz Luhrman, Gordon Kennedy, Herb Jeffries, Brian Chidester, and others. The quest for answers, however, as well as fascination for this enigmatic character, continues on.