Keyboardist Dale Ockerman recorded with Eden Ahbez during the early 1980s—a notably dormant time for the pioneering counter-culture composer.
In the aftermath of George Benson’s 1977 hit version of “Nature Boy,” Ahbez recorded a lone single: 1982’s “Divine Melody,” a flexi-disc on Elefunt Records. In between the Benson hit and the flex-disc, Ahbez recorded briefly with Ockerman and some Hollywood heavyweights, though the results remain unreleased to this day. What did they record exactly?
I sat down recently with Ockerman to discuss this question, and what working with a then-72-year-old Ahbez was like in the aftermath of John Lennon’s assassination. Below are the very interesting results.
Brian Chidester, 01/20/2015
Brian Chidester: How did you first meet Eden Ahbez?
Dale Ockerman: I was doing a recording session for a Christian rock act, who borrowed some members of Bob Dylan’s band, most notably, the great Jim Keltner on drums. He played on John Lennon’s “Imagine” and many more great hits. After we were done, a diminutive, long white-haired and bearded, angelic-looking fellow entered the studio from the control room in a rough white gown. He may have had a staff, like Gandalf. Looked like Obi Wan Kenobi walked around, actually, giving $100 bills to me and a few people. I said, “What’s this?” He said he dug the way I played, and might call me sometime, with a twinkle in his eye.
BC: What year was this?
BC: And then you guys recorded together shortly after, right? What was he like working with in the studio?
DO: He was kind and wise, and very aware of what was going on, but not in the academic way. More intuitive, cool. We called him “ahbe.” “Well, Ah’ll Be,” as he said. It was a fairy tale come true and completely unexpected… ahbe was the coolest cat in L.A. by a mile. Very “real.”
BC: Did he arrange too?
DO: Extreme detail… dealt with gracefully. He talked like a black jazz musician of the ’40s. Had great stories, very otherworldly, it was impossible to comment or interrupt.
BC: What was he like personally?
DO: Very sweet. He liked a puff of reefer, but those were the days of a lot of blatant cocaine use, which he shook his head at, said, “What are you guys doing that shit for?” I’ll just say it’s been a mystical experience knowing ahbe. He was really intense about me working with him, but I was a 29-year-old rock star in my mind. He saw something else. Just making miso soup and recording, and shootin’ the shit, smoking a J was a religious experience.
BC: What did you guys record together?
DO: I’m sure you’ve seen the photo of him holding the 1980 John Lennon Time magazine cover. He said he’d had “Nature Boy” covered by Nat “King” Cole and George Benson, but he wanted to have it done another style, more “Beatlesey,” to dedicate to John Lennon, not Christ.
BC: So you guys worked on a new version of “Nature Boy”? What was it like?
DO: It never quite got there, but could have with more time on my side, and fate. If anyone did anything he felt was jive, or derivative, he would scowl, but not criticize, then get someone else to do the part after they left. His reason for wanting Keltner on drums was because of his closeness to Lennon. He treated me very specially… for no reason really. I had played with Quicksilver Messenger Service and Bill Champlin, but was hardly famous, just hustling sessions, trying to eat and not get eaten in L.A.
BC: After you recorded this new version of “Nature Boy” with him, did you ever work together again?
DO: My L.A. residence days were mid-1980 to early ’81, then I had an accident, and was laid up for a while… had to move to the mountains for a few months to recuperate. Then I went back to Santa Cruz, where I’ve been since ’69… never went back to L.A. to live.
BC: Can you describe the 1980 version of “Nature Boy” for me?
DO: Our initial recording featured ahbe on Wurlitzer Electric… his… and toy piano overdubbed. Bill Champlin—lead vocalist in Chicago and the Sons of Champlin—was on vocals; Keltner on drums; and Tim Drummond—Dylan and Neil Young’s bassist—and me on Strat guitar. That was the basic track. Overdubbed was a Prophet synth, piano, then Melodica, a harmonica with keyboard, ala Billy Preston. Later sessions were never finished or mixed properly. He wanted me to do a trumpet solo. He said, “I want it to sound like Gabriel blowing his horn at the walls of Jericho!” I hadn’t played trumpet in decades. He had me drive home from Studio City—Sunswept Studio—to Tarzana, where I lived, to get it. The song was in D; I only remembered Bb scales, so we slowed the track way down so I could find the notes. This unfortunately made it sound thinner, like chipmunks, when sped back up. As I said, we weren’t done.
BC: What happened?
DO: Later he confided that Bill’s vocal, while fantastic, was too “rhythm and blues.” He wanted me to sing it. He’d already tried the Christian singer, Derek Jeffries, whose session we first met at. I’m not a singer… but he wanted me to do it. It wasn’t any better. It did sound whiter. But fortune and fate intervened.
BC: You guys lost touch?
DO: Again, I had problems of my own, moved back up north. His phone was the Hotel Marion in Simi Valley. We totally lost touch, and later he died, but he used to call a lot and come over my house. He kept on coming up with new ideas for “Nature Boy,” and had some very picky little parts, like harmonizing a guitar with a bell line from the toy piano, except for one note.
BC: What happened to the tape?
DO: The tapebox doesn’t really exist anymore as a 24-track. I only have a ratty old cassette that was a rough mix, with other things on it, as well. Never thought it was final… nor did ahbe. Well, it’s a work-in-process with a deceased artist.
BC: Any idea where the original might be?
DO: I tried to find the masters to act out ahbe’s wishes, but have limits on where they’d be, and time and money to do it. So that cassette, and memories, is what we got.
BC: What was he planning to do with this version of “Nature Boy”? Did he want to shop it around to labels or something?
DO: It sounded like a John Lennon song, but the vocals and feel were meant to be a present to Yoko [Ono], in understanding and respect.
BC: So it was made after John Lennon was killed?
DO: Yes. I sent a copy of it to Yoko. She probably never got it. Ironic, as I’m now in a Beatles music group—the White Album Ensemble—and have done years of Beatle lore study. I know Lennon would have been fascinated by this story. His murder triggered it. They are laughing together now, on a boat in a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies.
BC: How did you feel after knowing Ahbez?
DO: Enhanced, touched, lucky. He was very strong—an innocent yet wise adult, the only one I’ve ever met.
BC: What has stuck with you the most about him these many decades later?
DO: Lack of bullshit or pretense. He was very philosophical… spoke of living in Mexico. He was spellbinding to me. Many didn’t get him.
BC: Thank you, Dale.
Post-Script: Tim Drummond, bass player on the 1980 version of “Nature Boy,” passed away January 10, 2015. He played bass for luminaries such as Ry Cooder, Neil Young, CSNY, Bob Dylan, James Brown and many others these past forty years. Drummond was 74 year old and was, according to Dale Ockerman, “a very funny, great guy.” Rest in peace.