How Eden Ahbez got “Nature Boy” into the hands of Nat “King” Cole is one of the great mysteries in pop music history.
Stories vary. Mythologies abound. Most, however, contain one or two common details. Notably, that a soiled lead-sheet was left unsigned, and that Cole’s management had to put out a search to find its composer.
I think we can sufficiently put the first one to bed now, as I recently came across this piece of sheet music (below), stamped April 29, 1946, which is a cleft booklet for an early version of “Nature Boy” that clearly indicates who the songwriter is.
A few things to note:
(1) Ahbez’s name on the cover does not yet contain the “Z”; he is simply “EDEN AHBE” at this point—all caps.
(2) The booklet is published by Goldenheart Press, which is Ahbez’s own imprint. I know this because he published another sheet music booklet in 1946—titled “I Don’t Know Myself from You”—also under the Goldenheart banner. The latter actually gives an address in Miami, FL, so perhaps Ahbez was not yet in Los Angeles in 1946, as previously thought.
(3) The lyrics inside are different. Completely different. Besides the opening line, “There was a boy,” nothing else is the same. No “fools and kings,” no “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” It’s a lot of rambling, pie-in-the-sky phraseology, which, thankfully, Ahbez re-worked into what we finally got when Cole recorded it a year and a half later, and released it two full years on.
The booklet also contains a drawing on the cover, which I’d like to turn our attention to now.
At the center is a shirtless male, wearing shoulder length hair and cutoff pants, a gunny-sack slung over his right shoulder. He is muscular and trim, somewhat of an exaggeration of Ahbez’s scrawnier build, if this is a sketch of the songwriter himself, which I believe it to be. His feet are in motion, back turned, walking away from the viewer, into an open landscape that we know to be a desert by the few cactus sketches dotting the compositional space.
Framing him are the words “NATURE BOY,” the composer’s name and a small set of pencil notches that could serve to underline these words, or they may just be the minimal gestures of a small hilltop, as the cacti seem to indicate an incline with their use of perspective.
Next to the vagabond’s right knee starts a poem in three verses, which are not included in the song’s lyrics inside, but we know them to be recycled later for the song/poem “La Mar” on Ahbez’s own Eden’s Island album of 1960—words slightly altered.
The drawing here is signed by what looks like the name “Christine,” though it could be “Christian,” as it is hard to make out the second half of the handwriting.
What is crystal clear, at this point, however, is the song’s autobiographical nature, not to mention the seedling of the song playing part in a larger musical drama, which eventually leads to the full “Nature Boy Suite.” There’s a lot of information here for the discerning eye. I’m sure more will reveal itself once I sit with it longer.
Alas, we may never fully know what happened when Ahbez handed off “Nature Boy” to Nat Cole’s handlers in the spring of 1947, but at least we now know it was very unlikely to’ve been unsigned, as it had already been previously published—evidence that Ahbez was actively pushing “Nature Boy.”