At long last! A 78rpm single, written by Eden Ahbez, which has eluded me for more than twenty years, has finally materialized!!
It is titled “Gravy Train” b/w “Two Shades of Blue” and is by Nature Boy and His Orchestra, on Mercury Records. The single was announced in Billboard magazine on March 31, 1951 and was likely released just before or just after that announcement.
Nature Boy and His Orchestra cut a 78/single prior to “Gravy Train,” in 1950, titled “California” b/w “End of Desire.” That one is much more easily come by and features the guest vocalist Bobby Please, a rockabilly singer of several other cool fifties singles.
“Gravy Train” also boasts Bobby Please as lead vocalist, which he reprises for the B-side, “Two Shades of Blue.” Both sides are co-written by Eden Ahbez and Don Reed, the latter a name that pops up elsewhere in the Ahbez canon. From my research, in fact, I’ve found that the two men worked together on quite a few recordings.
The next one, after “Gravy Train”/”Two Shades of Blue,” is the 1954 Ahbez tune “Wine, Women, and Gold,” of which three different singles were released in 1954-55. The one that features Don Reed (on vocals) is by a group called “The Carsons,” of which Reed was one member. This is where things get confusing. (Or perhaps interesting, depending on your love of mystery.)
Reed, who is listed on the “Wine, Women, and Gold” single as “Don Carson,” adopts the Carson surname for a later single: 1958’s “Yes Master!” b/w “Jungle Bungalow” (Bertram International Records). Both sides of the latter are written by Ahbez and performed by Don Carson and the Casuals.
The year prior—1957—Reed re-recorded “Two Shades of Blue,” which was originally the B-side of our aforementioned Mercury 78/single. The Mercury version is a kind of swing/jump-blues throwaway; the 1957 version on Encino Records, however, is more indicative of the nascent rock ‘n’ roll sound, replete with a steaming horn solo and tighter production.
The question naturally arises as to who this Don Reed/Don Carson character actually was? And how did he come to collaborate with Eden Ahbez?
The latter is the more difficult question, given that Ahbez is no longer alive to answer it, or tell us how they met. Neither is Reed/Carson, whom I’ve now surmised was actually named Peter Sterling Radcliffe (1930-2007), a Hollywood songwriter best known for Barry White’s 1974 hit single “The First, the Last, My Everything.” (More Radcliffe song credits can be found here.)
Radcliffe also released records under the names Sterling Reed and Don Sterling—the latter a re-release (in 1958) of the Encino version of “Two Shades.”
If that isn’t confusing enough, Ahbez and Reed/Carson/Radcliffe released another single together, in 1961, of Ahbez’s “Nature Boy,” backed by a new co-write, titled “The Lonely King of Rock ‘N Roll.” The single came out on two different labels: Gardena Records and A&R Records.
The version of “Nature Boy” features an unknown singer named “Lorelei” on the Gardena release and “The Voice of Love” on the A&R one. Both nom de plumes are a perfect fit, as she sounds like a mermaid singing from the deep depths of Neptune’s Kingdom.
In terms of “The Lonely King,” it is an ode to the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley, and was re-recorded by Radcliffe solo in 1977, following’s Presley’s early death. In the latter version Radcliffe has removed Ahbez from the co-writer credits altogether.
In terms of “Gravy Train,” the newly-discovered single (and focus of this blog-post), it features the same snaky rhythm used by Ahbez in other such novelty tunes as “Mongoose” (on the Eden’s Island album) and “Wild Boy,” his rollicking single of 1959, performed by Mort Wise and his Wisemen.
Lyrically, “Gravy Train” uses the metaphor of hopping freight-trains as suggestive of a new beginning for one’s life. “All aboard for the gravy train, gravy train, gravy train/Where the truth will never find you/Gonna leave the past behind you.”
It’s a strangely autobiographical lyric, true to Ahbez himself, who left two pasts behind him by that time: that of his birth-name, George A. Aberle, and that of his adopted name, George McGrew. He not only took the moniker “eden ahbez” in the early 1940s, but also reinvented himself as a kind of postwar holy man in Hollywood. In that way, “Gravy Train” is something of a second anthem, post-“Nature Boy.”
And now we know it actually exists!