A VERY STRANGE ENCHANTED BOY
I was at a funeral of my Aunt's when the Nat King Cole's version of Nature Boy was played. It may have been the occasion, but I was genuinely moved by the sentiments of the song.
Thankfully the author's name was provided on the sheet, and as Eden Ahbez name was one I had never heard of before it had to be checked out on the net.
I was not disappointed, why (I ask myself) in all my music listening, which I would like to think open and extensive, especially in cult films/music/books/people have I never came across this guy before?
Now comes the "I must find out a great deal more about this person", as he is one interesting guy.
If anyone out there who can help me I would be grateful. I am now going to track down the album, and if there are any books on him to recommend, then please let me know.
I do not usually get into web discussions, but in this case I will make an exception.
The man who gave us the final two lines in Nature Boy (with or without change) certainly should have these words more widely heard and be given the credit.
Here is a short biographical sketch of the life of Eden Ahbez that I wrote a while back, and recently submitted to Wikipedia to replace the present encyclopedia article.
"A VERY STRANGE ENCHANTED BOY"
By Brian Chidester
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.
In 1947, Capitol recording artist Nat King Cole's manager handed him a tattered piece of sheet music received from a stranger backstage during a gig at Downtown L.A.'s Orpheum Theatre. 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 Orpheum.
When Cole's management finally found its composer, Eden Ahbez, he was living with wife under the "L" of the HOLLYWOOD sign, his appearance befitting the enigma (Ahbez wore long unkempt hair, a bronze beard and sported flowing white robes with sandals). Even more improbable for a first-time composer was that "Nature Boy" shot to #1 on the Billboard charts, and remained there for eight consecutive weeks during the summer of 1948. When the press caught wind of Ahbez's off-kilter lifestyle, a media frenzy ensued. Ahbez was covered simultaneously in Life, Time and Newsweek magazines during the summer of 1948. Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn and Dick Hymes all released versions of "Nature Boy" around the same time, and the public seemed hungry for more from whence came this "liturgical road song," as one writer called it.
Eden Ahbez was born George Alexander Aberle on April 15, 1908 in Brooklyn, NY. He was adopted by a Chunute, Kansas family and raised under the name George McGrew. During the '30s, McGrew/Ahbez moved to Kansas City to partake in the burgeoning jazz dance-craze known as "Swing." In between his move to Kansas City and his appearance in Hollywood around 1941, Ahbez's whereabouts are shrouded in mystery.
He apparently lived in New York City during the late 1930s. Some have speculated that it was during this time that Ahbez rediscovered his Jewish heritage and became involved with the Yiddish theatre popular in Manhattan 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"). In 1948, when Ahbez's "Nature Boy" was a smash hit, lawyer's representing Yablokoff sued Ahbez for stealing the melody of "Nature Boy" from "Sveig Mein Hartz." Yablokoff wrote about the lawsuit with a full chapter in his 1981 autobiography, Der Payatz (Bartleby Press). Apparently, Yablokoff settled out of court for $25,000, but not before having a phone conversation with Ahbez, where Yablokoff claimed that Eden pleaded his case for not having ripped off the melody from "Sveig Mein Hartz." However, it has been hypothesized that due to Eden Ahbez's technical dexterity on the piano (and other instruments), that he played in the orchestras of various Yiddish plays during the '30s, and hence the melody of "Sveig Mein Hartz" had become a part of his consciousness.
What is certain is that Ahbez arrived in Los Angeles in 1941, and began playing piano in the Eutropheon, a small health food store on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, owned by the German husband/wife team of John and Vera Richter. John Richter gave lectures throughout the Greater Los Angeles area during the 1940s, and some of the employees of the Eutropheon were Americans who had adopted the Richter's German Naturmensch and Lebensreform 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 included Bob Wallace, Gypsy Jean, Emile Zimmerman, Gypsy Boots, Tati, Buddy Rose and Eden Ahbez. It is likely that Ahbez discovered Eastern philosophy and mysticism during this period, adopting the name "eden ahbez" (and choosing to spell his name with lower-case letters, claiming that only God was worthy of capitalization). For more information on the pre-hippie movement in Germany and Southern California, Gordon Kennedy's Children of the Sun is a primary text.
During this time, Ahbez met Anna Jacobson, who was to become 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 Eden, 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 Eden 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.
Zoma Ahbez mysteriously died during the late '70s, having been found face-down, floating in a river. The child of Eden and Anna Ahbez had not yet been born when "Nature Boy" hit the charts in 1948, but was mentioned as being on the way in Eden's interviews with Life, Time and Newsweek, as well as a first-time meeting with Nat King Cole during the television show We the People, from 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 would later become 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 was the one who helped Ahbez first plug "Nature Boy."
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 may or may not have 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 Eden 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. The "Land of Love" sheet music, however, boasted a genius minimalist Deco drawing that graced its cover. Popular jazz singer Doris Day recorded the song a year later for Columbia Records, as did the Ink Spots for Decca. Neo-jazz singer Eve Zanni covered "Land of Love" 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 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."
During the 1950s, Eden Ahbez would compose a series of songs recorded by some of the biggest jazz and pop artists of the day, distributed on the biggest record labels in America (RCA Victor, Capitol Records, Warner/Reprise, Columbia Records and Mercury). 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 would pen several other quality cuts released on 78 RPM -- "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 controversial Los Angeles play, Jump for Joy (1944). Eden Ahbez and Herb Jeffries would often 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 1954 Herb Jeffries and Ahbez collaborated on an album titled The Singing Prophet (which included the only recording of Eden's four-part "Nature Boy Suite").
Next up for Ahbez was "Hey Jacque," a song written with new collaborator Wayne Shanklin, whom Ahbez would compose 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 only they had 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) 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 vegetarian lyrics with a background of party sounds (simulated in the studio). 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).
Ahbez would continue to record with prominent black artists throughout the '50s, including Sam Cooke, whose 1957 "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) would combine Ahbez's signature somber tones with an exotic arrangement indicative of the oncoming swarm of '50s bohemia.
In 1960, Ahbez would get 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 Washington Post), 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.
After that time, Eden Ahbez’s appearance on vinyl (and in the public) was scant. During the '60s, he released only three singles -- "John John" b/w "Surfer John" by Nature Boy & Friends (Bertram International Records), "Nature Boy" b/w "Lonely King of Rock and Roll" by Don Reed & Lorelei (A&R Records) and a "Tequila"-inspired novelty tune titled, "Mr. K" by John Bean (Reprise Records). Ahbez was also photographed on January 5, 1967 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.
Ahbez would only release one more song during the remainder of his lifetime -- a home-made 45 on Elefunt Records, "Divine Melody" b/w "Richard Milhous" (a double-shot of bloated hippy intrigue from 1971). Thereafter Ahbez faded into obscurity. 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 "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, Volume Two. Soon after that, author Domenic Priore made an attempt to find Eden 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 Eden'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 Eden 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 Ahbez's Eden's Island LP. Meanwhile, Eden's last collaborator Joe Romersa launched shadowboxstudio.com, a website that offered the first real insight into what Eden 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 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, in various tempos, to convey the plot, and was 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 episodes on the radio show Beatnik Beach (LuxuriaMusic.com) devoted to Eden Ahbez, which featured over seventy Ahbez tunes.
For Crescent magazine's winter '05/'06 issue, an Ahbez-centric article was written by Integral Yoga therapist, and long-time friend of Abee's, Youngbear Roth, IAYT, NAAP. 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. 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 Eden Ahbez from 1992 (age 84) in the California desert town of Indio. Ahbez is reluctantly filmed standing by his white van, where he has a bed stashed in the back, as he talks 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."
- Presentations of such reflections actually exceed the aim of this page, but as it infringes on no copyright I consider it relatively harmless to allow it to remain for now. ~ Kalki (talk · contributions) 02:11, 15 April 2011 (UTC)
I recently changed the image I had placed on this page from the Ancient version of the Taijitu to one of a black and white cat, simply to take up a little less space on a small page, and I thought it worked well. I briefly considered changing to the magpies and cat image presented here, as taking even less room and somewhat more conceptually related to the quote in some ways — but decided against it as I think the cat works best at this point. I am presenting the alternatives here, to be a bit more open about the alternatives I considered, and present the magpies image as a good one that might be useful elsewhere eventually. ~ Kalki (talk · contributions) 02:11, 15 April 2011 (UTC)