Legends of Songwriting: eden ahbez
The Nature Boy who wrote the legendary song
By PAUL ZOLLO
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
is just to love and be loved in return.”
From the classic song “Nature Boy” by eden ahbez, it’s one of the most famous and beautiful couplets in all of popular music, linked in content and concision to McCartney’s classic Abbey Road summation, “And in the end the love you take/is equal to the love you make.”
Had the mystic and mythic ahbez written only “Nature Boy,” it’s such an enchanting, strange and beautiful song, he would deserve inclusion in the annals of popular music. But there is more to eden than this one song.
Nat `King’ Cole is the singer of the first and most famous record of the song, which was an instant standard when it emerged in that spring of 1948, staying at the very top of the charts for eight solid weeks. It both charmed and stunned radio audiences. In under three minutes, a miracle song unfolds, a melody of Richard Rodgers-like yearning embracing a lyric of poetic perfection expressing a universal zen acceptance of life and love. Decades before The Beatles would celebrate this notion that love is all we need, a hippie decades before his time did it first.
It didn’t hurt that he got Nat, one of this planet’s most soulful and beloved singers, to record it. His crystalline soul sets the song soaring. It’s the ideal match of songwriter with artist, and remains an immaculate performance of great purity and passion, hauntingly orchestrated with sumptuous strings and flutes arranged and conducted by Frank DeVol down in Capitol Records’ legendary basement studio. It’s magic.
But where did it come from? To this day, ahbez remains mysterious. “Nature Boy,” the song, has had a remarkable life, the life of a beloved, true standard. It’s been recorded by a vast array of vocalists and instrumentalists – from Nat on through David Bowie, Frank Sinatra, Grace Slick, John Coltrane, Celine Dion, Nick Cave, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Cher, Leonard Nimoy, James Brown, Jose Feliciano, Miles Davis, Caetano Veloso, Art Pepper, Aaron Neville and many more.
It’s true that he lived under the first “L” in the Hollywood sign for quite some time, personifying a hippie lifestyle decades before such an existence became mainstream. He looked and lived like Christ – in long beard, white robes and sandals – and condemned materialism to live on three dollars a day.
Although “Nature Boy” became and remains a standard, ahbez – known as ‘ahbe’ to friends – wrote many other songs, including “Land of Love,” which was recorded by Nat Cole (as well as Doris Day and the Ink Spots), “Hey Jacque,” covered by Eartha Kitt, “The Jalopy Song,” recorded by Frankie Laine, and “Lonely Island,” a hit for Sam Cooke.
He was born George Aberle in Brooklyn in 1908, and, not unlike Christ, much about his early years is unknown. He was adopted by the McGrew family of Kansas, and grew up as George McGrew. Migrating to Los Angeles in 1941, he landed a gig playing piano at Eutropheon, a health food store run by a German couple who brought the Wandervogel movement with them to America, which subscribed to rejecting the artificial strictures of society to live a natural, vegan lifestyle. In America, the followers of this movement were known as Nature Boys. He wrote songs and performed them, but never with any professional aspirations. His goals were always primarily spiritual. But when radio DJ Cowboy Jack Patton heard him sing “Nature Boy,” he recognized that ahbez had written a great song, and suggested he get it to Nat “King” Cole – So ahbe bicycled over to L.A.’s Orpheum Theater, where Cole was performing. He wasn’t allowed entry, so asked that the song be given to Cole – his manager intercepted it, and passed it on. ahbe, unlike every pro songwriter before and since who has tried to pitch a song to an artist, didn’t even bother to list himself as author of the song. He simply wanted to share the song, and its message. Cole was entranced with it, and began performing it soon thereafter. His crowds loved it, and people began talking about this new song which already seemed timeless – an instant standard. But who wrote it?
So when Cole wanted to record it, he enlisted some cohorts to play detective and track down its mysterious songwriter. They discovered the song and its message were genuine – ahbez wasn’t cranking out songs in a Hollywood Boulevard office. He was camping out underneath the Hollywood sign with his wife, Anna. But, evidently, he did want the world to hear his song, and so he agreed to allow Cole to record it. Within months it became a major hit – shooting up to Number One on the Hit Parade, where it remained for two solid months during the summer of 1948. From complete obscurity, “Nature Boy” and the actual nature boy who created it became world famous. ahbez and his lifestyle were such compelling copy that in the same month Time, Newsweek and Life magazines all did stories on him.
The song spread like wildfire. Soon there were recordings of it by all the great recording artists of the time – vocalists like Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan were first, followed by jazz versions by Coltrane and Miles Davis. He wrote other songs for Cole and others to sing, and became close friends with Herb Jeffries, a singing star of many Westerns who was known as the “The Black Singing Cowboy.” They hung out together at Lake Shrine, an ashram near L.A., and in 1954 that collaborated on an album called The Singing Prophet. By 1956, ahbez felt his spiritual message could be better conveyed instrumentally, and injected himself into the world of what is now known as exotica a full year before Martin Denny coined the term by releasing an album of that name. ahbez’s exotica combined jazz flute, percussion and Middle Eastern harmonies. But he also continued writing songs, many of which were considered novelty records, such as “Ahbe Casabe,” recorded by Marti Barris. In 1960 he recorded his first and final solo album, Eden’s Island, an ambitious song cycle that paved the way for other song cycles to come, including those by Van Dyke Parks, Brian Wilson and the Beatles.
His last record was a self-released single, “Divine Melody,” in 1971, after which he mostly disappeared. For years prior to his death from a car accident in 1995, he had been working on a book and album to be entitled The Scriptures of the Golden Age, most of which has never been published. His collaborator and friend Joe Romersa has over 100 songs they wrote together, but the ahbez estate has not granted him permission to release them. They did release on posthumous CD, however, called Echoes from Nature Boy. When or if the rest of his work will ever be released remains, as does much about this nature boy some six decades since he first emerged, a mystery.
What does remain is that haunting refrain, that precise intersection of timeless melody with poetic words of love and wisdom. Delivered in with simplicity of passion and grace, the essence of the power of song, is a couplet for ages. “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn/is just to love and be loved in return.”