There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far
Over land and sea
A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he
And then one day
A magic day he passed my way
And while we spoke of many things
Fools and kings
This he said to me
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return.
-eden ahbez, Nature Boy.
Hi folks welcome back to Tales of History and Imagination. This week’s blog will be the last one for around a month, so I can put the time into getting the podcast up and running. I’ll post updates here as I have things to post about. The plan still is run the podcasts fortnightly, and blogs on the weeks in between.
Our tale this week is a quick glimpse at a counterculture figure of the 1940s, and how he contributed one of the most compelling works to the Great American Songbook.
Our tale this week begins with a man in a suit trekking through the wilderness calling out at the top of his lungs. There was a meeting something like this, but this part is largely a work of my imagination, a plot device to get us into the tale. As it is my device I imagine him middle aged, out of breath, a little pissed he has ruined a nice pair of shoes on this fools errand, all to find some guy he is told “you will know him when you find him: he looks a lot like Jesus. Oh he may be naked when you come across him”. The man in the suit, in the employ of Capitol records, is trekking up the hills of Mount Lee, California, through Griffith Park. He has been searching for weeks for this messianic-looking figure, and no ruined loafers, mountain lions, or human nakedness is going to stop him in his mission. He is looking for a man, a very strange, enchanted man, and he will find him.
The search had started in the wake of a Nat King Cole concert at California’s Lincoln Theater, earlier in 1947. Nat King Cole had yet to go solo, yet to break the colour barrier. As part of the Nat King Cole trio the crooner was killing it on vocals and piano- it is easy to forget he was primarily a pianist, but if you check old footage of the trio he had monster chops on the ivories. In attendance that night an unusual, long haired man, also a piano player, who had managed to blag his way into the after-party. The strange man had tried at numerous points in the night to catch the attention of Cole, but was rebuffed at every advance. At his wits’ end he finally handed what he had been trying to pass to Cole all night, a crumpled up piece of paper, to Cole’s valet. The valet handed it on to Cole’s manager, who eventually passed the paper on to Cole himself. On the paper a song, a very strange, enchanted song… now, dear reader I will have posted a link below to the song on Spotify, please hit the link and listen…. 72 years on it remains haunting, romantic (in the literary sense, the protagonist could be a Byronic hero, the music is powerful, and exotic)… otherworldly. You will thank me for this, even if it is not exactly your bag. Clearly the piece struck Nat King Cole as something special. Taken by the piece he added it to his live sets, and the crowds went crazy for it. The title of the song – Nature Boy. The narrative of the song, I met a mystical traveller and we spoke of many things. He left me with this piece of advice
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love, and be loved in return”
Crowds went mad for the new song, with it’s peace and love message, mysterious character, exotic score which seems at once reminiscent of Dvorak and of Yiddish folk music. Nat King Cole knew he absolutely must cut a track of this… but who the hell was the mysterious, long haired stranger who had given him the song? He would need the writer’s permission. An all points bulletin was sent out to everyone in the know in Hollywood, find this man immediately.
After some searching they worked out who the man was. Going by the name eden ahbez – all deliberately written in lower case as ahbez himself believed only two words deserve to be capitalized – God and Infinity – ahbez had been born George Alexander Aberle in 1908 to a Jewish father, Scottish mother, and promptly abandoned in a Jewish orphanage in New York. Aged around 10 he was adopted by the McGrew family of Chanute, Kansas, where he grew up, and eventually joined a dance band, first as a pianist, then band leader, as a young adult. In 1941 he moved out to Los Angeles, where he took up part-time work as a pianist at a raw foods restaurant and supermarket in Laurel Canyon, called The Eutropheon. Established in 1917 by John and Vera Richter, John having come up through John Harvey Kellogg’s Battle Creek Sanitarium, the Richter’s were firm believers in the health benefits of eating only raw fruit and vegetables. The sources I have read on the Eutropheon all state the restaurant became a meeting place for the alternative lifestyles of Laurel canyon and the surrounding areas at the time. The groups in particular appear to be early bodybuilders, who had set up a gym nearby, socialists – the Richters were vocal supporters of former senator, trade unionist, activist and 1912 third party (socialist party) presidential candidate Eugene Debs, and the Nature Boys. It was the latter that ahbez, if not one of them already, would soon join up with.
A group of proto-hippies, living mostly in caves and primitive cabins in the Palm Springs area, the Nature Boys followed the teachings of William Pester – the Hermit of Palm Springs. Himself a follower of a 19th century back to nature movement in Germany called the ‘Naturmenschen’, Pester had arrived in the area in 1906. He wore his hair long, had a big, bushy beard at a time when most men were clean shaven, preferred nudity to clothing, ate only raw fruit and vegetables, studied eastern spiritualism, and believed we must cast off all the restraints of the modern world for a simpler life, closer to nature. In the photos today I have attached a 1917 picture of Pester rocking out on what looks like an Appalachian dulcimer. Tell me he is not a guy who would look completely at home hanging out with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, at Woodstock, or at the Red Dog Saloon in the 1960s? Pester, however would pass on in 1963 a few years prior to the summer of love.
In 1941 eden ahbez would, indirectly, become an acolyte of Pester’s (Pester was in jail at the time. Having come from Germany he was accused of being a German spy in 1940, and when that didn’t stick, was accused of having sex with a minor, and jailed till 1946) and joined the Nature Boys.
Back to the man in a suit, now sweating profusely – I imagine the contract in his hand now looking as crumpled as the piece of paper ahbez had handed to Cole’s valet, eventually caught up with eden ahbez- clothed in a white toga apparently, camping out under the first L in the Hollywood sign.. not far from where Peg Entwhistle jumped – that is definitely another tale I MUST tell sometime. Ahbez granted his permission to record the song, which though semi-autobiographical, he explained was a tribute to William Pester.
In August 1947 Nat King Cole headed into the studio to cut the track. The recording was epic, Cole at his coolest. Capitol, for all the bother of finding eden ahbez killed the song in its tracks, deciding it just didn’t jive with the image they wanted to present of Nat King Cole. In 1948, however, fate intervened. The American Federation of Musicians, under orders from union boss James Petrillo, called a lengthy strike for all studio musicians. The strike was in reaction to the 1947 Taft-Hartley act, which was in itself a knee jerk reaction to ‘The great strike wave of 1945-1946’ an unprecedented wave of industrial action across post-war America. Needing something, anything to release Capitol records took a punt on Nature Boy, releasing the track on March 29th 1948. It went to number 1 with a bullet and stayed there for 7 weeks. This was just the crossover hit Nat King Cole needed. ahbez saw around $20,000 in royalties, somewhere in the order of $200,000 by today’s standards. He would give around half the money to friends, and likely lost the rest of ih in 1951, when a composer called Herman Yablokoff took out a plagiarism suit against ahbez, claiming he stole his song “shvayg mayn harts” (hush my heart). ahbez claimed the melody had come to him “as if angels were singing it” while he was out camping in the mountains. Yablokoff claimed the angels must have bought his record then. The song would be covered, later by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Rick Astley (yes he who is never going to give you up, let you down). David Bowie recorded an incredible version for the soundtrack to Moulin Rouge. Recently Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga recorded a version – one could imagine the shock of ahbez, had he lived to see her meat dress – avowed vegetarian that he was.
For some time eden ahbez was a celebrity. Journalists, similarly to the man in a suit went out of their way to find this messianic looking figure who had scored a monster hit on his first try. In these interviews ahbez would often extol the virtues of living the Nature Boy lifestyle. As a coda, eden ahbez, ahbe to his friends, died in 1995 in a car crash.
The great Pre-Raphaelite artist, iconoclast and writer William Morris, a man with somewhat hippy leanings himself once wrote.
“History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they have destroyed; art has remembered the people because they created”.
I take his point. When spitballing ideas for these tales it could be easier to pick up, say, the tale of Charles ‘The Hammer’ Martel, and his victory over the Umayyad Caliphate at The Battle of Tours, 732.. or the epic battle between the Russians and Swedes at Poltava in 1709. While I tend to get a little lost in the fog of war with these tales- I don’t think you’ll ever get a blow by blow description of any battle from me- I know which are more important in the big scheme of things… but, c’mon don’t tell me these moments of social history are not a little intriguing? Who would not have wanted to have spoke of many things, fools and kings, with the Nature Boy?
Ok folks, back to the blogs in around a month, meantime I’ll be posting updates on the podcast here, as things fall in place- Simone
This Tale is part two of a two part series. To read the rest of this story click here.
Originally published 11th August 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow.