Son of mother nature: the exotic world of songwriter eden ahbez | Music

IAt the end of March 1948, the King Cole Trio released their second 78 rpm single of the year. Already well known for crossover pop hits such as (I Love You) for Sentimental Reasons, the trio were taking a flier on something different for their next release. Originally buried on a B-side, Nature Boy was unlike anything they – or anyone else – had recorded. Cole sings the dreamy opening lyrics – “There was a boy / A very strange, enchanted boy” – with warm intimacy; the song ends with an everlasting message: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn / It’s just to love and be loved back.”

The sides are reversed, Nature Boy remains at the top of the American pop charts for eight weeks in the spring of 1948, at a time when tension is rising rapidly: the beginning of the Cold War and the anti-Communist purge. That such a sweet and pacifist song became the best-selling single of the year speaks to a sense of nostalgia in the United States at that time, just three years after World War II.

After Nature Boy became a hit, during an appearance on CBS’ We the People, Cole finally met the man who wrote his best-selling song of the year. In archive clips of the episode, Eden Ahbez (the tiny one was preferred) has shoulder-length hair and wears loose clothing; his style is nearly two decades ahead of his time. Reading from prepared scripts, these two outliers — a proto-hippie and an early African-American crossover artist — recount how Cole discovered the song, after it was custom-delivered to the Los Angeles theater where he was producing. To the host’s disbelief, Ahbez announces that he “doesn’t really need the money”. It’s no small irony that this enthusiast of the simple life – albeit with an entrepreneurial side – is featured on a talk show on a major US network, produced by Life magazine and sponsored by Gulf Oil. As Ahbez rides the stage on his bike and then assumes a yoga position, he makes it clear that he will not abide by American corporate values: in his sheer weirdness, he is a harbinger of things to come. to come.

Nature Boy has become a 20th century classic, with numerous covers recorded by artists as diverse as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Mantovani, Grace Slick, Nick Cave, Frank Sinatra and David Bowie. It’s one of those songs that transcends time and space: not just because of the seductive feeling or swoosh of Cole’s original, but also because of Ahbez, who tapped into the deep aspirations that have always been under the surface of mass culture.

ahbez was born George Alexander Aberle in mid-April 1908, to a poor family in Brooklyn. After the death of his mother, he was placed in an orphanage before being welcomed, at the age of nine, by a family in Kansas. There is little information about his teenage years, but during the Great Depression he made his way through the Midwest, working as a traveling musician. Towards the end of the 1930s, he moved to Miami, where he learned meditation and healthy eating. It was at this time that he wrote a first version of Nature Boy.

Moving to Los Angeles in the mid-1940s, Aberle became ahbez. He met a group of nature mystics that included John and Vera Richter, the owners of Eutropheon, a vegetarian cafe on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. Like the long-haired ‘hermit-turned-showman’ William Pester – who Ahbez is thought to have met in the late 1930s – the Richters were followers of lebensreform (life reform), a philosophy that had begun in Switzerland and Germany in the first decade of the 20th century. Coexist with the beginning Wandervogel – or the wandering birds, the young, usually male, hikers who advocated a return to nature – lebensreform the pioneers gathered in communities, renounced private property and practiced vegetarianism and organic farming, in an attempt to counter the toxins of contemporary mechanized life. Visitors included Hermann Hesse, Carl Jung, Paul Klee, Rudolf Steiner and Hugo Ball.

Garden of Eden … Ahbez in a scene from an upcoming film of his life. Photography: Full Moon Movies

It was a nursery for an alternative lifestyle that would flourish over the next 50 years. Ahbez was directly influenced by Pester – considered the inspiration for Nature Boy – and came into contact with these ideas at Eutropheon, where he worked. Nature Boy was the conduit through which vegetarian ideals, nonconformity, and notions of living in harmony with nature began to seep into American culture. True to his beliefs, Ahbez continued to rough it even after the song earned him generous royalties; he camped for a short time under the then-Hollywood sign.

Ahbez’s first wisps of influence can be seen in the exotica boom of the mid-1950s: the musical genre popularized by Martin Denny and Les Baxter that evoked dreams of escapism. In 1960, Ahbez released his only solo album, Eden’s Island, which gently evokes a Pacific island with sounds of waves and wind, seagulls, soothing flutes and hypnotic sprechgesang. That year he also recorded a song called Surf Rider, placing him at the start of the surfing boom that began in 1961 with records by Dick Dale, the Bel-Airs and the Beach Boys. In 1963, he invented a Monterey Jazz Festival anthem – with John Harris on vocals and jazz great Paul Horn on flute – which named Miles Davis and celebrated the place where “the hippies play”. Ahbez finally found himself in step with the times, as the early hippies around him began to embrace the values ​​he had stood for for 25 years.

In 1966 Grace Slick played a version of Nature Boy with her first band, the Great Society; their resounding live recording – dominated by a flute that echoes Ahbez’s favorite hand-built instrument – ​​was the first time I had heard the song. That year, ahbez was photographed in the studio with Brian Wilson, who was reaching new creative heights with Good Vibrations and the Smile album sessions: indeed, Beach Boys tracks such as Vegetables and the exotic instrumental Let’s Go Away for a While are perfect. in the ahbez aesthetic.

Disheartened by the lack of success of his solo album and devastated by the death of his wife, Anna, in 1963, Ahbez stopped recording in the late 1960s, although hundreds of manuscripts of his songs were deposited at the Library of Congress. Even as it disappeared from popular culture, its influence persisted: in 1968, the Beatles released Mother Nature’s Son on the White Album; the song was written by Paul McCartney under the direct influence of Nat King Cole’s version of Nature Boy.

Ahbez died in Palm Springs in 1995 from injuries sustained in a car accident; he was 86 years old. In recent years there has been renewed interest in his work and life, with a re-release of Eden’s Island and two excellent compilations of hard-to-find material: 2014’s The Exotic World of Eden Ahbez and 2016’s Wild Boy .: The lost songs. Compiled by filmmaker and ahbez expert Brian Chidester, these albums range from exotic, offbeat rock ‘n’ roll and surf to the beatific vibe that’s characteristic of ahbez. Chidester was also instrumental in producing the remarkable 2021 album Eden Ahbez’s Dharmaland, which featured some of Ahbez’s songs rescued from the Library of Congress and reinterpreted by Swedish band Ìxtahuele. With a film about Ahbez’s life, As the Wind: The Enchanted Life of Eden Ahbez, currently in production, this extraordinary time traveler finally seems ready to get his due – well over 70 years after his most famous song introduced him and his beliefs to the world.

An expanded edition of Eden’s Island is now available through Rough Trade.

Corina C. Butler