Origins of the Song “Nature Boy”
Around 1974 the American photographer William Eggleston sat down at the piano at Ardent Studios to accompany Alex Chilton for an impromptu rendition of the standard Nature Boy made popular by Nat King Cole in 1948. This track would be included on the Big Star album THIRD/Sister Lovers. But I never knew the song was written by a “proto-hippie” living in a tent in the Hollywood Hills.
The song was written by a Brooklyn-born orphan who took the adopted name George McGrew and was raised in Kansas. Renaming himself eden ahbez (‘e’ and ‘a’ are lowercase) he moved to California in 1941 and started playing piano in a raw foods cafe in LA run by some German immigrants who were following the Lebensreform movement—a back-to-nature philosophy popular in Germany and Sweden in the 19th Century. Called “nature boys” ahbez and others subsisted on raw fruits and vegetables, wore long hair and beards and lived off the land. ahbez married, had a son and the family settled up in the woods under one of the L’s in the Hollywood sign.
It’s not explained how he came to know the singer/songwriter Johnny Mercer but apparently Johnny encouraged ahbez to take his new song down to Nat King Cole’s manager. He wasn’t admitted to the club that night but it did reach Cole who would eventually track ahbez down. The song went to #1 on the Billboard charts in 1947.
here’s a link to Cole performing the song.
The press began searching out what they could about ahbez.
Below is a link to a very scripted first meeting between Cole and ahbez where ahbez declares he’s staying at the best hotel in New York—Central Park. Make sure to click on the other link for part 2! (thanks Joe Romersa for keeping this incredible archive)
Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughn later recorded versions of Nature Boy. ahbez later wrote songs for Doris Day, The Ink Spots, and Sam Cooke but he never changed his life style.
In 1960 he recorded a sort of exotica/poetry album called Eden’s Island. It’s like Martin Denny meets Rod McKuen.
When the counter-culture finally caught up with ahbez, Donovan sought him out, Grace Slick and The Great Society did a version of Nature Boy and Brian Wilson had him over to the studio while he was recording The Beach Boys, Smile.
ahbez’s wife Ana died in 1963, his son in 1971. He died in 1995 at the age of 86 from injuries sustained in a car accident.
I want to close out with the ahbez-penned, Lonely Island by Sam Cooke where you learn sometimes nature boys get the blues too. Thanks to Joe Romersa for keeping this wonderful online archive.