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The Brooklyn-born musician who wrote Nat King Cole’s 1948 hit “Nature Boy” certainly embodied its title. By the time he composed this soft, mystic song, he was living in woods and parks around Los Angeles, playing piano in a raw food restaurant. He had also changed his name to eden ahbez, insisting on a lower case-only spelling on the grounds that “only God and Infinity deserve capitals”.
The song mixes autobiography with spiritual convictions. The “strange, enchanted boy” of the opening stanza is surely ahbez, and its climax — “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return” — is a moral imperative. Yet this gentle song’s early trajectory included a strike, legal action and racial bigotry.
Ahbez was part of a back-to-nature movement whose followers were known as the Nature Boys. They were influenced by earlier European Naturmensch and Lebensreform philosophies, but this was 1940s America and ahbez was just considered weird.
“I look crazy, but I’m not,” he told Life magazine in 1948. “And the funny thing is that other people don’t look crazy, but they are.”
When ahbez tried to present the manuscript to Cole, he was rebuffed. But a crumpled manuscript did eventually reach the singer, reputedly slipped to his valet. Cole immediately included it in his trio’s repertoire but needed ahbez’s permission for recording. He was found camping with his wife and child below one of the Ls of the Hollywood sign.
Cole recorded “Nature Boy” for Capitol in August 1947 but the label thought the song wayward and shelved it. It was released only because the American Federation of Musicians entered a lengthy dispute, banning all instrumental recording, so that labels were forced to draw on work that was already in the bag. Cole’s shelved version of “Nature Boy” got its turn in March 1948 and chalked up 1m sales, establishing Cole’s solo career.
It also made an unlikely celebrity of ahbez, who, interviewed in 1948 on Chicago radio show We the People, pronounced: “I was born with a love of nature and I was born with the desire to find God.”
But trouble was in the offing. The composer and Yiddish theatre star Herman Yablokoff accused ahbez of appropriating “Nature Boy” from his own song “Shvayg Mayn Harts” (“Be Still My Heart”); ahbez, though insisting that the tune had come to him in the California mountains, settled out of court.
Cole, meanwhile, had to wear skin-lightening make-up to perform the song on television, and burning crosses were erected outside his new home in a white LA neighbourhood. Yet his version of “Nature Boy” was a bridgehead across a racially divided America — something later versions recognised. Included in this strand is the orchestral version that leads off Marvin Gaye’s 1965 Nat King Cole tribute album, and George Benson’s slinky, soulful version on the 1977 album In Flight.
Others chose “Nature Boy” for its commercial appeal. Frank Sinatra had an early hit with choral backing; rock and roll crooner Bobby Darin charted with it in 1961, and British soul-funk band Central Line performed it on the BBC’s Top of the Pops in 1983. A David Bowie version is included on the soundtrack of the 2001 film Moulin Rouge!
A separate strand drew on the song’s spiritual message. Saxophonist John Coltrane turned it into an instrumental lament on 1965 album The John Coltrane Quartet Plays; in the same year, Grace Slick’s rough and ready reading brought it to the attention of the counter-culture. In comparison, Sun Ra’s off-kilter account on the 1977 album Some Blues but not the Kind that’s Blue is almost tranquil.
Interest in ahbez was rekindled when Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett included “Nature Boy” on their 2014 collaboration Cheek to Cheek. “This composer was part of a subculture of nomadic hippies!”, Lady Gaga tweeted. “We channelled our own Gypsy lives in this performance.”
You do have to wonder what the vegetarian ahbez would have made of Gaga’s meat dress.
For more in this series, as well as podcasts with clips from the songs, visit ft.com/life-of-a-song
Photographs: Lisa Larsen/Getty Images; Peter Stackpole