Meet “Nature Boy” eden ahbez: The First California Hippie

By and on April 15, 2015

eden ahbez — who insisted that his name be spelled without capital letters, claiming that only “God” and “Infinity” and “Love” were worthy of capitalization — might have been one of the first hippies in California, but he is probably even better known, even if you didn’t know his name, for writing “Nature Boy,”one most enduring pop ballads of the last sixty-plus years. Big thanks to Brian Chidester for photos. Visit his website here.

EDEN 13

ahbez (sometimes just “ahbe,” and often it’s the only name used) was born George Alexander Aberle on April 15, 1908, one of 13 children in a dirt poor Brooklyn family. Most of the Aberle children were given up for adoption or sent to live elsewhere, and ahbez was taken in by a Chunute, Kansas family at the age of nine, and raised under the name George McGrew.

During the 1930s, McGrew/ahbez moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where he became enamored with the swing jazz movement. However, in between his move to Kansas City, and his appearance in Hollywood around 1941, his whereabouts and movements across the country are shrouded in mystery, although apparently he did live in New York City too, sometime during the late 1930s.

EDEN 14

Sources on just about everything in his life differ, in fact, but we do know that ahbez eventually ended up in Los Angeles in 1941, where around the age of 33 years or so, he got a job playing piano at the Eutropheon, a health food/raw food restaurant on Laurel Canyon, owned by John and Vera Richter, from Fargo, North Dakota.

John Richter known in the greater L.A. area for his lectures about the German Naturmensch and Lebensreform life-reform philosophy, a kind of Easter religion type of lifestyle that encouraged the eating of health food (mostly raw fruits and vegetables), and only taking alternative medicine when needed, being liberated and naked (whenever possible — otherwise, they usually wore sandals and flowing white robes), having an open-minded and voracious sexual appetite (some of them were bi-sexual too), wearing their hair long and growing their beards long too, and living as close to nature as possible.

EDEN 15

There were a group of men who worked at the restaurant who adopted this lifestyle, most of them for the rest of their lives — in addition to eden, the familiar names included Bob Wallace, Gypsy Jean, Emile Zimmerman, Gypsy Boots, Tati, Buddy Rose — and they were soon known simply around town, and particularly to the restaurant’s patrons, as “The California Nature Boys,” or often, and even more succinctly, “Nature Boys.”

EDEN 5

Partly because they drew too much attention — and indeed they were probably the first so-called hippies in Southern California — most of them lived in the various hilltop communities above Los Angeles, in Topanga Canyon and other canyon areas, and they mostly slept outdoors, too;  in addition to living in a tree for a time, eden ahbez actually stayed in a shack located near the “L” of the HOLLYWOOD sign. (For more information on the pre-hippie movement, in Germany and Southern California, Gordon Kennedy’s Children of the Sun is essential).

Brian Chidester — one of Night Flight’s contributors — has become something of an expert on eden ahbez, having spent at least 21 years researching his life and music (“with no end in sight,” he says), but also cautions that “any ascertained facts must be disentangled from the mass of legend and fiction. There’s an abundance of unpublished material still being sifted.”

Chidester: “Bob Wallace, one of the original California Nature Boys, told me how it went down in the 1940s and ’50s. He said they all lived in Taquitz Canyon, near Palm Springs, in the fall and winter, and Topanga Canyon in spring/summer. eden, however, because he was in the music business, needed a place to crash in Hollywood from time to time. Wallace told me that Eden and family mostly stayed on Avenel Street, in Silver Lake, in the backyard of John and Vera Richter, early Hollywood health gurus. He also stayed up on Mt. Lee, behind the sign, which was manned by a guy who lived in a shack up there and turned the sign on and off each night/morning. eden used to hold his wooden flutes up to the wind up there and let nature play its own song. I heard another story that Eden and his son were offered any room they wanted in the mansion of some industry big-wig, sometime during the mid-’60s, but the kid (Zoma was his name) asked Eden if they could stay in the “Big Room” instead, meaning outside, under the stars.”

According to eden ahbez’s sister-in-law Pearl Rowe, who wrote about eden in an L.A. Times Sunday feature, dated July 24, 1977, eden also “read books on Far Eastern cultures and philosophies and adopted the concept of a Universal God,” but his real passion remained music. ahbez carved his own wood flutes (which he also gave away to people freely), and he, of course, wrote songs. Great songs.

EDEN 17

One of them was called “Nature Boy,” about a “very strange enchanted boy” who wanders around “over land and sea,” and who finally realizes “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return.” One of the Nature Boys, Gypsy Boots — a vivacious character who also helped to popularize health food and yoga in the Southern California area — has for decades claimed that he, in fact, was the “Nature Boy” that ahbez wrote his song about, although it probably could have been any one of the Nature Boys, frankly. We should probably mention here that, at some point, ahbez also eventually settled down, and married a woman named Anna Jacobson, but little is known about her life.

EDEN 9

What is known is that sometime during ahbez’s working days at the Eutropheon restaurant, he met Cowboy Jack Patton, a western songwriter and radio personality. Patton would later become a spa and health guru to the stars, but during the mid-’40s, he was a mentor of sorts to ahbez, providing financial support and advice about the record business.

It is believed that Patton thought “Nature Boy” was a perfect song for Nat “King” Cole to record, convincing ahbez that he should make every attempt to get backstage during one of Cole’s L.A. concerts and in 1947 that’s exactly what happened, at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown L.A., but ahbez was unable to meet Cole that night, and had to be content with handing Cole’s manager, Mort Ruby, a copy of the song (presumably written out as sheet music, since the song had not yet been recorded).

When Cole heard the song, he loved its haunting melody, somber harmonics and mystical lyrics, and he started performing it at his concerts. However, when it came time to record and release the song, a problem arose. No one had any idea how to get in touch with ahbez to get his permission to release the first recorded version of the song. In fact, nobody in the music business seemed to know who ahez was, and he certainly wasn’t listed in the phone book.

EDEN 16

Eventually, they tracked ahbez down, living under the Hollywood sign, and he granted them permission. A songwriter having a song recorded by Cole might have expected a windfall, but ahbez had no plans to change his lifestyle. He and his wife continued camping outside, eating raw fruits and vegetables, and ahbez continued lecturing on street corners about the benefits of vegetarianism and the Naturmensch philosophy.

By now, though, Cole had started second-guessing releasing the song, which wasn’t like anything else he was hearing on the radio, and he had his record company, Capitol Records, sit on the recording for about a year before he finally decided to put it out as a B-side in 1948.

EDEN 12

It was an immediate success, of course: “Nature Boy” shot to #1 on the Billboard charts, and remained there for eight consecutive weeks during the summer of 1948.

When the press caught wind of ahbez’s off-kilter lifestyle, a media frenzy ensued, and ahbez’s curious story was covered simultaneously in  Life, Time and Newsweek magazines during the summer of 1948, and ahbez finally did get the chance to meet Nat “King” Cole, during the television show called We The People.

EDEN 10

Meanwhile, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn and Dick Hymes all released competing versions of “Nature Boy” and R.K.O. Pictures even optioned the rights to turn “Nature Boy” into a feature-length movie script, and it may or may not have inspired the late 1948 film Boy With The Green Hair (directed by Joseph Losey, and starring Dean Stockwell), which  featured “Nature Boy” throughout and ahbez’s name was amongst the first in the opening credits.

EDEN 6

It was around this same time that ahbez’s wife Anna gave birth to their only child, a son, named Zoma.

Meanwhile, the usual songwriting royalties issues that come about when a bit hit is on the charts — songwriters often come out of the woodwork, claiming they wrote the song — came about when it was discovered that ahbez apparently didn’t have much of a head for business, and he had signed overlapping agreements with several music publishers, and each were now claiming their share of the song.

Then, ahbez ended up being sued when it turned out that his melody of “Nature Boy” was actually too similar to a Yiddish song called “Schwieg Mein Hertz” (“Be Still My Heart”), written by composer Herman Yablokoff.

EDEN 7

ahbez had to pay a substantial settlement to its publisher. It turns out that the melody he’d said had come to him in the “mist of the California mountains” might have actually been something he’d heard back in the 1930s, when he was living in Manhattan and going to Yiddish musical theatre performances.

Apparently, Yablokoff settled out of court for $25,000, but not before having a phone conversation with ahbez, who pleaded his case for not having ripped off the melody.

EDEN 8

In 1949, ahbez followed-up “Nature Boy” with a song he’d exclusively written for Nat “King” Cole, titled “Land of Love (Come My Love and Live with Me).” Doris Day later recorded for Columbia Records, as did the Ink Spots for Decca.

There were other recordings made from his songs, in the 50s, both 45 recordings by ahbez himself, for various labels, and by other singers too, including Herb Jeffries, “The Black Singing Cowboy,” who had been featured in several singing cowboy western films of the 1930s and ’40s.

ahbez and Jeffries would later become friends and often spent time together at Lake Shrine, the Southern California ashram of Paramahansa Yogananda, and sometime in 1948, ahbez wrote a four-page article on mysticism for Yogananda’s Self-Realization magazine. In 1954, Jeffries and ahbez collaborated on an album together titled The Singing Prophet (which included the only recording of eden’s entire four-part “Nature Boy Suite”).

ahbez would continue to record with prominent black artists throughout the ’50s, including Sam Cooke, whose 1957 recording of “Lonely Island” (released on Keen Records) would be the second (and final) ahbez composition to hit the Top 40.

EDEN 2

By 1960, ahbez’s musical tastes were beginning to shift, away from pop and jazz and trending toward the popular exotica genre, which featured vibraphone-enriched melodies — he was also becoming interested in Middle Eastern sounds, and he could often be seen performing — at beatnik-y bongo, flute and poetry gigs — at L.A. coffeehouse like the Insomniac Café in Hermosa Beach and the Gas House in Venice Beach.

ahbez would finally get his first chance to record an album of his own songs when Bob Keane have him the opportunity to record Eden’s Island for Keane’s Del-Fi Records. The album was a conceptual affair, with Martin Denny-esque arrangements, and ahbez himself played flute and recited his narrative poems about a mystical hideaway, of which “Full Moon” is probably the best example.

The album, which suffered from Del-Fi’s distribution troubles, sold poorly, fewer than a couple hundred copies, and today that original vinyl release is considered a valued collectible.

EDEN 3

In 1964, eden’s wife Anna died, at the age of 32, from cancer. Filmed silent footage from her funeral shows family members and friends looking on as eden sits crossed-legged by her graveside, playing a gong and reciting poetry. He took her death hard, and slipped into seclusion, often spending time out near the Palm Desert area.

When he was in town, for an infrequent music gig, he’d often drop in to visit friends, including the time he was photographed, on January 5, 1967, sitting beside Brian Wilson in a recording studio (probably Western Recorders) when Wilson was tracking a “Heroes & Villains” session for the planned Beach Boys’ Smile album.

EDEN 11

That same year, UK folk singer Donovan is said to have tracked ahbez down in Palm Springs for what was, reportedly, a near-telepathic conversation between the two “wanderers.”

In 1971, ahbez’s son Zoma was found face down, floating in a river, at the age of 17, and ahbez slipped further into seclusion.

EDEN 4

In fact, he was mostly forgotten until the 1993 publication of the San Francisco-based RE/Search Publications’ Incredibly Strange Music Vol. 1  book (there was also an accompanying compilation CD release around the same time), and the mention of eden ahbez’s name by a collector, Mickey McGowan, who described eden’s quite rare 1960 album as sounding like “Martin Denny had gotten together with Jack Kerouac (if Kerouac had become a hermit instead of a beat, that is).”

Renewed interest in ahbez continued to surge during the mid-90s bachelor pad/lounge & exotica revival, and in 1995, the Del-Fi label — which made a comeback as a catalog CD reissue company around the same time — put out the first compact disc version of the 1960 album, now called Eden’s Island (The Music Of An Enchanted Isle) , featuring liner notes by Domenic Priore and the author of this post (I also wrote liner notes for the subsequent CD reissue by the Collector’s Choice label in 2004).

eden ahbez died, before the release of the Del-Fi CD, on March 4, 1995, due to injuries he suffered after being hit by a car, out in Palm Desert, CA. He was 86 years old. At the time of his death, he’d been working on a book and album titled The Scriptures of the Golden Age.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.