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The story of the eccentric character behind one of Nat King Cole’s biggest hits is the stuff of legends.
“When legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That line, lifted from John Ford’s masterpiece Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, is often applied when it comes to music journalism. But often times the facts are somewhat muddled, as memory and repeated anecdotes can be notoriously unreliable.
Such is the case with the story behind “Nature Boy,” a pop standard with a haunting melody and deeply spiritual message that have resonated with generations of listeners. Most famously, it was a huge hit for Nat King Cole in 1948, and was subsequently covered by Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, George Benson, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, among countless others.
The piece was written by a mysterious figure named eden ahbez, a free-spirited character who came to Los Angeles in the 1940s and sported long hair and a beard decades before it became fashionable (same with spelling his name with all lower-case letters). It was also reported that he and his wife lived under the iconic Hollywood sign for a time, and he was an early adopter of veganism and Eastern spirituality, again, decades before these practices were more widely embraced.
According to articles in American Songwriter and other publications, ahbez rode his bike to the venue where Cole was playing with the intent of handing “Nature Boy” to the singer. He made it as far as Cole’s manager — others have said it was Cole’s driver — who agreed to pass it along, and the rest is history.
The song, and its quixotic author, came up in conversation twice in recent podcast conversations with JAZZIZ publisher Michael Fagien. Carlos Santana and drummer Michael Shrieve discussed “Nature Boy” as both a catalyst for the guitarist’s playing on the track “Waves Within,” from the classic Santana album Caravanserai — which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year — and as a possible selection for a future album. The song also appears on the new Rickie Lee Jones album, Pieces of Treasure, which was produced by Jones’ longtime cohort Russ Titelman. The pair truly bring out the Middle Eastern nature of the song with use of the oud, a lute-like instrument with origins in that part of the world, and a Moroccan choir. Jones and Titelman also talked about “Nature Boy” and its origins with Fagien.
From the interview with Carlos Santana and Michael Shrieve:Carlos Santana: I think it was Joe Zawinul who baptized me “the Melody Man.” He says, “Nobody plays melody the way you do, man. You can play the hell out of a melody. So you are the Melody Man.” And I was like, “OK. So I’ll just concentrate on bringing a nice, heartfelt, soulful melody to whatever Michael brings.” And I would come into a room and Michael and [bassist] Doug Rauch were creating these moving pictures. And I had to find my way to become Aretha, Etta James, Tina Turner, Nina Simone, with that kind of Miles-ish phrasing, in all this rush of feeling. So that’s how I think. I think of all these components. But you still have to land on the most memorable melody. Like, I’m playing that on “Waves Within,” that’s one of the main things that I start with, which is like a “Nature Boy.” I still wanna do “Nature Boy” and “Oh Danny Boy” together, you know? I think there’s a place for that. Michael and I were talking about embarking on a new adventure pretty soon.
Michael Shrieve: I just heard the story of how “Nature Boy” happened. I’ve been a huge fan of that song, but it’s a fascinating story. So, Nat King Cole was approached by a person that looked like a homeless guy [eden ahbez]. And, in fact, he was; he lived in the park, but for some reason, he was attracted to Nat King Cole. And likewise, Nat King Cole treated him like like a man, you know, no disrespect and everything else. They visited a couple of times, and then this guy brought these lyrics to him, and then he disappeared. And Nat King Cole saw it and said, “This is a gift, and I’ve gotta make a song outta this.” But yeah, it’s a beautiful, beautiful piece of music.
From the interview with Rickie Lee Jones and Russ Titelman:Michael Fagien: I also wanted to ask you about that beautiful, refreshing version of “Nature Boy,” and the use of the oud.
Russ Titelman: It was my idea to get the oud player. Once he got there, he put his parts on the thing, and Rickie said, “Look, just play some free stuff.” And then she put the choir on it, except it was the Moroccan choir on that one
Michael: Michael Shrieve and Carlos Santana told me this interesting story I didn’t know about that song. And it was how Nat King Cole got those lyrics. Russ, you ever heard this story? There was a homeless person … ?
Russ: No, his name is eden ahbez, and he was in L.A. He kind of he looked like [he was homeless] — you know, long hair and a beard. He was pre-hippie hippie [laughs]. And he was friends with this guy, Gypsy Boots, who had a health food store [the Health Hut] on Beverly Boulevard right off La Cienega. And he used to hang at that place, and we used to go there.
Michael: So, he wasn’t a homeless person, he was just a pre-hippie hippie. And he had these words that he had written down. He showed ’em to Nat King Cole …
Russ: He wrote the whole song. The melody, as well.
Rickie Lee Jones: I heard it was about [South Indian-born philosopher Jiddu] Krishnamurti, so there you go.
Russ: And Nat King Cole was playing somewhere, maybe at the Coconut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel, or somewhere [possibly the Orpheum Theater in downtown L.A.]. And ahbez went and waited like at the stage door to hand him the song. And finally, that’s what happened. [Another version claims ahbez gave the song to Cole’s manager, who passed it along to Cole.]
Rickie: Wow. The history of music, isn’t it? It’s amazing. Russ has all these stories, all these details.