NAT “KING” COLE – “Nature Boy”

Nature Boy record

One of the most enchanting songs of all-time has to be “Nature Boy”, especially the original version recorded by the legendary Nat “King” Cole. I distinctly remember the first time I heard it as a young teenager, and being absolutely enthralled by its haunting beauty. I recognized the singer as Nat “King” Cole – arguably one of the greatest vocalists of the 20th Century – but was not familiar with the song. I asked my father “What is that song?!“, and he told me it was called “Nature Boy”. My father was himself still a teen when the song came out in March 1948. It was a massive hit, spending eight weeks at #1 on the Billboard number-one singles chart from May to July 1948.

The song has a rather interesting back story. It was written in 1947 by a man named eden ahbez. Originally born George Alexander Aberle in Brooklyn, NY in 1908, one of 13 children in a poor family, he spent his early childhood in an orphanage. He was eventually adopted at the age of nine by a family in Kansas and raised under the name George McGrew. During the 1930s, McGrew lived in Kansas City, Missouri, where he was a pianist and dance band leader. He moved to Los Angeles in 1941 and began playing piano at a small health food store/raw food restaurant on Laurel Canyon Boulevard owned by John and Vera Richter, who followed the German Naturmensch and Lebensreform philosophies of veganism and living with nature. Their followers, who came to be known as “nature boys”, wore long hair and beards and ate only raw fruits and vegetables, and were precursors to what would later be called hippies. McGrew changed his name to “eden ahbez”, spelling his name with lower-case letters because he believed only the words “God” and “Infinity” were worthy of capitalization.

Some years later, while living in a cave near Palm Springs, ahbez wrote “Nature Boy”. The song was semi-autobiographical, but also partly a tribute to his mentor Bill Pestor, another Naturmensch advocate who was known locally as “the Hermit of Palm Springs”. ahbez wanted Nat “King” Cole to record the song, and went to see him one night while Cole was performing at the Lincoln Theater in Los Angeles. Cole’s manager refused to talk with him, however, ahbez managed to leave his sheet music for “Nature Boy” with Cole’s valet, but neglected to include his contact information. Cole loved the song, and began performing it at shows, but couldn’t record it as a single without ahbez’s permission. ahbez was finally tracked down living in a shack under the Hollywood sign, and soon found himself at the center of a media frenzy after “Nature Boy” became a #1 hit. His curious story was covered simultaneously in Life, Time and Newsweek magazines during the summer of 1948, and he finally got the chance to meet Cole during the television show We The People. (Bryan Thomas, Night Flight)

eden ahbez nat king cole
ahbez and Cole in 1948 (source unknown)

The song was recorded by Cole in August 1947, backed by an orchestra conducted by Frank De Vol, the in-house arranger of Capitol Records. Also a legend in his own right, De Vol went on to write and conduct soundtracks for numerous films (Pillow Talk, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush…Hush…Sweet Charlotte, Cat Ballou, The Dirty Dozen) and TV shows (Family Affair, Gidget, The Brady Bunch, My Three Sons). For “Nature Boy”, De Vol used lush strings and flute to create the beautiful enchanting soundscape that makes the song so indelible. The gorgeous fluttering notes of the flute evoke sounds of birds singing in a Shangri-La setting. The track’s arrangement is absolute perfection, and the piano keys are stunning as well. And of course, Cole’s famed velvety-smooth vocals are captivating as he croons the poetic lyrics that are simple but profound:

There was a boy
A very strange, enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far
Very far, over land and sea
A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he

And then one day
A magic day he passed my way
And while we spoke of many things
Fools and kings
This he said to me
The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return

Cole eventually considered “Nature Boy” one of his favorite recordings, and the song helped give him crossover appeal to white audiences. In his book, The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire, author Ted Gioia noted that all the musicians “who had created the golden age of American popular song had their quirks and idiosyncrasies, but eden ahbez demands pride and place as the most eccentric of them all“. He added that, in addition to promoting the hippie culture, with “Nature Boy”, ahbez enabled Cole to be instrumental in introducing a new era of black artists in an industry dominated by white popular music. (Wikipedia)

The song was awarded the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, a special Grammy Award honoring recordings that are at least 25 years old and have “qualitative or historical significance”. I think it’s a masterpiece, and one of the greatest songs ever written.