History’s one-hit wonders make up a long, sometimes colorful and often tragic legion. Eden Ahbez was one of the luckier ones. He had a compelling song, with an unusual melody and a message of universal love. He was able to prevail upon Nat Cole’s valet to get it to the "King" at the Lincoln Theatre on Central Avenue and his fortunes took a definite upturn.
Ahbez was a dance-band pianist from Kansas City, real name George McGrew. Like so many in the Great Depression, he hopped a freight train and made it to California in 1939 with the idea of breaking into the music business. Though he’d hoboed around the country, California was transformative: McGrew became eden ahbez — affecting the lower case.
He found a handful of other bohemians who lived off the land and attracted attention for their back-to-nature stance. Ahbez slept under the stars — in the desert, under the Hollywood Sign and in Griffith Park. And that was his pattern for many years. Even when “Nature Boy” was making noise and Life magazine came calling, Ahbez was most comfortable away from the spotlight.
In 1948, Cole didn’t just turn “Nature Boy” into a No. 1 hit; he made it a standard. The phenomenal success of the song continues to this day — Sinatra, Doris Day, George Benson, David Bowie, Nick Cave and scores of others have all recorded it.
Ahbez, the longhaired, bearded nature boy of the song, wrote many more ditties before he died in 1995 at age 86. Thirteen of them (plus a rare version of "Nature Boy") are collected in the new LP Wild Boy: The Lost Songs of Eden Ahbez (released last month on Bear Family).
Ahbez scholar Brian Chidester (and author of a 2014 L.A. Weekly feature on Ahbez's eccentric life and music career) has complied and annotated this clutch, a motley gathering of recorded curios and oddities. Ahbez appealed to successive generations of beats, hippies, rockers, new agers and exotica aficionados, yet he was never able to repeat his “Nature Boy” breakthrough or become quite the transformative figure that Chidester suggests.
The selections range from Nat King Cole crooning “Land of Love,” to the Talbot Brothers’ English ballad–style treatment of “Nature Boy,” to trumpeter Ray Anthony’s Vegas-style flag-waver “Palm Springs,” to Eartha Kitt’s breathy vocals and beady vibrato on “Hey Jacque,” to Arthur Lyman’s somnambulant exotica for “Eden’s Island,” to Pat Boone sound-alike John Harris handling “Monterey” and “Overcomers of the World.” The former nods to the Monterey Jazz Festival (“I was up in Monterey, and I heard the hippies play ...”) and the latter oozes new-age greeting-card floss (“... love will make this world so beautiful ...”) via Ahbez’s naive lyrics.
After “Nature Boy,” Ahbez seems to have lost the ability to craft idiosyncratic chord sequences or interesting melodies. Just about all of these selections are two-chord songs, though a few skillful arrangers try to make the most of them. Harry Geller’s charts for “India” and “Child of Nature” (for Ahbez vocals) have all the trimmings of Paul Weston at Capitol Records, including the Randy Van Horne Singers. Cole’s well-chosen piano chords over Weston’s gently swirling strings in “Land of Love” are perhaps the musical high point of this album.
Other tracks contain surprises. “Umgowah” (Hollywood B-picture vernacular for faux African dialogue) has an early rock & roll beat led by a Dixieland trombone. Mort Wise and the Wisemen’s title track is full of jungle noises and leaden percussion before breaking into a rockabilly jag. “Overcomers of the World” might be a recessed civil rights cheer but it’s up to Paul Horn’s flute work to inject some melodic content. And that’s a Moog on “The Clam Man,” with its shuffle-off-the-stage vaudeville ending.
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As a singer, Ahbez had about three notes and most of them were flat. It appears, though, that he had a good time trying to market his image through the songs, singing “I’m an old beach-comber, yes-siree” and “Don’t forget that clam, be sure and say hello for me.” His melancholy home recording “Anna Was Mine,” for Ahbez’s late wife, is mildly haunting. But “Surfer John” (“John, John, Surfer John was not afraid to die”) is just good enough for a late-night KXLU goof.
Though he had a couple of minor charting songs, Ahbez’s worthy follow-up to “Nature Boy” never came. As this compilation makes clear, if he never scored again, it wasn’t from lack of opportunity or from trying. Some music remains lost for good reason.