eden ahbez – Tobago / The Old Boat
Del-Fi Records 4131 US Year 1960
Track 1 – Tobago
Track 2 – The Old Boat
Ever feeling like going away…far, far away? Sometimes the best trips are only as far as your record player. I have wanted share eden ahbez for some time on this blog, but the man was mysterious, you could even say mythical. Meaning there’s just not a lot out there to be found on this ahbez’s life.
Thankfully Brian Chidester’s elaborate Eden’s Island blog unveils a bit about the man, although after going through it all, you still want to know more. I’m so thankful that there are people out there spending the time documenting their knowledge and experiences with these disappearing artists. With some other news articles and such, here’s a brief summary of what I could put together, on eden ahbez and in particular, the story that leads to this 7″.
George Alexander Aberle was born, along with his twin sister Editha, on 15 April 1908, in Brooklyn, New York, to a Jewish father and a Scottish-English mother. Born in the depression, orphaned along with 12 other siblings, he spent his early years in the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York. He was then adopted, in 1917, by a family in Chanute, Kansas, and raised under the name George Mc Grew. During the 1930s, he lived in Kansas, where he performed as a pianist and dance band leader. But he didn’t stay long. He never stayed at any place for very long. He figured he didn’t fit into any prefabricated niches of society. He read books on Far Eastern cultures and philosophies and adopted the concept of a universal God. Then he was at home in the world. He hopped freight trains and waked across the country many times, and absorbed the echos of life around him. It’s probable he lived in New York City for some time, although little is known of that period of his life.
ahbez ventured to Hollywood, because he heard that’s where you go if you have a song…
Around 1940, Aberle arrived in Los Angeles and began washing dishes and playing live piano at the Eutropheon, a small health food store and raw food restaurant on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. The cafe was owned by John and Vera Richter, German immigrants who followed a Naturmensch and Lebensreform (1.) philosophy influenced by the Wandervogel (2.) movement in Germany. John Richter gave lectures throughout the Greater Los Angeles area during the 1940s, and some of the employees at the Eutropheon were young Americans who’d adopted his transcendentalist philosophy.
These followers, known as “Nature Boys” and who included Robert “Gypsy Boots” Bootzin, wore long hair and beards and ate only raw fruits and vegetables, a lifestyle that would be influential on the hippie movement that was to come, in California. During this period, Aberle adopted the name eden ahbez, choosing to spell his name with lower-case letters, claiming that only the words God and Infinity were worthy of capitalization. He is also said to have desired the A and Z (alpha and omega), the beginning and the end, in his surname, but he was known to friends simply as ahbe. During this period, he wore long unkempt hair, a bronze beard and a flowing white toga with leather sandals. ahbez would soon met Anna Jacobson, who became his wife and the mother of his only child, Zoma.
Nature Boy – In 1947, ahbez approached Nat King Cole’s manager backstage at the Lincoln Theater in Los Angeles and handed him the music for a song he wrote (some say it was he’s valet that passed on the piece of sheet music to Nat). That song was Nature Boy, and Cole began playing the song for live audiences to much acclaim, but he needed to track down its author before releasing his recording of it. Legend has it, that he, along with his wife, were discovered living under the first L of the famous Hollywood sign. He would became the focus of a media frenzy when Cole’s version of ahbez’s composition shot to No. 1 on the Billboard charts and remained there for eight consecutive weeks during the summer of 1948. Just for the record, Capitol Records sat on the recording for about a year, then finally put out the track as a B-side to Lost April.
ahbez was covered simultaneously in Life, Time, and Newsweek magazines. Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan later released versions of the song. ahbez also faced legal action from Yiddish musical composer, Herman Yablokoff, who claimed that the melody to Nature Boy came from one of his songs, Shvayg mayn harts (Be Still My Heart). ahbez claimed to have “heard the tune in the mist of the California mountains.” There’s also reports that ahbez told the press that he’d heard the melody in the solitude of a cave, a notion he reiterated throughout his life. However, legal proceedings resulted in a payment to Yablokoff of $25,000 in an out-of-court settlement. (3.)
Soon after Nature Boy hit the top of the charts, R.K.O. Pictures optioned the rights to turn the song into a feature-length movie script, which likely melded into the late 1948 film, Boy with the Green Hair, a bizarre war time tale directed by Joseph Losey, starring Dean Stockwell. The picture featured Nature Boy throughout, and ahbez’s name was amongst the first in the opening credit roll.
ahbez continued to supply Cole with songs, including Land of Love (Come My Love and Live with Me), which was also covered by Doris Day and The Ink Spots, but unfortunately, none of these versions brought in any real success. For a brief period, some of the biggest jazz and pop artists of the day took an interest in working with ahbez, and recorded his songs for major American record labels. In 1950, ahbez’s own Nature Boy Orchestra released End of Desire b/w California, the latter was also recorded by Hoagy Carmichael, re-titled Sacramento, about a vagabond traveling the California coast by freight train. End of Desire was recorded by April Stevens & also Jack Powers, backed by another ahbez original, Guitar Totin’ Cowboy. ahbez would also collaborate with Wayne Shanklin during the 1950s, and together they came up with Hey Jacque, released in 1954 by Eartha Kitt. B-side to Kitt’s holiday hit, This Year’s Santa Baby, thousands of homes unknowingly had another ahbez ballad on their hands if they’d only turned the record over. ahbez also worked closely with jazz musician Herb Jeffries, and in ’54, the pair collaborated on an album, The Singing Prophet, which included the only recording of ahbez’s four-part Nature Boy Suite.
Throughout the ’50s ahbez continued recording with prominent black artists, including Sam Cooke, whose 1958 Lonely Island would be the second and final ahbez composition to hit the Top 40. Gene Chandler also recorded an almost identical version of that very song, that same year. In 1958 ahbez produced a doo-wop version of Nature Boy by R&B vocal group the Shields, featuring Jesse Belvin. R&B singer George “Biggie” McFadden recorded ahbez’s The Lesson of Love for Jackpot Records in 1958 too. In an interview with the Associated Press from June ’58, ahbez called Lesson his true follow-up to Nature Boy, insisting that he was also writing a “rock ‘n’ roll spiritual.”
In US mainstream, the strong tiki culture had introduced “exotica” music, a crossover between smooth jazz and Latin swing, with haunting melodies rooted in folklore sounds from different parts of the world. Often there were sound effects that would create an almost spooky jungle or dreamy island beach atmosphere, and even today it’s so easy to be completely taken away while listening to some of the Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman masterpieces of that time. ahbez’s first foray into the instrumental genre came in 1956, with three compositions he wrote for Bob Romeo & his Jungle Sextet’s Aphro-Desia LP. The tracks were Lisbon Street Dance, Zen and Sahara. The album jacket was graced by Anita Ekberg wearing a gypsy costume, and the cover also warned that the primitive rhythms therein could arouse uncommon emotions for the unaccustomed listener. Bob Romeo met ahbez’s Middle Eastern chord structures with proto-exotica percussion and abstract flute tones, with guidance from West Coast cool jazz giant Laurindo Almeida on guitar.
Eden’s Island – It was in 1960 when ahbez finally took an opportunity to record his full length solo album, Eden’s Island (Del-Fi Records). He had spoken of a “spiritual song cycle” as far back as 1958 in an interview with the Associated Press, and often performed bongo, flute and poetry gigs at L.A. beatnik coffee-houses such as the Insomniac Café (Hermosa Beach) and the Gas House (Venice Beach). ahbez approaches the field of exotica music from a different point of view, creating an epic concept album about an utopian society living in peace and harmony on an island far away from the modern western world as we know it. He would also utilize unusual combinations of instruments (flutes, bongos, vibes) and sound effects like creaking boats to conjure up the aural equivalent of a tropical breeze, but unlike Denny or Lyman, ahbez often added his own spoken poetry, speaking of coves, paradise, and other idyllic subjects. Eden’s Island seemed to be the grandiose summation of ahbez’s philosophic idealism.
The 7″ released from this album actually has a twist with the A side, in that it is an instrumental version of the opening and title track of the LP. I personally find this version, title Tobago on the 45, more pleasing. It’s pure escapism with it’s wind through the trees and the faraway birds. It’s not too difficult to picture ahbez’s figure standing distant on an far island hill, but close enough to make out his robe and hair slowly blowing through the salty wind, as he plays his wooden flute…and this weaving and undulating melody. On the B side is The Boat Song, as it is laid down on the LP. Again here, the listener is transported, however this time, the journey is further away, deep into the far ocean, but it still carries with a lovely rhythmic sway. Perfect track to listen to after a long night out DJ’ing or dancing, when you’ve just come home and you’re feeling completely wrecked! Chances are you’ll be completely lost into a peaceful state of sleepful bliss by the time the track is done…and it’s likely 8 hours later you’ll wake up to the crackling needle wearing down on the turntable.
Very grateful to have a 7″ release from the unique Eden’s Island album, especially with these two tracks. And while the whole LP is a journey that probably should be taken continuously from beginning to end, Full Moon, Banana Boy, and the prophetic La Mar all a big thumbs up from me. But was the world ready to take a trip out to Eden’s Island in 1960? Well, according the record’s producer Bob Keane, the album sold less than 500 copies. Adding another reason why it’s now a quite sort after record for a lot of exotica collectors. After this album, ahbez’s appearance on vinyl became thin.
During the ’60s, he did release a handful of singles on various labels. Surfer John (flipped with John John), is an amusing and snappy shot of surf-exotica by Nature Boy & Friends (Bertram International Records) that tells a brief tale of a surfer who wasn’t afraid of taking on the largest of waves, well until until one fatal day that is. The kooky Yes, Master (b/w Jungle Bungalow), by Don Carson & the Casuals (Bertram International Records) is also witty and includes sound disciplinary clapping that sounds more like spanking to me. In 1960, there was also quite an illustrious operatic version of Nature Boy (b/w Lonely King of Rock and Roll) by Don Reed & “The Voice Of Love” Lorelei, that is truly wondrous (A&R Records). The novelty tune titled Mr. K by John Bean (Reprise Records) from 1963, with burps and all, makes you wonder can it get any more bizarre?
Anna Ahbez died in 1964, at the young age of 35, from cancer. Footage of her funeral shows family members and friends looking on as ahbez sits crossed-legged by Anna’s gravestone, playing a gong, and reciting some unknown words (the footage being silent). Zoma Ahbez died of a drug overdose in 1969, having been found seated in a lotus position. Some have claimed foul play was involved.
From 1970 onward, ahbez himself released very little. After Elvis Presley’s death in August 1977, ahbez’s old songwriting partner, P. Sterling Radcliffe (aka Don Sterling, aka Don Reed), re-recorded The Lonely King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, a tune the pair had written and released in 1960, as a new single on Via Records; Radcliffe left ahbez off the credits.
Anbez passed away on March 4, 1995 due to injuries incurred from an auto accident. At the time of his death, ahbez had been working on a book and album titled The Scriptures of the Golden Age. The overnight smash, Nature Boy, is best remembered for its universal benediction, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” It has since been covered by literally thousands of artists, including Miles Davis, Grace Slick, and David Bowie. Congressman Bill Aswad recited the lyrics before the Vermont House of Representatives at the passing of his state’s same-sex marriage bill in ’09.
1. Lebensreform (“life reform”) was a social movement in late 19th-century and early 20th-century Germany and Switzerland that propagated a back-to-nature lifestyle, emphasizing among others healthy raw organic foods, nudism, sexual liberation, alternative medicine, and religious reform and at the same time abstention from alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and vaccines
2. Wandervogel is the name adopted by a popular movement of German youth groups from 1896 onward. The name can be translated as rambling, hiking, or wandering bird, and the ethos is to shake off the restrictions of society and get back to nature and freedom. Soon the groups split and there originated ever more organisations, which still all called themselves Wandervogel, but were organisationally independent.
3. To that end it is worth noting that the first two measures of the song’s melody also parallel the melody of the second movement in Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in A, Op. 81 (1887). It is unknown if ahbez and/or Yablokoff were familiar with Dvořák’s piece, or if they arrived at the same melodic idea independently.
Again I have to mention how useful Brian Chidester’s elaborate Eden’s Island website was for this post. Please do visit it for a far more in-depth reading on abhez and the life around him. Also referencing…
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