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…
Slave Girl (Side 2 Track 2)
While this is a far lesser known track from the Farina brothers, this exotic sultry instro has to be my fav from this talented duo! And to find it on a 45, means I can now take it with me everywhere I go.
Farina brothers, Santo Anthony & John Steven, were born in Brooklyn, New York, just 4 years apart. Santo, the elder, was born October 24, 1937 and then Johnny followed, April 30, 1941. The boys were young when their Dad was drafted into the army and stationed in Oklahoma. One evening on the radio, he heard this beautiful accent while listening to country and western…it was the sound of the steel guitar. He wrote home to his wife and said “I’d like the boys to learn to play this instrument”. When he returned from the war they searched out for a man who could get them started with the steel. The boys, I imagine, probably jumped for the opportunity. What kid doesn’t want to play a guitar of sorts?
But although their dad was super keen to have the boys learn that very particular style that carried those unyielding memories, and although he was successful in finding a lap steel guitar somewhere in a music store in Brooklyn, there was no certainty that the right teacher who had the specific skills would materialize. After a few failed attempts from baffled music school tutors, who just lacked the know-how to master the “sound”, their frustrated dad searched himself and eventually found an authentic Hawaiian musician with the skills. The brothers finally had a teacher with the expertise, and thanks to some Italian food coaxing, he would tutor the boys at their own home. After about 5 months, the teacher headed back to Hawaii, and the brothers never saw him again, but he had left behind enough of his teachings for Santo and Johnny to now take flight…and spread their wings they did.
When Johnny reached the age of twelve, he began to play accompaniment to Santo on a standard electric guitar (his big brother helped him learn to play). Their supportive father had bought them a Webcor tape recorder, and encourage them to write their own material and record everything. The brothers eventually formed a duo and became rather popular in school, soon started performing at church dances, weddings, clubs and other events in the New York boroughs. The Farina brothers began to gather fans from Brooklyn to Long Island.
In 1958, Mike Dee & The Mello Tones (Santo Farina on steel guitar; Johnny Farina on electric guitar and with their uncle Mike Dee on drums) recorded a self-penned instrumental which they called Deep Sleep. Loosely inspired by the song Softly, As In The Morning Sunrise (Sigmund Romberg, 1929), it had the same chord progression but a simpler melody line. Deep Sleep would in time become Sleep Walk.
The determined younger brother, Johnny, made the rounds of the New York record companies searching for a publishing deal, with a couple of their recorded demos in hand. His persistence and determination paid off and they got lucky with Canadian American Records, who signed them to a song writer’s contract. Although grateful I’m sure, it was a recording deal which is what they were really chasing, and soon enough the opportunity was granted to them. Their first release in 1959 was consummated, and it was called Sleep Walk. And did it do well? Umm…yes it did! It was recorded at Trinity Records in Manhattan and entered Billboard’s ‘Top 40’ on August 17, 1959. The moody eerie composition rose to the No.1 position on the American charts, for two weeks in September, and remained in the ‘Top 40’ list until November 9. There’s a great live version from ’59 on the Saturday Night Beech-Nut Show, on youtube I recommend you looking for.
Santo and Johnny actually wrote lyrics to Sleepwalk, and after the instrumental was a hit song, Betsy Brye (real name is Bette Anne Steele) released a beautiful “lynchesque” vocal version as a single in 1959 (Canadian American Records 106), which did not chart on the Hot 100, but damn I like it! At first it was believed that the composition was written at 2.am early one morning, when one brother woke the other with an idea. But a recent interview with Johnny reveals that it was a long and constant progression of revisited ideas that finally got them the hit.
The follow-up song “Tear Drop” was also a hit, though their self titled LP released that same year, was less successful in the United States. But that takes nothing away from the lp, which was arranged and conducted by Bob Davie, who had been the guiding hand to all of Santo and Johnny’s musical activities. It included some fabulous interpretations of well known ditties such as Caravan, Raunchy, Dream, and there’s even a take on Chuck Berry’s School Days. And you have to hear the wildly hypnotic version of Summertime. But the standout for me at least, has to be the self penned Slave Girl, and it wasn’t that long ago that I made the discovery of it in the form of a mono UK 7″ EP. There’s just something so exciting about this wonderful piece of exotica. It’s slinky (yeah I know I like using that term), sensual, so rhythmic, and it’s quite transporting, but unfortunately it’s also just too short! It’s a fine early night spinner, to get the right kinda’ cool in the air. This ep also includes a gorgeous version of Blue Moon which makes it even more desirable. Also funnily enough, I recently found an Aussie copy with an alternate picture sleeve, in a local record shop bargain bin.
With their unmistakable sound, they appeared on all the top music shows, “The Alan Freed Show”, “Dick Clarks’ American Bandstand”, “The Perry Como Show” etc. etc. Their fame spread to other countries and they got booked on tours in Australia, Mexico and Europe. After the less successful debut album, they issued five more albums for Canadian-American, before the company dissolved in 1965. But Santo & Johnny continued to record and release a great amount of Lp’s and 45’s with other various labels including Imperial, Ricordi and Produttori Associati, the Italian label founded in 1969 by Antonio Casetta. The albums were ethereal, relaxed, sometimes swinging, and variously themed (James Bond, Hawaiian songs, country music, rock and roll hits, etc.), but were more popular internationally than at home.
In 1964, they released an album of Beatles covers including And I Love Her, which hit #1 in Mexico and held the spot for 21 weeks (they received The Golden Kangaroo Award for it). In 1973, Santo & Johnny recorded Nino Rota’s The Godfather theme which went to #1 in Italy and stayed at that spot for 26 weeks which broke all records in Italy (there certainly feels like some Jean-Jacques Perrey channeling going on in that one). They received a “Gold Record” in Italy and were inducted into the Italian Music Hall of Fame.
Santo and Johnny’s distinctive sound influenced a generation of not just guitarists, but all kinds of musicians. “Sleep Walk’s in everybody’s DNA,” says Farina. “John Lennon said he was inspired by Sleep Walk, and that’s why he wrote Free As A Bird. George Harrison released a song called Marwa Blues inspired by Santo and Johnny”.
1999 was a great year for Sleep Walk, it earned BMI’s Millionaires Award symbolizing 2 million airplays on the radio. Also that year, Brian Setzer’s version earned him a Grammy Award for best instrumental of 1999. Because of constant radio airplay and numerous TV show and commercial plays, Sleep Walk continues to be one of the most popular and quickly recognized instrumentals of the 20th century. It was also used throughout the 1992 Stephen King movie, Sleepwalkers.
In 2002 Santo & Johnny were inducted into the International Steel Guitar Hall of Fame. Hanging proudly on his wall, Johnny has 2 Gold Records, one for Sleep Walk and on for The Godfather.
Santo retired from music in the early 70s, but Johnny continues to perform, now taking on the lap-steel role, and still finds time to record new material with his own band. He is also the president of Aniraf, Inc., an international record company based in New York, and currently operates the official Santo And Johnny website.
With a special Hawaiian theme coming up at Night Train this week, I thought what a great opportunity to post this wonderful exotic, twangy delight, that really, I know not that much about. And to tell you the truth, I don’t even own this! This copy belongs to a good friend of mine (hey Bibs!), who has let me look after it for some time…bless his soul. I remember that first night he played it in the background to a lovely summer night with great friends in the mountains. No one seemed to take much notice, however I turned around and looked at him with big (probably drunken) eyes of wonderment.
I had to find out more about this dreamy wave that was drifting me away.
There’s a few, I guess, odd things about this release. Firstly it’s an Aussie pressing, on an obscure local Sydney label called Carina Company. Can’t find a release date (yet), and when I looked through what I could find of the label’s back catalogue, I found a confusing collusion of ethnic all sorts. There’s cha chas and rumbas, national choirs and German hit parades, but also, what I found very strange amongst it all, is one Hendrix release (No Such Animal-1971). Looks like the label was on the circuit from 1957 to 1975, so not too sure why I can’t seem to source more info on it. The back cover tells me the manufacturer was set up in the Daking House, Rawson Place, Sydney.
The second odd thing about this release is the artist Sylvia Mayer, turns out to be Dutch. My researching (goggling) has lead me to Steel Guitarist extraordinaire, Edward (Ekualo) Mayer, who it seems Sylvia was married to. Currently he is established in South Florida and has a group named KAHANU ALA, and is apparently responsible for a majority of the background Steel-Sounds of Sponge Bob…although uncredited. Would love to confirm if it is he who is playing on these tracks, and who are these other “South Sea Hawaiians”? And did Sylvia record anything else other than these 4 tracks that appear here on this ep entitled Zuidzee-Dromen (meaning South Sea Dreams)?
Whether these musicians are authentic Hawaiians means little to me, as I love the sound that have here (I’m certain Edward was originally from the South Pacific). Ulili-e-hula I’m guessing (which I’m doing a lot of on his post) is a traditional song, as I’m finding a few lovely versions out there. I discovered two beautiful versions by Israe Kamakawiwo’ole, where I also was able to find English translation to at least his version.
The voice of the sandpiper is soft and sweet
Little bird who lives by the sea
Ever watchful on the beaches
Where the sea is calm
The sandpiper returns
Sandpiper runs along the beach
Where the sea is peaceful and calm
The voice of the ‘ulili is soft and sweet
How are you, stranger? Very well
You grace our land
Where the sea is always calm
The sandpiper returns
Sandpiper runs along the beach
Where the sea is peaceful and calm
I hope you also can feel the glow of this track. A lovely tune to play early in the set, while the cocktails are slowly getting stirred, and as the breeze is cooling.
UPDATE! Looks like a release date from 1956 according to rateyourmusic.com/artist/sylvia_mayer
Thanks ianhartnett for this info!