John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“Nature Boy”

Nat King Cole’s huge hit in 1948 was an early example of Hippie culture, but sung with his velvety elegance.

By - Jul 13th, 2015 02:15 pm
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Nat King Cole: Nature Boy

Nat King Cole: Nature Boy

What a voice, what a story, what a song! Let’s start with The King,  Nat King Cole. When he opened up that jar of raspy honey, also known as his voice, he made you forget that anyone else in the world, even that other King, had ever sung. Certainly among the greatest and most most moving singers of the twentieth century, Cole and his influence might be measured by noting this: Ray Charles started his career imitating him.

Cole’s early jazz trio work, where he revealed a cool, lightly swinging touch on the piano, will always represent a pinnacle to many of his fans. But he left jazz behind and moved into the world of pop, a shift some found traitorous and never forgave him for. This attitude, where an artist is criticized for “cashing in,” is hard for me to understand. Faced with the rare opportunity to make millions and be adored universally, try to picture yourself saying no. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do it. Nat said yes and still managed to make a lot of beautifully moving music, along with a portion of the expected fluff.

The story of Nature Boy involves a proto-hippie movement from the 1940’s and a hard-to-track-down writer by the name of eden ahbez, (apparently allergic to caps) who was born George Alexandar Aberle. In what sounds like a page from Joni Mitchell’s bio, but isn’t, he played piano at a health food store in Laurel Canyon and came under the influence of a couple from Germany who subscribed to philosophy known as Wandervogel. Popular among German youth, it was dedicated to nature, hiking and leaving the constraints of society behind. Later photos show him to be a guy who would have been right at home during the Summer of Love. You could safely call him the first hippie — that may be why this oddest of odd pop hits began its life in a cave near Palm Springs, where ahbez found himself living.

Irving Berlin and Johnny Mercer both encouraged him to get the song to someone, anyone. When two of the best and brightest American songwriters say you have something, it’s time to do something outside the cave. Berlin even offered to buy it later on. Soon, eden was at Cole’s stage door with a copy of his song. In those pre-cassette days it would have actually been a piece of paper with music and words printed out. Nat’s manager turned eden away, but his valet kept a copy and gave it to his boss.

After playing the song a few times at appearances and getting a very positive response, Cole headed to New York, where it was recorded in a lush orchestral setting and released, in 1948. It sold over a million copies and proved to be a turning point in Cole’s career, breaking him through to a larger and, what you might call, paler audience. You won’t miss the strings in the version we hear — it’s just his groundbreaking trio. Historically, it’s considered one of the first “small” bands. a group that influenced jazzers and rock’n’rollers alike. Talk about a power trio! The guitarist (Oscar Moore, I think but can’t say for sure) is spectacular in his fluid support. There is a level of polish in their delivery that is rarely seen these days. The lofty spiritual nature in this brief lyric is even more out of step with today’s raunchy, materialistic Top 40.

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

The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return

© eden ahbez

The performance is masterful. The way they take their time and just wrap themselves around this gorgeous, minor-key melody shows a calmness and trust in the material that’s rare and getting rarer. The other-worldliness of the track marks it as a permanent outsider — always a message from beyond. It’s hard to think of it as a hit.

Cole died at age 45. Long before The Marlboro man, he became the public face of smoking-related lung cancer. His three packs of Kools everyday were the culprit — he believed they gave his voice that nice raspy edge. Had he survived a few more years, he might have been able to sing a live duet with his daughter, Natalie.

This song has more sidebars than a Vegas casino. When it came time to give credit, not to mention pay, ahbez was nowhere to be found. When finally tracked down, he was sleeping under the Hollywood sign. The song was recorded by everybody and their sister and the royalty checks started rolling in. I wonder, did he give up his cave and Hollywood sign?

Another sidebar revolves around the authorship. Though the copyright never changed, a payment of $10,000 was made to Herman Yablakoff, a composer for the Yiddish Theater. He claimed the melody was a direct lift of his song Shvayg Mayn Harts (“Hush My Heart”). In today’s money, that’s about a quarter of a million. You can buy a lot of nature for that.

So we leave this funny crossroads of commerce and lofty ideals. One listen to this song cleanses the brain of all things material and puts me in a place so far from the reach of modern cares and woes, it qualifies as a first-rate staycation.

3 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: “Nature Boy””

  1. blurondo says:

    “The Nat King Cole Show ” was a staple in our house. Many thanks to my mother for that. More info here:

  2. Chris Miracle says:

    John, thanks for another great article. For a special treat, readers may want to check out the 1946 recording Live at the Circle Room – recorded right here in Milwaukee during a live radio broadcast. A must have for any fan of the king! Available on CD.

  3. John, you had me hooked from ” …that jar of raspy honey, also known as his voice…

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