by Lori Halfhide, NOTC Head Researcher
“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…….” These are the opening lyrics to the song “Nature Boy,” released in May of 1948 by Nat King Cole. The song was an enormous hit, spending eight weeks in the number one spot on the charts. It was said to be autobiographical, written by a man calling himself eden ahbez (pronounced AH-bee), deliberately spelled with all lower case letters. After spending almost two weeks in search of details of the life of eden ahbez I want to share with you the story of the Nature Boy.
Born on the 15th of April, 1908, in Brooklyn, New York, ahbez’s name at birth was George Alexander Aberle. The Aberles welcomed two babies that day – George had a twin sister, Editha Brewster Aberle. George and Editha were the children of George Philip and Anna (Mason) Aberle. George and Anna had been married since 1891 and already had nine children: Carrie, Robert (died at age 9), Gracie, Walter, Irene, William, Edna, Lester, and Annie. George Senior was in the printing industry; his occupation varying in different sources: printer, lithograph operator, book binder. Whatever the job, he was unable to make ends meet. The older children were going out on their own, but he wasn’t making enough to feed the younger children. William, Lester, Annie, Editha and George were all taken to an orphanage for Hebrew children in Brooklyn.
William rode an Orphan Train to Missouri. His 1918 World War I Draft Card has Children’s Aid Society placing agent J.W. Swan as his next of kin. Lester, Anna, George and Editha arrived in Chanute, Kansas, on the 12th of January, 1917, under the watchful eyes of Agents Anna Laura Hill and Clara Comstock. The ladies made sure the twins were not separated, going home with William and Saidee McGrew. McGrew was a druggist with his own pharmacy. George and Editha were legally adopted a year later. Right away the twins started attending school, services at the Episcopal Church, and piano lessons. As the twins grew, George and Editha became very talented musicians and performed for local clubs and meetings. George played the xylophone and flute in addition to piano. George was also a Boy Scout, going on campouts in the woods and helping to construct a log cabin, and also was a track star.
After graduation, Editha went to school in Topeka. George stayed in Chanute, playing with an orchestra in the small town. But he had a wandering spirit. George went to Kansas City, Missouri, for a while, changing his name from George McGrew to Alexander Aberle. He played in an orchestra there, too.
By 1940, Alexander Aberle was living with John and Vera Richter on Avenel Street in Los Angeles. The Richters owned and operated a Retail Health Food Store and Alexander worked for them. He apparently made eight cross-country trips during his time with the Richters. While he was wandering, he was writing music. He changed his name again, this time to eden ahbez. He did not capitalize his name; he felt only God’s name should be capitalized and mere mortals were not worthy of that honor. He rode a bicycle everywhere he went and lived outdoors. For some time, he lived under the first L in the famous Hollywood sign. eden wore sandals, coarse woven shirts and pants and never cut his hair or trimmed his beard. One day eden saw a beautiful woman on a bus. When their eyes met, they both knew that they were soulmates. Only one month later eden married Anna Jacobsen on the 14th of January, 1948. The couple made their home in the outdoors.
In 1947, eden took the sheet music for “Nature Boy” to Nat King Cole’s manager backstage at the Lincoln Theatre in Los Angeles. Nat King Cole loved the song, playing it at every show, and recorded it right away. It was released as a single in May of 1948 and shot up the charts. “Nature Boy” spent eight weeks in the number one spot and was the first big hit for Nat King Cole. The song has been re-recorded by many, including Frank Sinatra, David Bowie, Cher, James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Aaron Neville, Natalie Cole, Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett, Tiny Tim, Jose Feliciano, and Leonard Nimoy.
eden made a cross country trip in 1948 during the popularity of “Nature Boy.” He went to New York City and tried to stay in Central Park, sleeping outside, but was not allowed. He instead slept under a tree in a man’s yard. Newspapers followed his journey to New York and back to California. He told reporters that Anna had not accompanied him in the trip because in October, she would become “Mother Nature.” Their only child, a son named Tatha Om Ahbez, was born October 9,1948. They called him Zoma. eden continued to write songs and some were recorded by Eartha Kitt and Sam Cooke. Meanwhile, the ahbez family continued to live outdoors. In 1956 they lived on the beaches of Hawaii where Zoma learned meditation from his father. On the ninth of August 1963, eden lost his beloved Anna. She died at the age of 47 after a battle with leukemia. Zoma drowned in 1971 at the age of 22, leaving eden all alone.
Over the years, eden had written many songs and recorded a lot of them. In 1958 he started recording instrumental music. He released an album, “Eden’s Island,” in 1960. He walked coast to coast to promote the album but it did not do well.
In 1974 eden was living in the LA suburb of Sunland and owned his own recording label, Sunland Records. He recorded some music on his label under the name Eden Abba. eden ahbez died on the fourth of March, 1995, of injuries sustained in a car accident a few weeks prior. After his death, an album called “Echoes from Nature Boy” was released.
eden ahbez was a spiritual man. Many credit him with being a leader in the hippie movement. He was quiet and thoughtful and in many photos he does, indeed, look very sad of eye. He was small in stature, only five feet, three inches tall, with a slight build. He lived outdoors most of his adult life and walked or rode a bicycle for many years. When asked of his past, he told people he’d run away at age 14, never taken piano lessons, and many other half truths. Documentation shows he and Editha were taken in by the McGrews when they were eight and he stayed in Chanute until at least 1930. Newspaper clippings give reports of the yearly piano recitals in which he and Editha participated. I wonder if he told the runaway story and others like it to make his life more interesting. We can only guess at this time.
The end of “Nature Boy”, the song he wrote about his own life, ends with a truly beautiful thought. “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in returned.” Simple, heartfelt words from a simple, nature-loving man.
Published in the Concordia Blade-Empire, Friday 16 December 2021