Who Was Eden Ahbez? The First Hippie's Strange Biography
Eden ahbez on the cover of his 1960 album, 'Eden's Island.' Source: Apple Music
In the 1940s, eden ahbez's look of long hair, beard, sandals, and flowing garments wasn't common. Nor was his back-to-earth lifestyle -- he was a hippie before the word existed. When Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy" was released in 1948 it was credited to eden ahbez. Anyone looking at the seven inch single from Capitol might have thought that there was a spelling error on the label, but everything aside from the capitalization was on the money. Aside from penning this monster of a number one single, ahbez was as far away from being an industry type as one can be.
In the 1940s he was living a life that hippies emulated 20 years later. He grew his hair long, he slept under the stars (allegedly beneath the L in the Hollywood sign), and he was a raw vegan who subsisted on $3 a week. Known as eden ahbez, he didn't believe that he deserved to have capital letters in his name, this early hippie and songwriting legend is one of the more mythological pop culture outliers, and his real story is impossible to untangle from his legend.
New York born, Kansas raised
Even though eden ahbez looks like the kind of guy who grew straight out of the ground in Los Angeles, he was born George McGrew in Brooklyn, New York in 1908. His parents were destitute at the time and sent him to live at the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York where he was adopted in 1917 by a family from Chanute, Kansas.
While growing up in Kansas, McGrew was already leaning into his far out lifestyle by doing pretty much whatever he wanted but doing so with a gentle demeanor. His foster mother said of his kind disobedience:
If I told him he could not have permission to do a thing, he always said, ‘Yes, mother,’ and then went ahead and did what he pleased. He is the kindest person imaginable. He’s just different.
What's in a name?
McGrew learned to play piano while in the orphanage and by the 1930s he was quite an accomplished pianist in Kansas City but he quickly grew tired of the midwest. Either by walking or hitching a ride, he made his way to Los Angeles in 1940 where he found a community of like minded individuals working at Eutropheon, a health food store and early raw food restaurant. Here, he became acquainted with a group of guys who referred to themselves as "Nature Boys."
After getting hip to the Nature Boy lifestyle, McGrew grew his hair long and began his practice of eating only raw fruits and vegetables. He took on the all-lowercase name "eden ahbez," which he chose to spell without capitalization, stating that the only words that deserved to be capitalized were God and Infinity.
In 1947, ahbez fell in love with Anna Jacobson after seeing her in a health food store. He followed her down the street and managed to pass her a note with his name and address before she disappeared out of sight. One month later they were married in a fruit orchard. In 1948 she gave birth to their son Zoma (also known as Tatha).
It's not entirely clear why ahbez thought Nat King Cole would be the right man to sing "Nature Boy," his simple song based on an exotic middle eastern melody. Cole's publicity material around the single states that Capitol Records co-founder Johnny Mercer insisted that Cole work with the far out songwriter, but another story states that ahbez simply walked up to Cole's manager backstage at the Lincoln Theater in Los Angeles and handed over the music. Whatever the case, Cole liked what he heard and agreed to record the song.
The only problem was that Cole and representatives had zero idea about how to get in touch with ahbez. He didn't leave any contact information on the song so Capitol Records had to go on a hippie hunt. They reportedly found him living beneath the L in the Hollywood sign. Once the track was released it went to number one on the Billboard charts and remained there for eight weeks. The song was in films, on the radio, and it was covered by Frank Sinatra of all people.
Even when ahbez was sued by Yiddish music composer Herman Yablokoff for ripping the melody from "Nature Boy" from one of his tracks it didn't seem to faze the musical guru. Yablokoff won $25,000 in an out of court settlement but that did nothing to taint ahbez's reputation.
Throughout the remainder of the '40s and into the '50s ahbez continued to work with Nat King Cole on tracks like "Land of Love," and in 1949 he collaborated with everyone from Burl Ives to Eartha Kitt. However, it's his work with jazz-man Herb Jeffries that put ahbez on the forefront of a musical genre that was about to sweep homes across America.
Inspired by the instrumentation of Jeffries and the sounds of the Middle East and Asia, ahbez began writing "primitive" music that fell right in line with the burgeoning Exotica music scene. His 1960 LP, Eden's Island falls right in step with the work of Les Baxter and Martin Denny (even though they were kind of square). Eden's Island was promoted with a walking tour of America but it failed to take the charts by storm. In hindsight, the album would fit perfectly with any tiki themed night even if ahbez would never partake of anything with processed sugar.
Like Bigfoot, but he can play the piano
The final decades of ahbez's life were spent in purposeful isolation. his wife passed away when she she was only 37 years old, and their son died at the age of 22. Ahbez continued to receive royalties from "Nature Boy" and worked with Joe Romersa, a polyglot engineer and producer on a collection of music that's never seen the light of day.
On March 4, 1995, ahbez was hit by a car and passed away at the age of 86. With him disappeared a piece of organic songwriting mystery. He may be mostly remembered as the strange character who gave Nat King Cole one of the biggest hits of his career, but he was also someone who challenged the status quo in a peaceful way. He did things his own way and hoped that you would too.
Tags: eden ahbez | Hippies | Nat King Cole
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