Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Nature Boy {a singularity}

John Coltane's 1965 recording is the first I'd even heard of this song. It became an instant favorite of mine. I believe that this particular album, The John Coltrane Quartet Plays, is the first Coltrane album I bought. Given the nature of that song and the lyrics, it's as though it had been written with Coltrane in mind. But it wasn't, not by a long shot.

Coltrane's recording is world's away from the first recording, by Nat "King" Cole in 1948. The arrangement is lush, with flute obbligatos giving it the requisite exotic touch. For this tune reeked of the exotic, filling the air with orchids, incense, and small brightly colored birds. Cole's recording sold a million copies, became a hit, and transformed his career.

Here's another version by Cole, this time with a simpler accompaniment.

Ted Gioia has an article about it: The Strangest Hit Songwriter in History:

Today Eden Ahbez would get called a one-hit wonder.

That’s how the music business mocks artists who enjoy a brief taste of fame—a short stay on the chart followed by a lifetime of obscurity.

In Ahbez’s case, his hit was “Nature Boy.” This odd song, released as a single by Nat King Cole on March 29, 1948, sold a million copies and climbed to the top of the Billboard chart.

Industry insiders were astonished. Many dismissed “Nature Boy” as a bizarre novelty song. Perhaps that was understandable—there was no other hit tune like it back then (or now). But the word novelty doesn’t do justice to the poetic and philosophical tone of the lyrics, or the art song quality of the music.

But all the usual labels fall short when applied to Eden Ahbez—including that derogatory term one-hit wonder. You would do better to call Ahbez a guru or a mystic. Frankly, I consider him the first hippie, an advocate for a lifestyle that didn’t even exist when he rose to fame.

"The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love—and be loved in return."

By any measure, he is the least likely hit songwriter of his era. Or perhaps any era.

The story behind “Nature Boy” is as unique as its composer.

In May 1947, Nat King Cole had just performed to a capacity crowd at the Lincoln Theater in Los Angeles, when a strange man came to the stage door. He had long, flowing hair, an unruly beard, and was wearing a toga-like outfit. He insisted that he needed to see Nat King Cole.

This unkempt man was Eden Ahbez, but he never got a chance to see Cole that day. Instead he only got as far as the singer’s valet, Otis Pollard—who sent the visitor packing. But before leaving, Ahbez thrust a tattered piece of music—the score for “Nature Boy”—into Pollard’s hands.

Pollard returned to Cole, and remarked: “The guy I talked to is a genius or a nut.”

And so the article goes. It's a remarkable story, well worth your attention.

Here's another recording, from 1955. Another instrumental, like Coletrane's. Miles Davis on trumpet, Britt Woodman on trombone, Charles Mingus on bass, Elvin Jones on drums, and Teddy Charles on vibes.

One last version, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga (there are more on YouTube).

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