The Wild Life Of Eden Ahbez, The Vagabond Songwriter Behind Nat King Cole’s ‘Nature Boy’

Published December 12, 2023
Updated February 27, 2024

The little-known songwriter behind one of the biggest hits of the 1940s was also a country-wandering nomad who once lived under the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles.

Eden Ahbez

Full Moon Filmseden ahbez was the creative mind behind several hit songs in the 1940s and 1950s.

In 1948, camping out under the first “L” of the Hollywood sign was a man with shoulder-length hair who often wore white robes and sandals. He may have almost resembled the modern image of Jesus, if Jesus was a proto-hippie who slept outdoors and ate only fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

Anyone who came across this man would never have guessed that he was the writer of the then-number one hit song in the United States: Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy.” This mysterious vagabond’s name was eden ahbez — and he preferred that his name was spelled in all lowercase, as the only words he felt worthy of capitalization were Nature, God, Happiness, and Life.

Though ahbez was widely considered to be an eccentric for most of his life, he didn’t think his way of living was all that strange. As he once said in an interview with Life Magazine: “I look crazy but I’m not. And the funny thing is that other people don’t look crazy but they are.”

Today, many believe ahbez was one of the first people to live a “hippie” lifestyle in the United States — years before it was popular.

Eden Ahbez’s Early Life

Proto-Hippie Eden Ahbez

Full Moon Filmseden ahbez is often considered a pioneer of the early hippie movement in America.

eden ahbez was born George Alexander Aberle in Brooklyn in 1908. His mother died when he was young, and he spent his early years in the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum, where he learned how to play the piano. He was adopted by a family in Kansas when he was nine years old, and he was then subsequently raised under the name George McGrew.

Little is known about his time in Kansas, but after the Great Depression hit, the now-20-something man began wandering aimlessly around the Midwest. It’s believed that he spent some time playing the piano at bars and clubs in Kansas City in the 1930s. Later in the decade, he reportedly found himself in Miami, Florida, where he began learning about vegetarianism and meditation.

By the 1940s, the vagabond musician had moved to Los Angeles. Now in his 30s, he took on the name eden ahbez and joined up with a local community of nature mystics, many of whom were passionate about vegetarianism, promoting environmental consciousness, and the idea of “returning to nature.” These philosophies all played a huge role in ahbez’s lifestyle.

“Put simply: he did not think society, government, legislation, or education could solve the problems of the heart and of why humans suffer and fight each other and destroy the planet,” said Brian Chidester, who’s producing a documentary on ahbez, in an interview with It’s Psychedelic Baby! Magazine. “He felt that could only come through solitude, patience, focus, awareness of nature and of the present moment, and through compassion.”

eden ahbez also found love after he got to L.A. While he was perusing a health food store one day, a woman named Anna Jacobson caught his eye. Determined to meet her, ahbez followed her out to a streetcar, passing a note with his name and the address of the place he was staying at the time. Anyone else likely would have been terrified — but Jacobson, a fellow mystic herself, was charmed, and the two were married just a month later.

Through it all, ahbez continued to work on music — a passion that would soon lead to him creating a hit song for Nat King Cole.

“Nature Boy”: An Unlikely Hit

A video of Nat King Cole performing eden ahbez’s most famous song.

In 1947, eden ahbez approached either the manager or the valet for Nat King Cole backstage at the Lincoln Theater in Los Angeles and handed him some tattered sheet music, asking him to give it to Cole.

Cole quickly fell in love with the piece, which was titled “Nature Boy.” He began playing it live at his shows, but he couldn’t officially record it until he got in touch with the mystery man who wrote the song.

As the story goes, ahbez was eventually found living underneath the Hollywood sign. He gave permission to Cole to record the song, and soon after he did, “Nature Boy” rocketed to the top of the charts, claiming the number one spot for eight weeks during the spring of 1948.

The release of the soft, peaceful song came at a tumultuous time for America. World War II had recently ended, and the Cold War had just begun. But early sentiments of the anti-war movement that would take hold in the nation in the 1960s and 1970s were beginning to appear.

“For such a gentle, pacifistic song to have become the best-selling single of the year speaks to a sense of inchoate longing in the U.S. at that time, barely three years after the second world war,” wrote Jon Savage for The Guardian.

The song becoming a nationwide hit was, ironically, in direct contrast with ahbez’s lifestyle. Even after earning royalties from “Nature Boy,” ahbez continued to live his itinerant lifestyle, eschewing most material possessions and granting few interviews to curious reporters. But every so often, he would reemerge in the public eye to share more of his work with the world.

Eden Ahbez’s Continued Music Career

Brian Wilson

It’s Psychedelic Baby! Magazineeden ahbez was with the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson in the studio when Wilson was recording the Smile sessions.

A number of other artists covered eden ahbez’s “Nature Boy,” including Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan. Meanwhile, eden ahbez continued to write songs for Cole — like “Land of Love (Come My Love and Live with Me)” — and several other big-name performers, such as Eartha Kitt and April Stevens.

Notably, in 1958, Sam Cooke released ahbez’s song “Lonely Island,” which charted within the top 30 songs on the Billboard chart.

In 1960, ahbez decided to release a solo album, Eden’s Island, which Light in the Attic Records later called “one of the world’s most important albums in the field of Exotica, Jazz and even Proto Psychedelic Music.”

One reviewer wrote in 2023: “‘edens island’ is a mix of spoken word interludes, jazz and exotica that certainly stands out as original for its time. I have no idea how much it sold but it certainly had an effect on Brian Wilson and you can hear its influence on ‘Smile’ in places.” (Interestingly enough, ahbez was in fact photographed with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys in the studio around the time of the Smile sessions.)

That said, the album sold poorly at the time it was released — reportedly less than 100 copies — but it has come to be regarded as somewhat of a cult classic and has been recognized for ahbez’s influence on some of the popular music of his time, such as exotica and island-inspired tunes. ahbez’s influence even reached The Beatles as they recorded their White Album.

“I think ‘Nature Boy’ had an implicit and sometimes explicit effect on the hippie generation in general,” Chidester said. “Paul McCartney said as much when he credited ‘Nature Boy’ with being the inspiration behind his song ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ in an interview a few years ago.”

Eden Ahbez’s Later Years And Lasting Influence

Eden's Island Album

As The Wind: The Enchanted Life of Eden Ahbezahbez’s solo album sold less than 100 copies when it was first released, but it’s since become a cult classic.

In the 1960s, the hippie movement that eden ahbez had embodied early on entered into the mainstream. But after his wife died of cancer in 1963, he lost much of his artistic inspiration, as she had inspired many of his songs.

By the end of the decade, he had become increasingly withdrawn, though he occasionally resurfaced to collaborate with artists on projects. And every so often, he’d grant a rare interview to reporters who contacted him.

ahbez died in 1995 at age 86 following a car accident, but his influence lived on, and there has been renewed interest in his life and music, especially in recent years. His solo album Eden’s Island was reissued shortly after his death, and has since been reissued numerous times in recent decades.

Brian Chidester, who is currently working on a documentary about ahbez called As the Wind: The Enchanted Life of Eden Ahbez, also worked with a Swedish exotica band named Ixtahuele to record and release an album of ahbez’s unrecorded songs, titled eden’s ahbez’s Dharmaland.

“In 2009, I ended up doing research on [ahbez] at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. and came across a big file of copyrighted lead-sheets that he’d submitted to the library between 1955 and 1968,” Chidester said. “In there were 22 titles from 1960-63, none of which I recognized from my previous research, and which over time I realized had some shared themes, either musically or lyrically or both.”

He continued, “Between late 2018 and summer 2019, I whittled it down to twelve tracks from the original stash of 22 lead-sheets, based mainly on the way in which the tracks were interconnected, and how they told a loose story of this imaginary world called Dharmaland.”

While eden ahbez was lesser known during his life — save for his work on creating the beloved song “Nature Boy” — his life and influence on exotica music and the hippie movement are now finally coming to light.

After reading about eden ahbez and “Nature Boy,” read about the “first” American hippie, who brought the lifestyle to the U.S. in the 1910s. Or, check out these photos of the Beatnik movement of the 1950s.

Hannah Reilly Holtz
Hannah Reilly is an editorial fellow with All That's Interesting. She holds a B.A. in journalism from Texas Tech University and was named a Texas Press Association Scholar. Previously, she has worked for KCBD NewsChannel 11 and at Texas Tech University as a multimedia specialist.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
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Holtz, Hannah. "The Wild Life Of Eden Ahbez, The Vagabond Songwriter Behind Nat King Cole’s ‘Nature Boy’.", December 12, 2023, Accessed May 25, 2024.