“I’m definitely a romantic… I don’t think life is really worth all the pain and effort and struggling unless you have someone that you love very much.”Chet Baker, 1987
Watching this sublime piece of footage, I’m struck at how timelessly simple it is. Just a man, his voice, and his instrument, backed in the most retrained and beautiful way.
And his short statement at the start rings so true to me – echoing the lyrics of my favourite song of all time, Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy.
Apparently this clip is an excerpt from the documentary ‘Chet’s Romance,’ directed by Bertrand Fèvre. Interest piqued, I’m now on the hunt for a copy of the whole film, but as yet it’s not proving fruitful. The film won the prize for best documentary at the national French César Awards in 1989, so I hope it will still be available somewhere, if I keep searching.
A big statement, I know, but I stand by it. The lyrics as a whole tell a story that’s magically bewitching. And the refrain about love encapsulates my philosophy of life in one, wonderfully simple, line.
I’ve heard this song countless times – from listening to it with my mama when I was a little girl, through to it being a constant edition to any mellow play-list I make. Nat’s soothing voice, combined with the lilting strings and simple, haunting piano line, never fails to make me stop in my tracks and really listen, rather than let it just float by.
But it’s only recently that I discovered what an intriguing story is behind the song’s conception.
The strange and fascinating American songwriter ‘eden ahbez’ wrote the song in 1947, and his life was one of long-haired hippies with flowers in their hair, long before the Peace movement became populist in the 1960s. His real name was George Alexander Aberle but his close friends knew him simple as ‘ahbe’ – a beatnik poet in a full beard, long, flowing white robes and sandals, with a predilection for outdoor living (camping with his wife and young son in L.A’s public parks).
This lifestyle seems to have begun for him in the early 1940’s, when he moved to Los Angeles and supported himself by playing piano in the Eutropheon, a small health food store and raw food café owned by German immigrants. It was here he began to live by a ‘Naturmensch’ philosophy that advised only eating raw fruits, vegetable and nuts (which, considering ahbez lived to almost 90 and even then died in a car accident, could perhaps teach us all something?). It was also here that he changed his name to ‘eden ahbez’ – the lower-case letters purposefully avoiding the capitalization he claimed could only be attributed to two words worthy enough: ‘God’ and ‘Infinity.’ See, I told you he was a little strange!
Quite how he went from health-food shop to acclaimed song-writer is wonderful. In 1947, ahbez diligently loitered outside the stage door of the Million Dollar Theatre, in the hope of approaching Nat “King” Cole with his song ‘Nature Boy.’ After many tries, he was able to get it to Cole’s manager and shortly afterward Cole began to perform the beguiling song live and saw how it touched his audience’s hearts. In order to release a recording of it, however, Cole needed to track down the author and arrange the publishing rights. And here’s where the story gets its magic, as a great search ensued and ahbez was finally discovered living underneath the first ‘L’ of the Hollywood sign (I kid you not!).
The gorgeous recording shot to #1 on the Billboard charts (remaining there for eight consecutive weeks during the summer of 1948), and once the PR’s dream of a story got out, the ensuing media frenzy saw ahbez covered in Life, Time and Newsweek magazines. Stars like Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan later released versions, ahbez continued to supply Cole with songs, and also wrote hits for artists including Eartha Kitt and Sam Cooke (two more of my favourites!).
Just wonderful, hey? Learning the song’s history has made me love it even more so I hope it’s had the same effect on you. It’s always held a slightly mystical quality for me, and this has only increased knowing it was written by a true ‘nature boy,’ camped out under the Hollywood sign.