Originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2010
eden ahbez is one of those extraordinary characters. His name is not well known but his story and influence are considerable. Credited with having singlehandedly initiated the hippy movement twenty years before it was to arrive in San Francisco in the early 1960s, ahbez was a songwriter who is now known for only one song. But what a song: ‘Nature Boy’.
Living a sort of gypsy life from sometime in the 1940s, he travelled around in sandals, wore shoulder-length hair and a beard, and was draped in white robes. He camped out below the first L in the Hollywood sign above Los Angeles, studied Oriental mysticism, and claimed to live on three dollars a week.
The impetus for this lifestyle came from his time in Los Angeles in the early 40s, when he was playing piano in a small raw food restaurant. The cafe was owned by German immigrants who were influenced by the Wandervogel movement in Germany. Their followers were known as ‘Nature Boys’. It was during this period that he adopted the name ‘eden ahbez’, claiming that only God was worthy of capital letters.
‘Nature Boy’ was a huge success for Nat King Cole, though it has had a long and continuing life since that first million selling hit. It has been covered by hundreds of artists of every genre, and Baz Luhrmann made it the central focus of “Moulin Rouge”. We explore the background to the song, set it against the context of ahbez’s philosophy and lifestyle, and hear from those who knew ahbez, including Wandervogel expert Dan Dailey, writer on the origins of the hippy movement, Gordon Kennedy and the last of the singing cowboys, jazz singer Herb Jeffries.
Produced by Neil Rosser & Ladbroke Productions (Radio) Ltd for BBC Radio 4
N.B. Some audio has been edited from the original broadcast version due to copyright restrictions