By Hillel Aron
He had a beard and long hair. He wore sandals and white robes. He was a vegetarian, slept mostly outside– often under the first ‘L’ in the Hollywood sign, and told people he lived on three dollars a day. His name was eden ahbez, and he insisted that his name be spelled without capital letters, claiming that only the words ‘God’ and ‘Infinity’ (and possibly ‘Love’ as well– accounts differ) were worthy of capitalization.
Born George Alexander Aberle, in 1908, one of 13 children in a dirt poor Brooklyn family. Most of the Aberle children were given up for adoption or sent to live elsewhere. ahbez was taken in by a Kansas City family.
“So eden read books on Far Eastern cultures and philosophies and adopted the concept of a Universal God,” wrote Pearl Rowe (ahbez’s sister-in-law) in a 1977 LA Times article. He moved to Los Angeles in 1941, at the age of 33 or so, and got a job playing piano at the Eutropheon, a health food store / raw food restaurant on Laurel Canyon.
The Eutropheon was owned by John and Vera Richter, a couple from Fago, North Dakota, who followed the lebensreform (life reform) movement, that encouraged (according to Unle John’s Bathroom Reader) health food, nudity, sexual liberation alternative medicine, Eastern religion and living close to nature.
ahbez fell in with a group of these followers known as the “Nature Boys.” They wore long hair and beards and at only raw fruits and vegetables (another semi-famous Nature Boy was Gypsy Boots, who helped popularize health food and yoga). Around this time, he took the name eden ahbez, married a woman named Anna Jacobsen and had a son. They mostly slept outdoors.
Still a working musician, ahbez was by then also a budding songwriter. He’d written a song with a haunting melody that was, perhaps, an idealized portrayal of his own life, or perhaps that of his cohorts. Nature Boy was about a “very strange enchanted boy” who wanders around “over land and sea,” and finally meets the narrator and tells him: ”The greatest thing you’ll ever learn / Is just to love and be loved in return.”
A disc jockey named “Cowboy” Jack Patton (or else it was Johnny Mercer- again, sources differ) heard ahbez perform the song, loved it, and thought it would be perfect for Nat King Cole. Patton (or Mercer) convinced ahbez to go backstage during one of Cole’s LA concerts and hand Cole’s manager, Mort Ruby, a copy of the song (presumably written on a sheet of paper, not recorded).
Cole loved the song and started playing it at concerts. Audiences ate it up. But when it came time to record and release the song in 1947, a problem arose. As Uncle John’s Bathroom reader puts it:
Neither Cole nor Ruby had any idea how to get in touch with ahbez to get his permission to release it. In fact, nobody in the music business seemed to know who the guy was, and he wasn’t listed in the phone book. Eventually, they tracked ahbez down under the Hollywood sign, and he granted permission. But Cole had started second-guessing the song. It wasn’t like anything else on the radio at the time, and he was thinking that recording such an unusual tune might not be wise.
Capitol Records sat on the recording for about a year, then finally put out the track as a B-side in 1948. The song still became a #1 hit single for eight weeks. Ahbez was given his 15 minutes of fame before that was even a cliche. Life, Time, and Newsweek all ran profiles on him in quick succession. Uncle John writes:
Luckily, ahbez didn’t need much money to be happy, because “not much” is reportedly about what he made from the song. Some of it was his own fault: he’d signed overlapping agreements with several music publishers, and each claimed their share. Worse, the melody that he said came to him in the “mist of the California mountains” turned out to be very similar to a Yiddish song called “Schwieg Mein Hertz,” and ahbez had to pay a substantial settlement to its publisher. None of this made much difference in ahbez’s lifestyle, though. He and his family continued camping outside and lecturing on street corners about the benefits of vegetarianism and Eastern philosophy.
If this story took place today, ahbez would have no doubt had a sudden and public flameout. But celebrity culture being in its infancy, ahbez simply kept on keeping on. There is no indication that he even wanted to be famous or successful. He recorded his only solo LP in 1960, Eden’s Island, which had a lot of poetry weird beatnik stuff.
Even as popular culture began imitating his aesthetic almost to a T, the tides of history passed him by seemingly without regard. He released nothing more than a few singles in the 1960s. Every once in a while he would run elbows with some famous hippie. He was photographed with Brian Wilson in 1967 during the recording of Smile. Later that year, so Wikipedia tells us, “British singer Donovan found him at Joshua Tree in California, down for a reportedly “near-telepathic” conversation.”
His wife Anna died in 1963, while his son drowned eight years later at the age of 17 (or maybe 22– lots of this stuff is unclear). ahbez himself lived a long life far from the eye of the media. He died in 1995, from injuries sustained in a car accident, at the age of 86*.
*Note: A previous version of this post stated that the Richters were from Germany, and that ahbez died after getting hit by a car. Thanks to commenter Brian Chidester for pointing out the errors.