Nature Boy – 1948

Artist Name:

Song Author: Eden Ahbez

Year Recorded: 1948


Nature Boy

“Nature Boy” is a song first recorded by American jazz singer Nat King Cole. It was released on March 29, 1948, as a single by Capitol Records, and later appeared on the album, The Nat King Cole Story. The song was written in 1947 by eden ahbez and is partly autobiographical. It is a tribute to ahbez’s mentor Bill Pester, who had originally introduced him to Naturmensch and Lebensreform philosophies, which ahbez practised. When Cole was performing in 1947 at the Lincoln Theater, ahbez wanted to present the song to him, but was ignored. He left the copy with Cole’s valet, and from him the singer came to know of “Nature Boy”. After receiving appreciation for his performance of the song, Cole wanted to record it.

The recording took place on August 22, 1947, and featured an orchestra conducted by Frank De Vol—the in-house arranger of Capitol Records. He used strings and flute as instrumentation in the song, to capture the “enchanting” vibe of the track. The lyrics are a self-portrait of ahbez and his life. The final line—”The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, Is just to love and be loved in return”—is considered a poignant moment in the song, with multiple interpretations of it. “Nature Boy” was released amidst the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) ban of 1948, but became commercially successful, reaching the top of the Billboard music charts and selling over a million copies. Receiving critical acclaim also, “Nature Boy” helped to introduce Cole to a wider audience, especially the white music market, and generated royalties for ahbez. In 1999, the song was awarded the Grammy Hall of Fame Award. However, “Nature Boy” was also the subject of lawsuits, with Yiddish composer Herman Yablokoff claiming that it was plagiarized from his song “Shvayg mayn harts” (“Hush My Heart”), which he wrote for his play Papirosn (1935). In the end, ahbez and Yablokoff settled out of court.

Following Cole’s success with the song, rival record companies released cover versions of “Nature Boy” by other artists like Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan, which were also successful. It ultimately became a pop and jazz standard, with many artists interpreting the song, including Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, who recorded it for their jazz collaborative album, Cheek to Cheek (2014). It was also used in numerous films like The Boy with Green Hair, The Talented Mr. Ripley and the 2001 musical, Moulin Rouge!, for which singer David Bowie recorded a techno version.

In 1941, a 33-year-old George McGrew arrived in Los Angeles and began playing piano in the Eutropheon, a small health food store and raw food restaurant on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. The café was owned by John and Vera Richter, who followed a Naturmensch and Lebensreform philosophy influenced by the Wandervogel movement in Germa Their followers, known as “Nature Boys”, wore long hair and beards and ate only raw fruits and vegetables. McGrew adopted the philosophy and chose the name “eden ahbez”, writing and spelling his name with lower-case letters. It was there, while living in a cave near Palm Springs, that ahbez wrote “Nature Boy”. Partly autobiographical, the song was a tribute to his mentor Bill Pester, who had originally introduced him to Naturmensch and Lebensreform.

In 1947, at the prompting of Cowboy Jack Patton and Johnny Mercer, ahbez approached Nat King Cole’s manager backstage at the Lincoln Theater in Los Angeles, handed him a tattered copy of “Nature Boy”, and asked him to show it to Cole. However, his pleas were ignored and a disappointed ahbez left the sheet music of “Nature Boy” with Cole’s valet, Otis Pollard. From him, Cole came to know of the song and loved it. Cole began playing “Nature Boy” for live audiences, and he received much acclaim. Irving Berlin, who was present during one of the performances, initially offered to buy the track from Cole, but Cole decided to record it for himself. He needed to get permission from ahbez, however, before releasing it as a single, but he was not able to find the songwriter since ahbez had disappeared without providing any contact details. After ahbez was discovered living under the Hollywood Sign, Cole got his permission and recorded the song

“Nature Boy” helped Nat King Cole to further popularize his singing career, and made him reach the white audience.
In 1948, a second “Petrillo ban” on music recording was enforced by American Federation of Musicians (AFM) in response to the Taft–Hartley Act. Capitol Records was desperate to release something for sustaining any profit, and ultimately released “Nature Boy” as a single on March 29, 1948, with catalog number 15054. Crestview Music, which owned publishing right for Cole’s songs, sold the rights for “Nature Boy” to Burke-Van Heusen, who acted as distributor and selling agent. The record debuted on the Billboard charts of April 16, 1948, and stayed there for 15 weeks, ultimately peaking at number one. It also reached a peak of number two on the R&B charts. “Nature Boy” went on to sell a million copies in 1948 and Billboard DJs listed it as the greatest record of the year, with the song accumulating a total of 743 points. The 1940s, American music market was divided by race and for a black artist to cross over to mainstream pop music was difficult. Author Krin Gabbard noted in his book Jammin’ at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema that Cole had to wear white makeup while filming for the performance of the song. Although he had come into prominence in 1930 as a leader of the jazz trio named King Cole Trio, it was with “Nature Boy” that he received widespread recognition, and it was his rendition that appealed to the white audience. Cole would later use the success of the song to cancel the trio and pursue a solo recording career; he later described “Nature Boy” as one of his favorites among his recordings.

The song tells a fantasy of a “strange enchanted boy… who wandered very far” only to learn that “the greatest thing… was just to love and be loved in return”. Nat King Cole’s 1948 recording of the song was a major hit and “Nature Boy” has since become a pop and jazz standard, with dozens of major artists interpreting the song.

Written as a pop ballad, “Nature Boy” follows an “A,B” format, with both sections being melodically and harmonically similar until the final 4-bar phrase of each. The primary melodic theme is a pickup note on the 5 of the minor i chord, then three notes descending on a minor triad above the pickup note. An ascending line over the diminished ii chord returns to the initial minor triad.

The song was a primary theme of the film score for The Boy with Green Hair (1948), for which the original version was used.

A recording by Kate Ceberano featured in the film The Crossing (1990). The tune and lyrics feature prominently in the film Untamed Heart (1993), for which the Roger Williams and Nat King Cole versions are used. Miles Davis’s recording is used in the film The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999).

The song is performed in a jazz club in the film Angel Eyes, (2001). A recording by Jon Hassell (trumpet) with Ronu Majumdar (flute) is featured on the soundtrack. The French film To Paint or Make Love (2005) also featured the song.

The most successful version was recorded by Nat King Cole, which was released by Capitol Records as catalog number 15054.

The record first reached the Billboard charts on 16 April 1948 and stayed for 15 weeks, peaking at #1. Cole later re-recorded the song for his 1961 album The Nat King Cole Story.

Bobby Darin’s version entered the US Cash Box chart on June 10, 1961, peaking at #31 on July 15, 1961. The song also entered the UK singles chart on July 6, 1961, peaking at #24 during a 7-week chart run.

Selective list of recorded versions:

Philip Bailey
George Benson
Big Star
James Brown
Natalie Cole
John Coltrane
Harry Connick, Jr.
Kurt Elling
José Feliciano
Ella Fitzgerald & Joe Pass
Marvin Gaye
Stan Getz
Stéphane Grappelli
The David Grisman Quintet
Woody Herman
Al Hirt
Engelbert Humperdinck
Sumi Jo
Peggy Lee
Aaron Neville
David “Fathead” Newman
Leonard Nimoy
Art Pepper
Sun Ra
Grace Slick & The Great Society
Sarah Vaughan
Caetano Veloso