Behind the Song: Nat King Cole, “Nature Boy”

Nat King Cole, in 1947. Public domain

The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return.

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Largely because of those 15 words, an itinerant piano player named eden ahbez (he spelled it all lower case) ended up with his name on a hit record, simply for addressing the basic human desire of needing to give and receive love in his song “Nature Boy.” With this two-verse composition, which has the above hook repeated at the end of the song, he showed that a lyric doesn’t have to contain dozens of lines or make grandiose declarations to resonate with listeners. Sometimes just a basic universal statement says more than all the poetry or verbiage in the world. That was the story with “Nature Boy,” which was a number-one single for eight weeks in 1948 for jazz/pop legend Nat “King” Cole.

ahbez, who was known to many as simply “ahbe” (again, all lower case), was an unshaven and un-coiffed forerunner of a segment of American society that would later be called “hippies,” and was best-known in the L.A. area as the guy who camped out under the Hollywood sign. He was an accomplished musician who apparently believed he had a decent song on his hands when he managed to get the sheet music for “Nature Boy” to Cole, and Cole went for it. With his velvet voice, Cole had broken away from his role as a great jazz pianist to the point where he wasn’t even known by his given name anymore, but was simply called “King Cole,” which was the name of the artist on the label of the 10-inch single of “Nature Boy.”

Joe Romersa is a Grammy-winning Los Angeles engineer and musician who has worked with John Prine, Carlene Carter and others, and was involved in ahbez’s career many decades after Cole cut the song. Romersa said that ahbez tracked several of his own versions of “Nature Boy” in Romersa’s studio, and continued to record even into his 80s before his death in 1995. “He was excited to hear Jose Feliciano and George Benson were doing covers of it,” Romersa recalled, “but he complained that he wasn’t getting the royalties he was owed.”

Romersa said that, even though ahbez still had other material he wanted to develop, “Nature Boy” was never far from his mind. “We recorded at least five versions during my time with him. Then he’d say something like, ‘That was the past, and I don’t want anything to do with it. I’m working on something new and wonderful the world’s never heard before!’ But he talked about making a change in the last line of the lyric … he told me that ‘to love and be loved in return’ was too much like a ‘deal’ and there’s no ‘deal’ in love. So he wanted the last line to be ‘is to love and be loved, just to love and be loved’.”

ahbez wasn’t the first writer to make such a statement of love or some variation of it, and obviously wouldn’t be the last. But Sarah Vaughan had an a cappella hit with the song on the heels of Cole’s version, and as other singers heard “Nature Boy” the list of people who recorded this unassuming classic grew. In the past 70 years it has been cut by Frank Sinatra, Alex Chilton, David Bowie, Tony Bennett with Lady Gaga, and dozens of other artists.

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