George and Nathaniel. Names of two American boys growing up a decade apart.
One white. One black. Both pianists. Each came to be known by different names. The former was an orphan from New York. The latter a preacher’s kid born in Alabama. Music eventually brought the two together.
Rather than finish high school, Nathaniel Adams Cole (1919-1965) decided to take his music career to the next level. His mom – the church organist – had taught him how to play as a boy. She had an impact on her whole family; four sons all pursued music careers in the 1930s and 40s. Inspiration surely also came from the likes of Louis Armstrong, one of the many music icons Nathaniel would sneak out to see perform in nearby clubs.
Making a living as a jazz pianist and big band leader, he eventually formed his own band per the request of a club owner. They called themselves the “King Cole Swingsters,” taking a cue from the nursery rhyme: “Old King Cole was a merry old soul.” Singing was never his goal, but once he got started, people raved about the voice of Nat King Cole.
1946 saw the debut of the 15 minute radio show King Cole Trio Time, and a number of hit recordings followed. Notably, he even got a TV show in 1956, The Nat ‘King’ Cole show on NBC. After six months, they doubled the show length to 30 minutes. And six months after that, it ended. Despite an array of big name musicians trying to help recruit a national sponsor, the financing wasn’t secured. Shortly thereafter, Cole made the poignant remark that “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.” (‘Madison Avenue’ is a term sometimes used in reference to the advertising industry as a whole.)
Much of the country was afraid of the dark. When Cole bought a house in an all-white community of Los Angeles in 1948, the home owners’ association informed him that they didn’t want any “undesirables” around. His response?: “Neither do I. And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain.” He was greeted with a burning cross from the KKK on his new front lawn.
Interestingly, Cole initially avoided much involvement in the civil rights movement or racial issues. He didn’t want to shake things up, and he even performed for segregated audiences into the fifties – much to the chagrin of peers who longed for him to use his platform to effect change. He eventually did just this, contributing to the Montgomery Bus boycott in ‘56, and helping coordinate efforts for the 1963 March on Washington, among a number of other political and social initiatives.
Jump back a few years to the packed out Lincoln Theater in Los Angeles. It is 1947. Cole’s delicate vocal style has attracted someone to try to connect with him. Someone who wants to share a piece of music. Cole’s manager passes it along to him, and in short order Cole was performing it in his shows. In 1948 it was recorded. The composer was not seeking fame. In fact, he was hard to find at all. There’s not really an address for “under the first L of the HOLLYWOOD sign.”
George Alexander Aberle, born in 1908, had been adopted at age nine and raised as George McGrew in Kansas. He made his way to California in the 1940s, building on his career as a jazz pianist and band leader – just like Cole. He reached a different audience though. Aberle played piano at a health food store and raw foods restaurant. (I would take that job! When our local co-op recruited feedback on their expansion plans, I really should have suggested a piano.)
Following eccentric ideologies and lifestyles strongly emphasizing back-to-nature living, organic vegetarian diets, beard-growing, sandal-wearing, and deep thinking, Aberle and other followers of this lifestyle at the time were termed “Nature Boys.” He even changed his name to eden ahbez, insisting that God and Infinity are the only words that should be capitalized. (He was known to friends as “ahbe” – pronounced “AH-bee” – which, ironically is our oldest daughter’s nickname.)
As one of America’s early hippies, ahbe roamed the countryside of California, at times making his home, as mentioned, under the famous sign above Los Angeles. “Mostly he slept where he gardened.” (see article below) This is where he was found when the publishers and media wanted to make deals and tell the world the story behind this hot new song. “Nature Boy” was a No. 1 hit for eight weeks. Imagine, this nomad of a man, being reviewed by Life, Time, and Newsweek magazines – simultaneously! He actually had a number of songs that Cole and others recorded over time, as well as his own 1960 solo EP Eden’s Island.
Below is a powerful excerpt about the song, from a 1977 Los Angeles Times article written by Pearl Rowe, ahbez’s sister-in-law. The article gives a keen description of this unique man – it’s worth a read.
“It was a song that touched everyone. Even the disenchanted buck-hungry stopped to listen and wonder where they had missed the final pay-off in their lives. It was strange for those days of Cole Porter-like sophistication. But it grabbed the imagination of a world still stunned by a terrible war and then a peace that never really came, a time when no one could find answers so they hopefully clung to the sweet philosophy of someone who had come from nowhere and soon belonged everywhere.” From the Los Angeles Times calendar – Sunday July 24 1977.
“…It grabbed the imagination of a world still stunned by a terrible war and then a peace that never really came…”
ahbez was once asked about his perspective on race relations in America. He answered,
“Some white people hate black people, and some white people love black people, some black people hate white people, and some black people love white people. So you see it’s not an issue of black and white, it’s an issue of Lovers and Haters.” source
If ahbez had had his way, the lyrics for this song would have been “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to love and be loved, just to love, and be loved.” Poetically not as fitting, but it does eliminate the implication of a deal being made. As ahbez said “To be loved in return, is too much of a deal, and there’s no deal in love.” source
In February of 1965, Nat King Cole died of lung cancer at the age of 45. Thirty years later, in March of 1995, at the age of 85, eden ahbez died after a car crash.
Between the two of these men – the eccentric mystic vagabond, and the famous jazz professional – one white, one black, both socially ‘othered’ – is a snapshot of diversity and unity and collaboration and unexpected success. The strangeness of it all is rather endearing.
“Nature Boy” by eden ahbez
There was a boy
A very strange, enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far
Very far, over land and sea
A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he
And then one day
One magic day he passed my way
While we spoke of many things
Fools and Kings
This he said to me:
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return.”
Listen to our recording of this song:
featured image: elijah macleod via unsplash.com
Nat King Cole