A cause for celebration
Four Swedes and a Dane recently climbed up on bar stools in a living room with a few friends in Södermalm, Stockholm. What the big deal? They’re The Real Group, the best singing group in the world; they sang ‘Nature Boy’ breathtakingly, with an exquisite lead by Emma Nilsdotter in an inspired arrangement by Anders Edenroth; it was filmed with impeccable taste; and the result is just a little perfect.
The Real Group and Contemporary A Cappella
The Real Group honed their a cappella jazz skills in the late 1980s as five buddies doing their academy studies together in Stockholm. They invented their own academic program, and a whole new take on group jazz singing. Inspired more by Bobby McFerrin’s restrained virtuosity than by Manhattan Transfer’s brash, brassy showiness, they reworked Count Basie arrangements in a five-voice context and sparked an entire musical movement, Contemporary A Cappella, with luminaries such as Rajaton (Finland), Vocal Line (Denmark), The Swingle Singers in their current very hip incarnation (UK), The Idea of North (Australia), and even obliquely Take Six (US). Here’s a SoTW I wrote about The Real Group a while back, with lots of links to their music.
Contemporary a cappella may be a small movement compared to hip-hop or trance, but its devotees are passionate and growing in numbers. And we all know what passionate cults are capable of. I’m flying this week to my third congregation of cultists, the second this year, at the Aarhus Vocal Festival in Denmark. As unique an experience as Woodstock was (yes, I was there—the Forrest Gump of musical fests), we hippies tended to stare at each other in bewilderment. Here it’s all hugs and grins and a sincere sense of brotherhood in harmony.
Much of this warmth is due to The Real Group themselves, because they’re warm, personable, down-to-earth people. Remember how everyone copied The Beatles’ mop tops? TRG’s modesty has become the currency of our genre.
After twenty-eight years, The Real Group is still going strong (albeit with two changes from the original line-up). In recent years they’ve moved more towards original material – for example, ‘Pass Me the Jazz’ (the next clip to be released from the same session as ‘Nature Boy’); fine as it is, it’s a special pleasure to return to the Great American Songbook and one of its more unusual luminaries, ‘Nature Boy’.
Nat ‘King’ Cole
In 1947, a short, barefoot man with shoulder-length hair on a bicycle pushed a tattered score into the hand of Nat ‘King’ Cole’s manager, Mort Ruby, backstage at a theater in LA. Cole liked the Yiddish flavor and intriguing lyrics of the little song and began playing it in his shows. It went over very well, so he wanted to record it. Go find the composer in order to get the rights to the song.
Nat Cole (1919-1965) led a very successful jazz trio in the 1930s and 1940s as the pianist. The apocryphal story is that one night a rowdy drunk insisted that Nat sing ‘Sweet Lorraine’, it caught on, and he began singing more and more. His first hit was in 1943, ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right’, which Bo Diddley credited as being a precursor of rock and roll. And Bo Knows!!
In the late 1940s, Nat cemented his move from jazz piano to popular vocals – ‘The Christmas Song’ (Chestnuts roasting on an open fire), ‘Mona Lisa’, ‘Unforgettable’, ‘Too Young’ and of course ‘Nature Boy’. But first we have to find that long-haired guy.
Alexander Aberle was born in Brooklyn in 1908 to a Jewish father and Scottish mother, grew up in a Jewish orphanage till he was adopted at age 9 by a couple from Chanute, Kansas, who changed his name to George McGrew.
He worked in obscurity as a pianist and dance band leader till he got his breakthrough gig in LA in 1941— playing at a small health food store and raw food restaurant owned by a couple of German immigrants, adherents to the Lebensreform lifestyle of health food/raw food/organic food, nudism, sexual liberation, alternative medicine, and abstention from alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and vaccines.
Alexander/George renamed himself eden ahbez (‘only the words God and Infinity are worthy of capitalization’), but his friends called him ahbe. Together with wife Anna Jacobsen, their son Tatha Om and another dozen ‘tribesmen’, ahbe and The Nature Boys (recognize that name?) lived off the land in Tahquitz Canyon near Palm Springs, slept in caves and trees, and bathed in waterfalls. They prided themselves on subsisting on under $3 a week.
The Nature Boys are today widely perceived as the precursors of the Hippie movement. Except for the bathing part.
One of the other notable Nature Boys was Gypsy Boots, aka Robert Bootzin. His health food store “Health Hut” was the first of its kind in the world, a celebrity hangout in the early 1960s. He invented his own renowned garlic cheese, the natural smoothie and the organic energy bar, cheered wildly at all USC football games, marched in parades, and swung from a vine on network TV shows – Groucho Marx, Spike Jones, and (25 times) The Steve Allen Show. His non-nature buddies included Marlon Brando, Jay Leno, Paul Newman and Muhammad Ali.
Meanwhile, Nat Cole’s people finally tracked down the ahbez family, living underneath the first ‘L’ of the HOLLYWOOD sign, and acquired the rights to record the song. Nat Cole’s ‘Nature Boy’ became a megahit, eight weeks at #1 on the charts, but it turned out that ahbe had given a half dozen people different shares of the publishing rights, and he ended up with virtually nothing. (After Cole died, his wife eventually gave the rights back to ahbe in toto.)
ahbe lived in relative obscurity (I guess under that “L”), eating nuts and being healthy. Incredibly (or maybe not, when you think about it), he’s shown in this photo with Brian Wilson during the recording of “SMiLE”, just before Brian’s breakdown. ahbe recorded a couple of albums including songs like Eden’s Cove, which is somewhere between Martin Denny and Wild Man Fisher. If you listen to the break at 1’10” you may really grasp the key to Brian Wilson’s mind and the meaning of the universe. As well as the taste of the garlic smoothie.
He died in 1995 at the age of 86 in a car accident.
‘Nature Boy’—The Song
The structure of ‘Nature Boy’ is quite unusual—AB:
There was a boy,
A very strange, enchanted boy.
They say he wandered very far,
Very far, over land
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.”
It’s really not much more than an extended introduction. To tell you the truth, it’s hard for me to explain its tremendous appeal.
Is it the melody? Anders Edenroth, tenor extraordinaire of The Real Group and arranger of their stunning version, says “I like to see it as a hybrid between jazz and the elastic approach of the Yiddish tradition.”
When those icy Swedes start talking about that Yiddish kvetch, I just melt. In Anders’ arrangement, after the initial AB, at 2’26”, the group opens the song into a Nordic expedition into the Heart of Yiddishism, an immaculate union of the pristine and the passionate.
Bernard Malamud, one of my favorite authors, said “All men are Jews, though few men know it.” He explained this famous statement as “a metaphoric way of indicating how history, sooner or later, treats all men,” meaning I think that the default experience of Jews is suffering, that all individuals at some point in their lives are touched by the same suffering that has been the fabric of Jewish history. This is the background that informs Yiddish melodies.
When ‘Nature Boy’ became a hit, a Yiddish musical composer, Herman Yablokoff claimed that the melody to “Nature Boy” came from one of his songs, “Shvayg mayn harts” (“Be Still My Heart”). ahbe retorted that he “heard the tune in the mist of the California mountains.” They settled out of court for $25,000. No recording of Yablokoff’s song is known, but here’s another Yiddish song with the same title, about a blind Jewish orphan boy selling cigarettes and matches in the ghetto of Grodno during WWII to stay alive. If you look at a map, Grodno in Belarus really isn’t that far from Sweden.
Or perhaps, as Anders suggests, “the enigmatic meaning of the lyrics has puzzled and attracted quite a few listeners.”
There’s something riveting about “The Little Prince”, that small, unblemished, all-knowing innocent, imparting the wisdom of the world to the rest of us. Ironically, ahbe himself later had some reservations about his own lyric: “To be loved in return is too much of a deal, and that has nothing to do with love.” He wanted to correct it to: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to love, just to love, and be loved.”
It’s also interesting to note that the first two measures of the melody of ‘Nature Boy’ parallel the melody of the second movement of Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in A, Op. 81 (1887). What do you have to say about that, Mr Yablokoff? Are you going to sue Dvořák?
‘Nature Boy’ – Recordings
‘Nature Boy’ clearly strikes a resonant chord. Following Nat Cole’s hit, it immediately became a fallback vehicle for unbridled emotion in the Great American Songbook.
But the song has proven to be immensely popular in a wide variety of settings, sometimes more successfully, sometimes less so. Interesting versions that I recommend skipping are those by David Bowie (bombastic), James Brown (unfortunately I could only find an audio version), Grace Slick (in her pre-Airplane incarnation, The Great Society), and Lisa Ekdahl (no Yiddish pathos there). The great jazz singer Mark Murphy starts out great but inexplicably chooses to take the song to Trinidad (no Yiddish pathos there, either).
A few versions that are worth checking out for their own distinctive merits are that by Nataly Dawn, a very talented young indie artist; and Radka Toneff, who’s always fine, but who doesn’t squeeze the song the way The Real Group’s Emma does. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise I discovered is Lizz Wright, a singer I’ve long admired, in a drum duet. I don’t know how much it has to do with the essence of the song, but it’s one fine, intense piece of music.
Two singers get special mention. Surprisingly, Cher. She sang it in a 1998 TV tribute to her late husband Sonny Bono, calling her grief “something I never plan to get over.” She’s clearly singing from the heart of her heart, and ‘Nature Boy’ is clearly a chillingly apt tribute to him.
And, unsurprisingly, the great Kurt Elling. ‘Nature Boy’ is a signature song of his. He goes through the song once in a traditional take, then flies off into spheres of unparalleled scatting virtuosity, egged onwards and upwards by pianist Laurence Hobgood, an utter tour de force. Here’s his studio version, and you can find many fine live versions here.
And just in case you’d like to join the list, here’s a karaoke version. Send in your recordings to SoTW, we’ll be glad to post them.
For my money, with all the credit to all the fine artists who’ve recorded the song over the years, I’m going to stick with The Real Group. This is what our contemporary a cappella can be: just a little perfect.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:033: Radka Toneff, ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress’ (Jimmy Webb) 063: Pust, ‘En Reell Halling’ 147: Frank Sinatra, ‘It Was a Very Good Year’