Monthly Archives: August 2008

Booker T. and beyond

Booker T. and the MG’s contributed so much to the popularity of Memphis’s Stax Records in the ‘60s, and were so fundamental to the label’s sound – sharp, soulful, and classy, never flashy – it’s impossible to separate the histories of the two.

The group coalesced from young session players at the Stax Records studios – Booker T. Jones (organ, piano), Steve Cropper (guitar), Lewie Steinberg (bass, replaced by Donald “Duck” Dunn in ‘64), and Al Jackson Jr. (drums) – really only becoming an official unit after the success of their iconic instrumental “Green Onions.” In turn, the group helped make Stax a ‘60s powerhouse soul label – just behind Motown – and stars of many the label’s roster – Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Johnny Taylor, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas.

Booker T. and the MGs
Booker T. and the MG’s, mid-’60s publicity photo. Donald “Duck” Dunn, Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Al Jackson Jr.

It wasn’t just that Booker T. and the MG’s were racially integrated at an inauspicious moment in Southern history. It wasn’t just that they were sensitive accompanists, either, or that their sound or their guitar-bass-drums-organ line-up was unprecedented. Simply, it was that they consistently hipper and funkier than anyone that had come before them, playing with an impeccable economy that skirted minimalism. Even on their records like “Time Is Tight,” “Hip Hug-Her,” or, of course “Green Onions” – terrific sides as successful as the Stax headline artists they backed – they were brilliant strategists, never playing two notes where one would do.

Just as every hit inspires a dozen hopeful homegrown soundalikes and variations, all of this did not go noticed by American musicians, this week’s included. America itself seemed to prefer its Memphis instrumentals straight from the source, however (Willie Mitchell perhaps being the notable exception), and Booker T. and the MG’s would continue to oblige, producing hits from one end of the ‘60s (“Green Onions,” 1962) to the other (“Melting Pot,” 1971). Our guys didn’t have the same luck, but they had nothing to worry about in retrospect. There’d always be more room for their kind around here on Office Naps.

1. Del-Rays, Night Prowl (R and H)
The Del-Rays were one of several white R&B-based; groups who percolated out of northwestern Alabama in the late ‘50s.

It was a surreal scene. They came from surrounding Alabama towns, young white kids nursed on country music and crazy for R&B; and rock ‘n’ roll. Crazy, period. Early on, in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the Del-Rays were working an improbable circuit of Southern fraternity parties alongside like-minded groups like Dan Penn & the Pallbearers, the Mystics and Hollis Dixon. When they weren’t confounding the brothers from Phi Kappa Theta with manic versions of “Baby, What You Want Me to Do” or “Kansas City,” these musicians gravitated to the FAME recording facilities.

Started in the late ‘50s, FAME (short for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) was the quixotic vision of local Florence character Tom Stafford and young musicians Billy Sherrill and Rick Hall. Commandeered by the ambitious Hall in the early ‘60s, and moved to nearby Muscle Shoals, the FAME studios would become the region’s galvanizing force of soul music. Arthur Alexander recorded “You Better Move On” there in 1961, and Jimmy Hughes “Steal Away” in 1963. By the mid-‘60s, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin had recorded there. By 1971, so had the Osmonds: FAME had come a long way.

As part of the studio’s house band, the Del-Rays – or at least several members – would play a significant role in FAME’s success along the way. In 1964, however, when “Night Prowl” was recorded, the Del-Rays were another working-touring group, hanging around the FAME Studios but still a few months away from becoming full-time session musicians there.

The influence of Stax Records – a mere hundred miles to the west, but sort of in a different league at this point – is clear on this selection. Lean and mean, like “Green Onions,” perhaps even more so, a title like “Night Prowl” promises much, and the song delivers – the greatest thing to hit street brawling since Thunderbird Wine. “Night Prowl” would be the second of four 45s by the group, who at this point included guitarist Jimmy Johnson, saxophonist Billy Cofield, organist Billy Scott and drummer Roger Hawkins. (The Del-Rays’ debut was 1959’s “Hot Toddy”; the two later 45s – one on R and H, and one on Atco Records – were more rock ‘n’ roll-oriented, with vocals by Jimmy Ray Hunter.)

Not long after “Night Prowl,” Johnson, Cofield and Hawkins would join FAME as the studio’s second, and most storied, house band. Along with organist Spooner Oldham, bassist Albert “Junior” Lowe, guitarist Marlin Greene, trumpeter Jack Peck and saxophonist Don “Rim” Pollard, this band would back Pickett, for instance, on “Mustang Sally” and Aretha Franklin on the original version of “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).”

In 1969, Johnson and Hawkins – along with fellow Muscle Shoals musicians David Hood and Barry Beckett – left FAME. They formed the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, and would became partners in the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, an immensely successful recording studio in ensuing years.

2. The Pac-Keys, Dig In (Hollywood)
Like “Night Prowl,” this selection encapsulates a certain aspect of Southern R&B; history. The Pac-Keys in this case were the vehicle of Charles “Packy” Axton, a saxophonist known as both a founding member of the Mar-Keys, and the son of Estelle Axton, the early co-owner of Stax Records, a label which her brother Jim Stewart – Packy’s uncle – founded.

The early chapters of Stax Records are inextricable from Packy Axton. The label, founded as Satellite Records in 1957 (the name changed to Stax in 1961) had some early success with 1960 records by legendary R&B; father-daughter team Rufus and Carla Thomas. It would be one of Axton’s early records with the Mar-Keys, however, that brought his family’s record business to national attention. 1961’s “Last Night” (hear excerpt here) was just as significant for its popularity – charting at number three – as it was for its lean, soulful motif, which set an early precedent for the Stax sound, and the sound of Memphis soul in general.

Other members of the Mar-Keys (Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn) would disembark for even greater fortune as Booker T. and the MG’s. Axton’s own would not follow down the same path, however. A wild man, his tendency towards dissolution increasingly marginalized him from the shifting rosters of the Mar-Keys (who, either way, were largely overshadowed by Booker T. and co. by the mid-‘60s) as well as the Stax staff in general, despite his mother’s fierce loyalty.

It wouldn’t be the last of Axton, though, who relocated to Los Angeles in 1965. There he recorded the moddish instrumental “Hole in the Wall” with, oddly enough, members of Booker T. and the MG’s, who were then touring the West Coast as part of the Stax Revue. Released on infamous Los Angeles DJ and promoter Magnificent Montague’s Pure Soul label, and credited as the Packers, “Hole in the Wall” would be a surprise number five R&B; and a top fifty pop hit in the fall of 1965.

More records hastily followed for the Packers, whose shifting members revolved around the erratic stewardship of Axton and percussion player Bongo Johnny Keyes, one of Montague’s old friends. There was a flurry of releases on various indie labels – HBR, Imperial, Tangerine, Soul Baby and Pure Soul – as the Packers; there were also several releases under different names – the Martinis, L.H. and the Memphis Sounds, and, finally, the Pac-Keys.

These records are hip, if a bit unmemorable, R&B; instrumentals. The thumpingly great “Dig In” was recorded back in Memphis at Hi Records with James Alexander (bass), Jimmie King (guitar) and Carl Cunningham (drums) – all members of the Bar-Kays, another famed Stax instrumental group. “Dig In” is by far the most impressive of these records, clocking in at a scant 1:51, which only meant you could hear it again that much sooner.

Released on Hollywood Records – a former Los Angeles R&B; label then operating as a scaled-back subsidiary of the country Starday label – neither “Stone Fox,” nor its follow-up “Greasy Pumpkin,” nor any of the various Packers releases, recaptured the success of “Hole in the Wall.”

Axton would drift further into obscurity, and deeper into his cups, alas, as the ‘60s wore on. He died of a heart attack in 1974 at age thirty-two.

3. Lorenzo the Hat and the Mad Hatters, Fun-Key (Space)
This week’s mystery selection, Lorenzo the Hat was either one Lorenzo Mandley, according to the label credits, or one Lorenzo Monley, according to BMI. Either way, this may be Lorenzo Manley, a Los Angeles singer who released a good soul 45 in early 1967, “(I’m Gonna) Swoop Down on You” on Original Sound Records. Again, just speculation.

Recorded around 1967, “Fun-Key” is a funky jam that rotates around the guitar fill from Booker T.’s “Hip-Hug Her” (hear excerpt here). Many great ‘60s instrumentals – think “Wipe Out,” or for that matter, “Green Onions” – followed this pattern: barely rehearsed sketches that started out interesting melody and wound up chart-topping hit. “Fun-Key” sounds awesome with its electric piano and wicked drumming, but it is not, in retrospect, a case of should-have-been-a-hit. “Fun-Key” is so loose it is clearly stoned, not the sort of thing to capture the public’s imagination. To be fair, its flipside “The Hat’s Back,” another stylish instrumental, has much more in the way of convention – a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end, for one.

Space Records was a subsidiary of Kris, an independent Los Angeles record label founded by singer-turned-DJ-turned-entrepreneur Mel Alexander. Kris issued a lot of excellent Los Angeles R&B; and soul throughout the 1960s on its subsidiaries (Space as well as Car-A-Mel and New Breed), though Space’s would be the coolest label design.

Posted in Soul | 18 Comments

Office Naps…

…takes the week off.

Posted in Miscellaneous Flotsam | 5 Comments

Vibraphones, flutes and California Latin jazz

I’ve posted extensively about Afro-Latin music in California (here, here, here and here). The subject fascinates me, so I’ll try not to belabor the point too much.

Latin jazz in the post-War Bay Area and Los Angeles was a diffuse, small-scale phenomenon. It’s not entirely accurate to summarize the cities as “scenes” the way one refers to Latin music in New York City as a “scene.” Even so, the West Coast version of Latin jazz had its own sound. If one were pushed to generalize, one might say that it was more atmospheric, less fiery than the East Coast version. Jazzier, if you will. Why the difference? To some degree, it’s a matter of demographics.

At least initially, the West Coast didn’t have the substantial Puerto Rican or Cuban communities to nurture Afro-Latin music, and, consequently, early California Latin jazz experiments were comprised to a greater degree of jazz musicians. East Coast bandleaders like Tito Puente or Eddie Palmieri, on the other hand, had groups with higher ratios of Cubans and Puerto Ricans, musicians who’d grown up playing Afro-Latin music as actual participants in the culture. These New York City groups played Afro-Cuban jazz, or mambo jazz, usually as part of a broader repertoire of guaguanco, cha cha, guajira, son montuno, plena and bomba.

In the 1930s and ‘40s, California society orchestras and Mexican-American bands like Chuy Reyes’ had updated their repertories with fashionable boleros, rumbas and danzones, of course, but their music remained polite – supper club stuff. There was mambo and montuno in the pioneering Mexican-American swing and R&B; of the Pachuco Boogie Boys and Lalo Guerrero, too, but only in the most elemental form. Latin jazz in post-War California would largely begin as an import, that is, not an in situ development of the community as
New York City’s Latin jazz was.

The Panamanian-born percussionist Benny Velarde summed up the differences another way in an interview:

“On the East Coast they were playing music that was called “Afro Cuban Jazz”. It was heavily influenced by Chano Pozo who played with Dizzy Gillespie and Mario Bauza. On the West Coast we were playing what was called “Latin Jazz” – which meant jazz standards with Latin percussion …Another difference was that on the East Coast the music was played by Big Bands like those lead by Dizzy Gillespie and Machito. But on the West Coast we did not have Big Bands but the music was played by smaller combos.”

Post-War appearances of Latin jazz pioneers Machito and His Afro-Cubans and the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra (with Chano Pozo) – and later Tito Puente and mambo king Perez Prado – dazzled West Coast audiences. Few in the audience, it seems, would be more greatly affected than jazz musicians. They were a diverse bunch, the early California converts to Afro-Latin music and Latin jazz. Pianist Eddie Cano and vibraphonist Bobby Montez, for example, were Mexican-American, and major draws in Hollywood clubs. White vibraphonist Cal Tjader came from a bop background, and so did black bassist Al McKibbon, though Tjader was basically a native son, and McKibbon arrived from New York City. Percussionist Ricardo Lewis played in some early (and sadly underdocumented) Bay Area Latin jazz combos, and hailed from New Orleans, where he began as a jazz drummer. Like so many others, Los Angeles bandleader Stan Kenton began adding Latin rhythms to his arrangements after a firsthand introduction to the Machito Orchestra. Pianist George Shearing was British, and blind. The list goes on.

The remaining, and most critical, component of early Latin jazz sessions was the seasoned Afro-Latin congueros, bongoceros and timbaleros. Percussionists like Willie Bobo, Mongo Santamaria, Luis Miranda, Benny Velarde, Carlos Vidal, Armando Peraza and Francisco Aguabella had grown up in playing in the tradition. They were masters, and they were indispensable.

Together, at least in Los Angeles, these groups might play huge music ballroom events like the Mambo Jumbo, Joe Garcia’s nights at the Zenda ballroom or Lionel Sesma’s ongoing Latin Holidays at the Hollywood Palladium – events that presented visiting Afro-Latin orchestras.

More often, however, Latin jazz groups traveled along the same circuit of jazz venues, supper clubs and upper-crusty nightspots that jazz combos did, playing places like the Crescendo, the Latin Quarter, Ciro’s, the Garden of Allah and Slapsi Maxi’s in Los Angeles and the California Hotel, the Copacabana Club, the Black Hawk, Bop City and the Frisco Club in the Bay Area.

These places fostered a certain dynamic, which brings us finally around to this week’s artists. Jazz players found that an exotic tone poem in the setlist was a clever way to transform a club’s atmosphere, and, additionally, it afforded a certain latitude to explore new sounds, modes, and time signatures. Latin jazz combos, too, found the same experimental freedom in exotica. Certainly it was a great way to put those vibraphones to dramatic effect.

Their audiences didn’t quite get all this, but found it all very diverting nonetheless – long enough to idly consider flute lessons before the last gin and tonic kicked in, at least.

1. Tony Martinez and His Mambo Combo, Pharaoh’s Curse (GNP)
Singer, bandleader, bassist, percussionist and vibraphonist Tony Martinez was an incorrigible showman. He wound up – where else – in television in the late ‘50s, and, for better or worse, those years as Pepino on The Real McCoys will probably be the ones that he’s remembered for.

Martinez’s spotlight flair bore its greatest fruit in music, however. There is drama in his handful of brilliant mambo-jazz 45s from the early- to mid-‘50s – this selection, for instance, as well as previously posted “Ican.” The virtuosic performance with his combo (with Eddie Cano on piano) in 1956’s Rock Around the Clock is pure showmanship.

Tony Martinez was born in 1920 in Puerto Rico. A gifted musician, he studied in San Juan, moving to New York City in the ‘40s to attend Juilliard. He’d form a few groups of his own there, and play bass for pianist Noro Morales, a pioneer of jazzy rumbas. Destined for balmier shores, though, Martinez relocated to Hollywood in the late ‘40s. His combos would be among the first to play the mambo and heavier Afro-Latin material. He was a local phenomenon; by the ‘50s he was a featured act both at upscale Sunset Strip clubs and at huge ballroom events like the Palladium’s Latin Holiday dance nights.

The Pharaoh’s Curse (1957). Thanks to the fabulous Bleeding Skull for the screen shots.

Though unusual, especially the organ, this selection – written for the 1957 mummy must-see Pharaoh’s Curse – was not that uncharacteristic of Martinez, who of anyone knew his way around a spooky melody (see “Ican,” again). The movie itself was spearheaded by Bel-Air, an early independent production house known for low-budget ‘50s genre movies, which meant that most of its production values wound up in this selection. Exotica hero Les Baxter wrote this selection, by the way, and provided the rest of the soundtrack. (Note: if anyone’s seen Pharaoh’s Curse, I would love a description.)
This would not be the last of Martinez’s involvement with film industry. He’d been landing small parts in the movies since the late 1940s, and, when offered the role of Pepino Garcia on The Real McCoys in 1957, he accepted. It was a breakthrough role for a Latino on network television, though a highly problematic one – a Puerto Rican playing a Mexican farm hand, and a role scripted with every cliché in the book.

For a time, Martinez’s work was divided between television and music. There would be a good 1960 live album with Eddie Cano and bongo player Jack Constanzo. There would also be The Many Sides of Pepino LP – a sort of novelty-personality album that exploited his stereotyped image – best forgotten except for the storming instrumental “Mandarin Mambo.”

Tony Martinez’s music days wound down, and so did The Real McCoys, finally ending in 1963. Stage and screen occupied the remaining decades of Martinez’s life. He played Sancho Panza in 2,245 performances of Man of La Mancha, according to his obituary, and devoted much of his subsequent energies to creative and executive roles in the Mexican and Puerto Rican film industries.

Tony Martinez passed on in 2002.

2. Pepe Fernandez and His Afro-Cubans, G.I. Rhapsody (Key)
One distinguishing feature of “G.I. Rhapsody” is that it absolutely represents California Latin jazz: flutes, vibraphones, a combination of jazz musicians and Latin percussionists, an exotic port-of-call sensibility.

The other distinguishing feature is a total lack of forthcoming information – great, if you like unresolvable mystery. I identified Pepe Fernandez as a New York bandleader in an early post. This record changes that, of course, but adds little else, despite the musician’s roster on the label. Flautist Bob Messenger was a studio musician who later played winds on Carpenters albums. Wally Snow is a percussionist and vibraphonist who still turns up on Los Angeles sessions. Pianist Amos Trice played on some West and East Coast jazz recordings, mostly in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. These are the best known players here, which says something, and, either way, nowhere else are they credited for their work in the Afro-Cubans.

Key Records was a tiny Hollywood record label, with probably no more than a dozen or two 45 releases from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, mostly country and rock ‘n’ roll. There were also several long players on Key, notable only in that they were almost entirely anti-Communist screeds, albums with titles like Our Nation’s Pact With the Devil and The Two Fists of Communism. Not to mention 1960’s Rendezvous With Destiny, an album of speeches by then-political-upstart Ronald Reagan. The album’s back cover praises Reagan for his logic, which reminds us just how nutty the Cold War mentality got, though there’d be far worse to come.

“G.I. Rhapsody” was recorded in the early part of 1958. One wonders if its goofy patriotic introduction was a stipulation of the same brainiac who commissioned all of those albums.

3. Manny Duran and Orchestra, Tabu (Fantasy)
Mexican-American jazz pianist Manny Duran grew up in San Francisco playing music with his two brothers – also excellent jazz musicians – guitarist Eddie and bassist Carlos. The three, inspired by the urbane jazz of the wildly popular Nat King Cole Trio, first performed professionally as the Duran Brothers in the l
ate ‘40s, and would continue to play on each others’ records over the coming decades.

Fixtures in San Francisco, the Durans would also play, individually and collectively, with the major names of post-War Bay Area jazz. Foremost among these was vibraphonist Cal Tjader, whose string of ‘50s and ‘60s Latin jazz recordings convened many of the West Coast’s finest Latin jazz and bop musicians, and set the mold for the sound of California Latin jazz. All three Duran brothers would enjoy residencies early on in Tjader’s working combos, with Eddie playing on a Tjader bop session in late ’54, and Manny and Carlos appearing on Tjader Plays Mambo – one of two watershed Latin jazz releases by Tjader, also that same year.

That incarnation of Tjader’s Latin combo dissolved after only a year or two together. But Manny and Carlos, along with Benny Velarde – also from Tjader’s group – would continue as a working unit through 1960, including a long residency at the Copacabana Club. Only two records – this 1960 reading of the exotica warhorse “Taboo” (on the premier Bay Area jazz label Fantasy) and the equally stunning “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Mambo” – came of it. Both were incredibly hip records with everything going for them except sales, which is not the last time you’ll see that around here.

A gifted professional, Manny Duran was like all but only the most fortunate of musicians. He continued to divide his time between Latin jazz and bop, enjoying an active recording and gigging career without becoming any sort of recognizable star, insofar as such is possible in the world of jazz and Latin jazz.

Manny Duran passed away in December 2005.

Incidentally, according to Benny Velarde, Duran assembled the Mambo Devils, one of San Francisco’s first Latin music groups, in the early 1950s.

Posted in Exotica/Space-Age, Jazz Obscura, Latin | 14 Comments

The sea

The sea. Its mystery and expanse has inspired innumerable poets, writers, artists and musicians throughout the millennia, its endless capacity for beauty and violence has silenced individuals not usually given to speechless wonder.

Cursed, mythologized, prayed to, every seafaring culture has its own tradition of music of the sea, from Vietnamese fishermen’s poem-songs to Irish shanties.

The tradition would renew itself in the strangest ways after World War II, as Americans drew further into the suburbs. Smooth easy-listening themes like Frank Chacksfield’s “Ebb Tide“ and Nat “King” Cole’s “Red Sails in the Sunset” sold in the millions, and they sounded lovely on the new hi-fi, all sumptuous strings and soothing sunset moods. Such productions were but Technicolor fantasia, though – the sea as great make-out spot. If they signaled the extent to which the ocean played a role in Americans’ romantic imagination, they also reminded us the vicissitudes of the sea had become utterly inconsequential to our daily lives. Which of course is how Americans have long preferred our relationship with Nature to stand.

Still, there were some livelier alternatives to the Ray Conniffs and Billy Vaughns. Cocktail jazz exotica, for instance, a beloved sub-genre here at Office Naps. Arthur Lyman and Martin Denny could hardly be described as authentic, and any personal connection to the sea was mostly through the tourist industry, but they made well-known Asian and Polynesian folk songs of the sea a staple of their repertoire, and infused “Beyond the Sea” and “Harbor Lights” with a proper, if kitschy, mystery. There was surf music, too, impressionist music’s final and only stand in American rock ‘n’ roll – “Pipeline” as a sort of Pacific arabesque. Sometimes surf music was made by surfers themselves. It was the spiritual peak of the guitar instrumental form.

There are also this week’s artistes, the instrumental combos who straddled surf music and exotica. They summoned atmosphere every Thursday night, Debussys for the Officers’ Club dance, though one struggles to imagine a greater gulf between Debussy and the Melody Mates. Debussy never had those cool foghorn sound effects, for one.

1. The Melody Mates, Enchantment (Nix)
“Enchantment” would be the second of two Melody Mates 45s. The first, the rockin’ instrumental “Just Plain Guit,” was released on Decca Records in 1959. This gem followed on the tiny Pittsburgh label Nix in 1961. But besides the group’s probable Pittsburgh origins and their members James Testa, Gene Toney and Vladimir Maleckar, little is known
about the Melody Mates.

The most fruitful lead here is our narrator, one Nick Cenci, who introduces “Enchantment” with a certain earnestness. From the late ‘50s onwards, Cenci, a Pittsburgh producer and promoter, was involved with much of the city’s teen pop, and many of its indie labels, Nix included.

For thousands of years, the distant blue horizon has called to the restless seaman, and both he and the Melody Mates have shared something of a fundamental understanding. A voyage into the unknown is nothing without its beckoning Shangri-La, and a beckoning Shangri-La is nothing without its wordless falsetto wail. “Enchantment” is a wonderful high camp: it’s got prom magic written all over it.

Alas, “Enchantment” is also an obvious cash-in record. It was identical in concept and atmosphere (including the bell buoys and the lapping waves) to the Islanders’ “Enchanted Sea” (hear excerpt here) a dreamy, seaward instrumental that hit the top-twenty, and had the benefit of doing so in 1959, two years before the Melody Mates plied the same waters.

“Enchantment” was doomed to sink without a trace, and did so, taking the Melody Mates with it. It wouldn’t be last of Nick Cenci. With his business partner – infamous Los Angeles promoter Herb Cohen (who was in town for a few years while credit problems on the West Coast blew over) – Cenci would put together the Co & Ce label in the early ‘60s. It was one of the city’s most successful labels, with a motley assortment of mid-decade Pittsburgh acts – ‘50s-leaning vocal pop from Lou Christie and the Vogues (who had two of Co & Ce’s top ten hits, “You’re the One” and “Five O’Clock World”), pop-rock from the Fenways, and a 45 by wild garage band the Swamp Rats.

Oddly enough, “Enchantment” would be covered note-for-note (including the prologue) by a Los Angeles group called the Castiles a year or two later.

2. Eden Ahbez, Tobago (Del-Fi)
So many terrific stories persist about “Nature Boy” Eden Ahbez – that he was raised in an orphanage, for instance, that he walked across the continent eight times – and so little exists in the way of hard fact, that summoning even the barest sketch of the man is only to repeat those same mythologies. Which perhaps does say something about Ahbez, who America recalls as composer of the standard “Nature Boy.” Ahbez was, if nothing else, a skilled manager of his own mythology.

Consensus is that he was born Alexander Aberle in either 1908 or 1913 to a Jewish Brooklyn family. Adopted in his youth by a small-town family in southeastern Kansas, he grew up as George McGrew, and later, as a young man, he lived for spells in Kansas City and New York City. Certainly he was inclined to the musical arts; there is speculation, especially concerning Ahbez’s New York City years, that he was involved in Yiddish musical theater.

The details begin to coalesce in 1941, when Ahbez arrived in Los Angeles, apparently with hopes of earning a living as a songwriter. He began playing piano at the Eutropheon, a small health food store and raw foods restaurant, one of the earliest of its kind in the states. The Eutropheon was run by John and Vera Richter, German followers of Lebensreform, a fascinating nature-worship and “natural health” movement based in ideals of a temperanc
e and vigorous, natural living, along with stray bits of Eastern spirituality. The movement developed in the industrializing Germany of the late 19th Century, and its ideas spread with German emigration. The Eutropheon – founded in 1917 by the Richters – would become a hub for adherents and image-co
nscious celebrities alike. Gloria Swanson was an habitué, apparently.

The image and philosophy of this health-obsessed asceticism must have resonated with Ahbez on some level. Thus in Lotusland was Eden Ahbez, Nature Boy, truly born. The Nature Boys – there was actually a whole group of them, including Hollywood health guru Gypsy Boots – were mostly American males taken with the Lebensreform lifestyle, and they were as good at having their pictures as they were at sustaining themselves on raw food and growing their beards long.

The “Nature Boys” in full regalia, Topanga Canyon, 1948. Eden Ahbez is in front. Future California fitness guru Gypsy Boots is back row, left. (Photo from hippy.com, courtesy of Gypsy Boots.)

References to Ahbez as a beatnik and proto-hippie abound. That’s not quite the case, however. Certainly there was their wooly appearance, but the Nature Boys preached temperance, not the radical politics or the sexual and chemical libertarianism of the hippie counterculture. They’re more directly connected to 19th Century Protestant Germany – as well as to the bohemian fringes of California surf culture that followed them. Regardless, the “Nature Boys” were a local phenomenon in the late ‘40s and 1950s. Ahbez, who’d never abandoned his ambition for selling songs, leveraged his unique celebrity, striking up a partnership with Cowboy Jack Patton, a Hollywood radio personality and health nut. Together, they landed the words and melody to Ahbez’s autobiographical “Nature Boy” (part of a larger Nature Boy Suite, apparently) in Nat “King” Cole’s hands. Just as improbably, it became a number one hit, one of the biggest of Cole’s early mainstream singing career. Somehow this all made sense in post-War Southern California.

Though “Nature Boy” was not without its controversies (songwriter Herman Yablakoff sued, alleging that the Eastern melody to “Nature Boy” came from his song “Sveig Mein Härtz”), Ahbez’s celebrity increased to a national level – there were articles in Time, Life and Newsweek magazines. It was a role that did not seem to disagree with him. Ahbez continued publishing and selling his unique songs in Hollywood (including “Lonely Island,” a minor 1959 hit for Sam Cooke), just as the legends proliferated: he and his young wife had once lived for a time beneath the Hollywood sign, his young family foraged for food in the Hollywood hills.

His sole album – 1960 Eden’s Island – is the culmination of both his philosophy and musical career. Released on Bob Keene’s hip Del-Fi label, Eden’s Island capitalizes on Ahbez’s image as the sun-worshipping, beachcombing vegetarian-philosopher. West Coast pianist Paul Moer’s instrumentation was California jazz at its most exotic, with Ahbez – on flute and hand drum – accompanying the soft vibes and Martin Denny-style birdcalls. Even better, Ahbez gently intoned his own poetry over the score. Composed as a “spiritual song cycle,” the poems are idylls of the Nature Boy lifestyle – terribly redolent of Rod McKuen and a certain type of lightweight mysticism. Nonetheless the album is highly original, an absolute high point of American post-War exotica and armchair escapism. (Hear an excerpt of the album’s “Full Moon” here.)

Eden’s Island did not sell well in its time, though. And thereafter do the details of Ahbez’s existence grow hazy again. He penned and recorded (usually pseudonymously) a few more obscure 45 recordings in the early ‘60s, he was spotted in a 1967 photograph with the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, and he met with folk boy-wonder Donovan the same year.

There was always something of the showman to Ahbez, part mystic, part beneficent charlatan. To his credit, however, he lived out the life he advocated. Shortly before his death, he was interviewed standing next to the van where he lived, still the long-haired vegetarian, still quoting his own philosophy.

Sadly, Ahbez was struck and killed by an automobile in 1995.

“Tobago,” an instrumental taken from the same session that produced Eden’s Island, only appeared on 45.

3. Bruce Norman Quintet, Keeper of the Sea (Rust)
Should sound familiar. The dirge rhythm, the tremolo guitar, the sound effects, the mysterious communion with the sea. Hardly a triumph of the imagination, but no good concept should be without its repeat visits. Think seafood buffet.

New York City’s Rust Records was the smallish subsidiary of Laurie Records, a pop-oriented indie label, one of the more prolific of its kind during the ‘60s. Rust itself was around for a just few years in the mid-‘60s, its output leaning heavily towards commercial pop. With some discographical triangulation, we can safely identify a 1963 release date for “Keeper of the Sea,” and we can probably assume the group was from the New York or New Jersey area. But further details about Bruce Norman or producer John Brindle must remain, for the moment, speculative.

Posted in Exotica/Space-Age, Instrumentals/Surf | 12 Comments

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A bit "Lotus Land," a bit "Key Largo," Dizzy Gillespie's "Rumbola" is rarely-heard side, recorded in 1954, and a lovely example of dark jazz noir in an exotic Latin setting.