I can think of at least a few reasons for the continued appeal of the song “Nature Boy.”
There’s its philosophical, pseudo-mystical message for one. It was heady, if not radical, stuff for 1948, at least as far as pop songs went, and furthermore its gentle sentiment and lyrics, unlike many “message” songs, have weathered with enviable resilience over the years.
It helps that melodically it’s also a difficult song to get wrong. There’s a robustness to its structure, one that has engendered a particularly attractively set of moody, exotic arrangements amongst its many adaptations.
There’s also the not-insignificant appeal of Eden Ahbez, the Wanderer himself and the songwriter behind “Nature Boy.” I covered Eden Ahbez here, this fascinating, quintessentially American character who also embodied, self-conciously, but still sort of admirably, “Nature Boy.” “Nature Boy,” the song, is Eden Ahbez – a combination of autobiography and self-mythology.
I’m not alone in my fascination with the song. Since its million-selling treatment by Nat “King” Cole in 1948, it’s become a pop and jazz standard. And it’s also inspired a decades-long, wildly varied body of readings across many styles. This week’s three versions are but a few of my favorites.
Released in 1961 on what was almost certainly a Los Angeles-based label, there’s surprisingly little else to be learned of either Clete Grayson, the Thurston Trio or Pacific Records (which was unrelated to the more widely known Pacific Jazz / World Pacific Records).
Either way, Clete Grayson was certainly a capable vocalist, and he sings here with winning gusto. His lyrical gender transposition is a unique twist, and the professional production isn’t too shabby, either, with an emphatically rockin’ beat and an ondioline making a rare solo appearance during the instrumental break.
With any style of mainstream, mass-produced culture, no matter how commercial, there are bound to be a few nonconformists, oddballs that slip through the cracks in the guise, in this case, of conventional pop music. One of thousands of teen pop and rock ‘n’ roll records being cranked out in the early ‘60s, “Nature Girl (Nature Boy)” might not have succeeded commercially – it’s just too strange – but it is unequivocally great.
(I owe my copy of this gem to Jack at the great Out of the Bubbling Dusk. Thanks Jack.)
Richard Barbary is a puzzling case in the world of ‘60s R&B, a talented unknown who seems, after just one excellent, lavishly-produced album on a major label, to have just as quickly disappeared.
A singer with a smooth, world-weary baritone, Barbary had, at the time of this record, just one release under his belt – 1967’s “Get Right” b/w “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again,” the debut 45 for future soul powerhouse Spring Records.
But Barbary is better heard on his first LP, Richard Barbary: Soul Machine, which was rolled out with all the trimmings – sumptuous production, a cadre of cream-of-the-crop session players, deluxe gatefold album cover – by A&M Records in 1968.
Produced by Creed Taylor, arranged by studio veterans Artie Butler, Horace Ott and Jimmy Wisner and recorded by legendary jazz engineer Rudy Van Gelder, it’s an East Coast recording but, with its up-to-the-minute production qualities, a West Coast sounding record. It seems to have been conceived somewhat in the style of a Lou Rawls, Willie Tee or Jerry Butler – smooth-voiced, sophisticated R&B singers with appeal to both pop and jazz markets.
“Nature Boy,” which is featured on Richard Barbary: Soul Machine, is one of the album’s highlights, both Barbary’s mellow reading and a subtle, Horace-Silver-influenced Afro-Latin jazz feel asserting the song’s inherent wistfulness.
A&M Records invested no small amount of stock in Barbary, perhaps cultivating him as their Lou Rawls. But his debut would, sadly, and for reasons unknown, turn out to be his only album. Furthermore, it seems to have been his last recording, period. I would love to know more of the story.
Like other stylists who never quite got their due – Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln springing to mind – the great Etta Jones never crossed over much into the more visible worlds of R&B and pop music, perhaps ultimately to the detriment of her career, though she was widely respected as one of the purest of all jazz vocalists.
Born in 1928 in South Carolina, Etta Jones came up in Harlem. After winning the attention of bandleader Buddy Johnson at an Apollo talent contest in 1943, she joined his popular orchestra, her exposure thenceforth leading to more work, including gigs with drummer J.C. Heard and pianist Earl Hines, and a set of fascinating mid-‘40s releases recorded with Leonard Feather.
Jones seems to have sung jazz from the very outset of her professional career. Her early recordings evince mature sensibilities – the Billie Holiday influence is at its most pronounced, and era-standard jump blues are suffused with deep feeling. But, despite the early promise, Jones was not swept up in a bebop revolution that might have logically included her. Her fortunes as an artist foundered as the 1950s progressed, but changed with 1960’s Don’t Go to Strangers, her debut full-length album recorded for the Prestige jazz label. Don’t Go to Strangers was a commercial success, and many critics have since cited the album as a water mark (it was also earned her the first of three Grammy nominations in her lifetime).
Don’t Go to Strangers would in reality be but one of a large number of highly consistent sessions for Prestige Records during Jones’s reemergence in the first half of the ‘60s. Her unusual reading of “Nature Boy” deserves a special place of honor here. Recorded and released in late 1962, her all-star support included Jerome Richardson (tenor saxophone), Sam Bruno (bass), Bobby Donaldson (drums) and either Kenny Burrell or Bucky Pizzarelli on guitar. Though it didn’t ultimately find much commercial traction, Prestige sensed enough potential in its chugging, Latin beat to release it as a single to the relatively lucrative jukebox/R&B market.
Her Prestige Records run ended in the mid-‘60s, and though Jones was never again quite as prolific in the studio, her performing career resumed with renewed energy for the next decades, a long-time partnership with soul jazz saxophone stalwart Houston Person proving especially fruitful.
Etta Jones passed away in 2001 from complications of cancer.