Nature Boy

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.

"Nature Boy" sheet music

The original 1948 sheet music for "Nature Boy," with an image of Eden Ahbez. Image courtesy of Online Collections (The Strong) / CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

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.

Clete Grayson and the Thurston Trio, Nature Girl (Nature Boy) (Pacific PA-1007-A 45-111)1.  Clete Grayson and the Thurston Trio, Nature Girl (Nature Boy) (Pacific PA-1007-A 45-111)

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: Soul Machine, Nature Boy (A&M 953)2.  Richard Barbary: Soul Machine, Nature Boy (A & M 953)

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.

Richard Barbary: Soul Machine

Richard Barbary: Soul Machine, the album.

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.

Etta Jones, Nature Boy (Prestige 45-237A)3.  Etta Jones, Nature Boy (Prestige 45-237 A)

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.

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6 Responses to Nature Boy

  1. JohnH says:

    Great site, and really like the Nature Boy/ Girl tracks, especially…well all of them. Cheers.

  2. Phil says:

    Great post. My own fascination with this song began early while investigating my folks’ record collection and heard Grace Slick and the Great Society’s version (which remains my favorite, I think). I’m really digging these 3; each is tops in their own way. And that’s the thing with this song – each artist’s arrangement allows their version to stand out on its own. Some of my other favorite adaptations are Miles Davis’, The Shields’, Dick Contino’s, and Tony Randall’s.

    • Little Danny says:

      Hey Phil – yeah, Miles Davis’s version is definitely an all-time fave. The Harold Johnson Sextet do a wicked, mid-’60s Latin jazz version that’s a standout in my book, too. And Nat “King” Cole’s original version shouldn’t be overlooked, either.

  3. childish says:

    Great post! Of the many many versions of this tune that I love, I’ll add two more. Mark Murphy does a medley of Nature Boy & Calypso Blues on his Nat King Cole songbook vol. 1 LP. Also, a really beautiful, though brief version by Maria Bethania with Vinicius de Moraes on a CD called Que Falta Voce Me Faz.

  4. pablo says:

    hi

    great site here and versions i didnt know! im studying the song at present for a music theory and listening skills assignment at college. if anyone can offer any advice on song structure and for mate, theory rtc i would be much greatfull! but i have a tight deadline of 3 days! im thinking of comparing the nat king cole orchestral version with one on this site! many thanks for these versions ! i wasnt so impressed by more modern versions by bowie or benson although they seem to be respected.. the orch /nat version is great but hard to work out the temp as its not in strict time.. it apperas around 75 bpm though? any pointers?

    cheers

  5. oliver says:

    always loved the barbary cut and happen to own the etta j. 45 too !! would love to get some deep marfa r&r but might have to settle for austin if the spring show is a go..

    take it smooth danny p.s. i’m going to try and get a show on kalx (uc-berkeley) we’ll see how tricky that ends up being at this point i won’t be denied :)

    happy holiday OB

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