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-conscious 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.