“Nature Boy” is a song by Eden Ahbez, published in 1947. The song tells a fantasy of a “strange enchanted boy… who wandered very far” only to learn that “the greatest thing… was just to love and be loved in return”. Nat King Cole’s 1948 recording of the song was a major hit and “Nature Boy” has since become a pop and jazz standard, with dozens of major artists interpreting the song.
A magic song, magic words, a great inspiration.
Massive Attack’s remix of Bowie’s version (It’s massive!):
And the most successful version by Nat King Cole:
There was a boy
A very strange, enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far
Very far, over land and sea
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
The first two measures of the song’s melody parallel the melody of the second movement in Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in A, Op. 81 (1887). It is unknown if ahbez was familiar with Dvořák’s piece, or if he arrived at the same melodic idea independently.
Yiddish theater star/producer Herman Yablokoff, in Memoirs of the Yiddish Stage, claimed that the melody to “Nature Boy” was plagiarized from his song “Shvayg, Mayn Harts” (“Hush, My Heart”), which he wrote for his play Papirosn (1935). Ahbez protested his innocence, claiming to have “heard the tune in the mist of the California mountains,” but later agreed to pay Yablokoff $25,000 in an out-of-court settlement.
The song is based on a 1940s Los Angeles-based group called “Nature Boys,” a subculture of proto-hippies of which ahbez was a member.
Written as a pop ballad, “Nature Boy” follows an “A,B” format, with both sections being melodically and harmonically similar until the final 4-bar phrase of each. The primary melodic theme is a pickup note on the 5 of the minor i chord, then three notes descending on a minor triad above the pickup note. An ascending line over the diminished ii chord returns to the initial minor triad.
The harmonic structure makes frequent use of the standard ii-V-i progression in the key of D minor. The second 4-bar section featured a chromatic descending line based on the lowering of the tonic (Dm, Dmmaj7, Dm7, Dm6). The same descending line then continues through Gm6, Dm, then finally ending with a whole-step down to the G in the chord Em7(b5).
The song was a primary theme of the film score for The Boy with Green Hair (1948), for which the original version was used.
The writing of “Nature Boy” is the theme of a 2000 Canadian TV film of the same title, directed by Kari Skogland. In the film, nomadic poet and songwriter eden ahbez, played by Callum Keith Rennie, writes a tune for Nat King Cole in 1947, after falling in love with a woman named Anna Jacobs. Nat records the song and the rest is history.
A recording by Kate Ceberano featured in the film The Crossing (1990). The tune and lyrics feature prominently in the film Untamed Heart (1993), for which the Roger Williams and Nat King Cole versions are used. Miles Davis’s recording is used in the film The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). The song is performed in a jazz club in the film Angel Eyes, (2001). A recording by Jon Hassell(trumpet) with Ronu Majumdar (flute) is featured on the soundtrack. The French film To Paint or Make Love (2005) also featured the song.
David Bowie’s version was a theme in the musical film Moulin Rouge! (2001). The version used in the film was sung by John Leguizamo, as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, during the introductory scenes. Some of the film’s premise is based on the lyrics, in particular the lines “There was a boy… A very strange, enchanted boy.” The lyric “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is (just) to love and be loved in return” is used throughout the film. Massive Attack’s remix of Bowie’s version was used in the film’s closing credits. Both Bowie’s version and Massive Attack’s remix appear on the soundtrack.
The song was performed by Rodrigo Santoro in the film Heleno (2012), during the radio interview when he asks if he could sing a song for his wife and son.
The Nat King Cole version was played at the start of Mike Tyson’s one-man show Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth including one directed by Spike Lee that aired on HBO.
- The most successful version was recorded by Nat King Cole, which was released by Capitol Records as catalog number 15054. The record first reached the Billboard charts on 16 April 1948 and stayed for 15 weeks, peaking at No. 1.Cole later re-recorded the song for his 1961 album The Nat King Cole Story.
- The Dick Haymes recording was released by Decca Records as catalog number 24439. The record first appeared on the Billboard charts on June 4, 1948 and lasted 4 weeks, peaking at No. 16.
- The Frank Sinatra recording was released by Columbia Records as catalog number 38210. It first reached the Billboard charts on May 28, 1948 and lasted 4 weeks, peaking at No. 18.
- Bobby Darin’s version entered the US Cash Box chart on June 10, 1961, peaking at No. 31 on July 15, 1961. The song also entered the UK singles chart on July 6, 1961, peaking at No. 24 during a 7-week chart run.
- [Marty Rhone] recorded a version in 1966 on the Spin Label in Australia.
- Big Star’s singer Alex Chilton recorded a version of the song during the 1974 sessions for the Third/Sister Lovers album, which surfaced only as a bonus track for the Rykodisc edition of that album in 1992.
- A version by Central Line reached No. 21 in the UK in 1983.
- Cher recorded a version as a tribute to her late former husband, Sonny Bono.
- Grover Washington, Jr. recorded a version on his 1994 album All My Tomorrows.
- Celine Dion performed the song as part of her A New Day… concert at Caesars Palace. The song appeared on her 2002 album A New Day Has Come and on her 2004 live album A New Day… Live in Las Vegas.
- Abbey Lincoln recorded a version on her jazz album A Turtle’s Dream.
- A live performance of the song, mashed up with the theme tune from TV’s Mad Men, by actress Allison Williams went viral on Youtube, contributing to her casting in HBO’s Girls after it was spotted by producer Judd Apatow.
Selective list of recorded versions
A parody named “Serutan Yob” was recorded by The Unnatural Seven, an offshoot of Red Ingle and his Natural Seven that did not include Ingle due to the 1948 AFM recording ban. The record featured vocals from Karen Tedder and Los Angeles DJ Jim Hawthorne. It was released by Capitol Records as catalog number 15210. The record first reached the Billboard magazine charts on 1 October 1948 and lasted 4 weeks on the chart, peaking at No. 24. There was also a version named “Serutan Yob” by Yma Sumac in the 1950s. A Brazilian version named “Encantado” with lyrics by Vinicius de Moraes.
|Birth name||George Alexander Aberle|
|Also known as||Eden Ahbez
|Born||15 April 1908
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
|Origin||Brooklyn, New York|
|Died||4 March 1995 (aged 86)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
image by trustahope