Hippie culture did not originate, as the history books tell us, in the mid-to-late-1960s, in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury District. It began instead in the '40s; in Los Angeles; underneath the Hollywood sign.
Eden Ahbez, the hirsute composer of the 1948 mega-hit “Nature Boy,” with its proto-flower-power lyric “The greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return,” camped out beneath the famous sign on Mt. Lee when it still bore the more novelty designation “Hollywoodland.” According to legend, he slept under the first “L” along with his friends and fellow back-to-earth seekers, the California Nature Boys, who counted among their ranks L.A.'s original health-food jester, Gypsy Boots. Ahbez later lived there with his wife Anna and son Zoma. He also slept in caves in the hills above Palm Springs; at ashrams in Ojai, Pacific Palisades, and La Crescenta; in the backyard of restauranteurs/raw foods enthusiasts John and Vera Richter in Silver Lake; and for many years in the back of his white Ford Econoline van.
It is, in fact, possible to trace the ecology of bohemian hotspots in the Southland through a close examination of Ahbez's whereabouts in the 1940s through ‘70s. In spring 1947, for example, he practically stalked jazz singer Nat “King” Cole, who had residencies then at the Aragon Ballroom in Venice Beach and the Lincoln Theater in Downtown L.A., in hopes of getting him to record “Nature Boy.” Cole did so in August ‘47 and it went to #1 on Billboard and Cash Box in spring ‘48 where it remained for eight straight weeks.
Cole’s label, the local indie Capitol Records, was at that time still operating out of the basement of Wallich’s Music City on Sunset and Vine. Because of “Nature Boy,” however, their first #1 disc, Capitol was able to move out of Wallich’s and eventually build the iconic Capitol Records Tower up the street (on Hollywood and Vine). Lest time forgets, Downtown Hollywood was still segregated at that time, particularly its nightclubs on Sunset Strip. Which meant that Cole, a black artist, and Ahbez, homeless and living in a sleeping bag under the Hollywood sign, were responsible for a local institution (the Capitol Tower), despite themselves being social outsiders.
Cole recorded Ahbez's follow up to “Nature Boy” in 1949, the equally wistful “Land of Love (Come My Love and Live with Me),” which evoked the dreamy atmosphere of L.A. in lyrics such as: “There is a land they say” and “I used to think that it was heaven above/But now it’s my land of love.” Herb Jeffries, lead singer of the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the forties, recorded Ahbez’s song “The Shepherd” in ‘49 as well, with its fragrant lines about living with his lover in the mountains, “where the days are bright and sweet and true.” Hoagy Carmichael, composer of the American standard “Stardust Melody,” sang Ahbez's “Sacramento” in 1951, extolling the virtues of not just L.A. but the entire state of California as a literal paradise on earth.
Because of his success with “Nature Boy,” and because he looked like an Old Testament prophet (or something out of a Cecil B. DeMille epic), the media was instantly attracted to Ahbez. He was “spotted” by gossip-writers, for instance, hanging out at Googie’s Diner on Sunset and Crescent Heights, a favorite meeting-place for Hollywood’s young and cool in the fifties, including James Dean, Lenny Bruce, and Eartha Kitt. Kitt recorded Ahbez’s tune “Hey Jacque” in 1954 and the two, along with beatnik flutist Bob Romeo, would play local eateries on the Sunset Strip and La Cienega Blvd., including a guest appearance behind Kitt during her famous residency at the Mocambo.
In 1957, Sam Cooke, fresh from his stint as the lead singer of the gospel group the Soul Stirrers, recorded Ahbez's “Lonely Island” for indie Hollywood label Keen Records. The song, with its cheeky line “I live on a lonely island in the middle of the city,” hit #21 on the charts in February 1958.
Cooke later claimed it was Ahbez who suggested that he add the “e” to his last name to make himself sound a bit more mysterious.
“Lonely Island” was a harbinger of things to come as well for its composer. Ostensibly about a tropical hideaway surrounded by the trappings of materialism, the song was Ahbez’s first attempt at creating a semi-fictional utopia, based at least in part on his lived experience in Los Angeles. This idea would get fully fleshed-out in 1959 with the recording of his lone solo album, Eden's Island, released in 1960 on Del-Fi Records.
If “Nature Boy” was Ahbez's definitive anthem, Eden’s Island was his total worldview. Its philosophy was influenced by many sources, from Buddhism to Spinoza’s deism, with Ahbez being widely studied in mainstream religion (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), world mythology, and fairy tales, as well as Theosophy and the occult. He homogenized these elements into a personal mythos which was expressed in songs such as “Full Moon,” with its famous line, “I am everyone/Anyone/No one,” and in “La Mar,” where he exclaimed, “It was strange and wonderful/ Like seeing the world/ And seeing through the world.”
Before the album was recorded—in two marathon sessions in spring 1959, summer 1960—Ahbez had worked out its arrangements in a live setting, having played residencies with his Nature Boy Trio at local Beat Generation cafes such as the Gas House in Venice and the Insomniac Cafe in Hermosa Beach. The studio sessions themselves were both held at United Recording, known to locals as Western Studios (for its location on Sunset and Western), and featured a veritable Who’s Who of West Coast cool jazz players, including Jimmy Bond (bass), Paul Horn (metal flute), Paul Moer (piano), and Emil Richards (marimba/percussion).
The album was released by Del-Fi in September 1960 and, according to label-owner Bob Keane, sold fewer than a hundred copies. With professional and personal losses (his wife died from cancer at 44), he continued writing but released little new music thereafter.
He did not live to see his masterpiece Eden's Island get rediscovered by the alternative generations of the 1990s and 2000s. It was reissued on CD for the first time just a few months after his death in 1995 and has since been re-packaged seventeen times. He would not see the Hollywood/Broadway success of Baz Luhrman's Moulin Rouge either, which employed “Nature Boy” as its leitmotif, or the Academy Award-winning film Nomadland, with its embrace of van-life as a viable alternative to the rat race.
If anything, the posthumous Ahbez is more relevant now than he was in life, with the Hollywood of his songs—free-spirited, activist, experimental—ripe for a renaissance. DH
Brian Chidester is an art historian with a background in curation, documentary filmmaking, and journalism. He has produced documentaries for the BBC, PBS, and Showtime, and is currently working on a feature-length documentary entitled As the Wind: The Enchanted Life of Eden Ahbez. Chidester has written articles for The American Prospect, The Atlantic, Paste, and The Village Voice, and is the author of Out of My Head: The Imaginary Creatures of Josep Baqué (Norton/Fantagraphics). He has also curated numerous art exhibitions including Beyond the Pleasuredome: The Lost Occult Works of Burt Shonberg. Chidester lives in New York City.