Del-Fi, US, 1960
Photographs: Brad Fuller
Layout and design: Garrett/Howard Inc
Flutes! Bongos! Beatnik poetry! In the summer of 1948, a Nat King Cole song called ‘Nature Boy’ was at the top of the US pops. Its popularity brought the song’s author, Eden Ahbez, to the attention of the general public, resulting in a media frenzy as details of his lifestyle came to light.
ahbez – in lower case, only the words “God” and “Infinity” being worthy of capitalisation – was “discovered” by Cole’s management living below the first L of the Hollywood sign in LA, sleeping outdoors with his family, living on vegetables, fruits and nuts and studying Eastern mysticism. He had long hair and wore sandals and robes. In ’48? Jeepers! Let it slide, Clyde.
Skip forward 12 years and many cover versions of his songs later, to the release of Eden’s Island (subtitled The Music Of An Enchanted Isle), the culmination of his philosophy and songwriting. Released on Hollywood’s Del-Fi label, the album mixes beatnik poetry with otherworldly “exotic” instrumentation, thus feeding in beautifully to the contemporary fad for all things lounge and primitive. Filing it under exotica or easy listening – although it is undoubtedly both exotic and easy on the ear – would be missing the point somewhat; proto-hippie Ahbez clearly had more than mere dinner party accompaniment in mind.
The artwork was put together by Garrett/Howard Inc, who seem to have been the supreme masters of the easy listening market. From the late ’50s onwards, they were responsible for an absolute shed load of lounge-style album artwork, including all of the Martin Dennys. Photographers Murray Garrett and Gene Howard ran a very successful photographic company, mostly related to show business and celebrities. After Garrett/Howard gained a designer and developed into Studio Five, they really got busy and started churning out up to 350 covers a year, including artwork for such luminaries as Lee Hazlewood, Gary Lewis & The Playboys and The Peanut Butter Conspiracy.
The album cover looks quite similar to many of the exotica records on the market at the time, with a hand drawn title font that looks like it’s carved from some exotic tree. Ahbez’s name is written in jazzy writing, tagging him as “Nature Boy” as a quick reminder. There’s also a prominent image of Ahbez, portrayed perfectly as the nature-loving mystic wearing robes and a serious expression as he gazes calmly into the middle distance. Pictured in a woodland setting, he almost blends in with the trees, his face lined, peaceful and wood-like, like a Methuselahian sage. And is that a praying mantis on his shoulder?
The cover photograph was taken by Brad Fuller, whose only other album credit appears to be a Dorothy Parker spoken word album (but presumably he led a full and rich life outside of the music business).
The back cover also features a windswept Fuller photo of Ahbez but the feel is very different, dreamy and oceanic, with a blue duotone image of him sitting on a rugged seashore, looking every inch the mystic leader of his island of Eden.
The photo is overlaid with some of Ahbez’s writings, explaining his philosophy and thoughts about how life can be lived in harmony with nature.
Eden Ahbez was embraced by the beautiful people later in the ’60s, with covers of ‘Nature Boy’ released by both The Great Society and Gandalf (and later by Alex Chilton), and he hung out with Brian Wilson and Donovan. Hailed by some as “the first hippie”, his philosophy finally chimed with the times.
Eden’s Island is in many ways a record way ahead of its time. The album artwork, although it mostly adheres to the prevailing artistic idiom of the times, gives the listener some hints as to the deeper meaning sought by its author; those of peace, love and the harmony found in nature.
A feature-length documentary about Eden Ahbez is scheduled for 2019.
Gitte Morten © 2018
This article was published in Shindig! Magazine, July 2018