The Capitol Tower, Nature Boy and the Hollywood Sign

Capitol Tower 2

In the mid 1950s, after Nat King Cole opened our shop – Tara Records in Tara Street – we went to see Nat at the Theatre Royal, now long demolished.

Michael Tyrell invited Nat and his trio to drinks in our apartment over the shop. It was a great party. I recall Drogheda-born Louis Mullen, who was resident vocalist in the Crystal Ballroom, asking Nat about his first big hit, Nature Boy.

Nat told us an intriguing story about this song and its composer. Capitol Records was a new label then and they were building the Capitol Tower on Hollywood and Vine, a distinctive circular structure. Shaped like a large stack of 12-inch long playing records, it’s well worth a view.

One morning, a strange-looking character handed reception a song he had written, and walked out. This song went from department to department, finally ending up in the Artist and Repertoire department, where the three greatest arrangers sat: trumpet player and band leader Billy May, string section arranger Gordon Jenkins and the immortal Nelson Riddle, who made all of Sinatra’s super 1950s albums. These giants made a head arrangement of Nature Boy, and got Nat King Cole to record it. This disc was issued without fanfare, but Nature Boy took off like a jet plane in the US. It stayed at number one for seven weeks on the billboard charts and was a smash hit in Britain and Ireland.

Nat said Nature Boy made him a national and international star. The money was pouring in; it was Capitol Records’ first multi-million hit record and enabled them to construct the Capitol Tower faster. They even hired the musician and guitar pioneer Les Paul to design the studios for a warm, rich sound on disc, which worked.

Everything was fine and dandy until they discovered they had a large sum of money in royalties for composer X. Capitol Records had no name, address or phone number for the composer. In fairness to Capitol, they hired a detective to search for the composer of Nature Boy. Reception gave a description: long hair, long beard, long kaftan coat and flip flop sandals.

The detective smiled and said, “I will have him in 24 hours.” In those days, all men wore a suit, shirt, tie and hat. The cop drove down to Southwest Los Angeles, and in five minutes had a name: Eden Ahbez.

“That’s great, I have a name! Now does anybody know where Eden lives?”
“Yeah, Eden lives in the Hollywood Hills.”

The cop replied, “What the hell are you guys saying? Nobody lives in the Hollywood Hills.”

At this, another barfly said, “Mister, you will find Eden Ahbez, his new girl and four or five of his disciples under the first letter L in the giant Hollywood sign.”

The cop shouted, “You are all drunk as hell. Nobody lives at the Hollywood sign.”

Some time later, after calming down, the private eye walked up to the big Hollywood sign and found Eden and his entourage under the letter L. He told Eden, “There’s a handsome cheque in Capitol Records for you.”

This could never happen today, as California has made the Hollywood sign a listed structure and it is now very well protected.

Nobody seems to know what happened to this handsome cheque. I must have been bored, about 12 years ago, when I wrote to Capitol Records for information. I am still waiting for a reply. I have trawled paper trails, books, papers etc, and now the internet, and found two dubious answers.

First answer: Eden collected the cheque and tore it to shreds.
Second answer: Eden cashed the cheque, went back to the Hollywood sign, gave all the money to his disciples and told them to go home and start a new life.

I hope the second answer is true.
There are many search engines where you can see and hear Nat King Cole singing Nature Boy. If you tune in, listen out for a great guitar solo by Oscar Moore. I listen on YouTube and read all the comments, mostly by young people and all positive. The song has had almost four million hits on the web. Most comments mention the last two lines of the song, saying it gives them hope and consolation. I concur; the last two lines are as valid today as when written over 60 years ago.

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn,
Is just to love and be loved in return.”

Above: The Capitol Records building in Hollywood.
Left: The singer and pianist Nat King Cole in action.

By Noel Twamley