Forty-two years ago this week, Norman Greenbaum‘s “Spirit in the Sky” was a surprise Top 10 hit. To this day, people are still asking the one-hit wonder about the song and its impact.
“They ask me all the time about what makes it work, and I think it’s the opening — an unforgettable riff,” Greenbaum says from his home in Santa Rosa, Calif. “It has a wonderful mix; the quality of it, it’s been able to withstand time.
“It’s been helped along by being in 48 movies so far and been in a bunch of commercials, and being on Rock Band 2 helps. It’s been heard by everyone all over the place. I’ve heard from people who aren’t even dying yet but have instructed their kids that they play ‘Spirit in the Sky’ at their funeral.”
At the time, “Spirit in the Sky” was reportedly the biggest-selling song ever by a Warner Brothers Records artist, with sales of 2 million copies. The great misperception is that having that one big hit can set an artist for life.
“When it first came out, royalties weren’t very big,” says Greenbaum, now 69. “Touring sales weren’t very high; fortunately, we didn’t need a lot of people on tour. Even though it sold more than 2 million singles, you still have to pay back the record company. There were no videos back then, there weren’t another few billion people on the planet eager to download it onto their iPhone.
“I’m not anywhere near well off, but I’m able to live a comfortable life after one hit because I’ve kept myself out of trouble.”
Born on Nov. 20, 1942, in Malden, Mass., Greenbaum developed a taste for Southern blues and folk music, even though his parents rarely played any music in their house. He played in bands in high school and studied music at Boston University. He performed at Boston coffeehouses, getting his feet wet and honing his writing skills.
“I decided I didn’t want to go to school anymore; I wanted to do something else with my life. I wanted to pursue music, but I didn’t want to go to New York. I had some friends who moved to Hollywood, so they opened my eyes to warm weather and swimming pools and the beaches. It was a rather major recording mecca and so I moved there.”
So, naturally, he formed a psychedelic jug band … really?!
“I was a big fan of jug band music, which is sort of an offshoot of folk music. A lot of blues came from that kind of music. I was really into writing offbeat songs,” Greenbaum says. “I put this band together who had been hanging out with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters so he was part of the culture that was blossoming and adding to my little craziness.”
Thus Dr. West’s Medicine Show and Junk Band was born.
“We would have a light show and we would paint our faces — of course, this was years before KISS did it. We were different characters every night depending on our moods.
“Someone who knew the manager of the New Christy Minstrels and José Feliciano said he could get me an audition; I knew nothing about the music business at the time. We went over to his office in our full regalia of goofy clothes and painted faces and sang ‘The Eggplant That Ate Chicago.’ He signed us right on the spot.”
The novelty song about an alien invasion became an unlikely radio hit in 1966, reaching No. 52 on the Billboard pop chart and becoming a favorite of Dr. Demento fans for years to come.
Greenbaum says he enjoyed his time with Dr. West’s Medicine Show and Jug Band, but the band went through too many changes and management problems. That’s when he decided: I’m gonna be a rocker.
“I put another band together, and we were playing at the Troubadour and purely by chance, Erik Jacobsen walked in that night. He was a producer who did productions for Tim Hardin and the Lovin’ Spoonful. He signed me to his company and I moved up to Northern California.”
It’s around that time that he came up with “Spirit in the Sky” and its memorable riff.
“My inspiration had come from watching Porter Wagoner. I had a fascination with him because I lived in L.A. and I knew where they got those suits, and I liked country music. I like all kinds of music.
“Anyway, Wagoner had his own TV show, and all this was in the midst of my ever-changing bands, and he played a gospel song a few minutes into the show. And I thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool.’ He would sing a couple goofy songs, some country and western with Dolly (Parton) and then get all somber and play a really heartfelt country-gospel song. I thought I’d love to write a song with religion in it. I also liked Westerns, and the bad guy always wanted to die with his boots on, so ‘even though I’m a bad guy, I want to redeem myself and go to heaven.’ I just chose the spirit in the sky. The part about Jesus was just a natural part when I put it all together.
“I tried myriad arrangements. I thought, ‘It’s not going to make it as a country song, this or that,’ but then it hit me, I had been playing this heavy boogie-blues thing on my Thunder Telecaster at the time. I thought, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be great to use that sound with words like this?’ And that’s how it happened. It was all natural.”
“Spirit in the Sky” reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, just behind The Jackson 5’s “ABC” and The Beatles’ “Let It Be.” It went No. 1 in the U.K.
It has resonated all these years because it sounds like it was recorded yesterday.
“It’s taken on a life of its own. It doesn’t go away,” Greenbaum says. “Heck, even William Shatner just did a version of it.”
Greenbaum couldn’t come anywhere close to matching the grandness of “Spirit in the Sky.” Follow-up singles “Canned Ham” and “California Earthquake” barely made a dent. By the end of 1971, he was already considered a one-hit wonder.
“The record company always used to tell me that they never knew what I was going to do next and it seemed like a major fault. I felt it was the opposite, that I was bringing in something artistic that would be different,” he says. “They always seem to want something that was similar, and it was explained to me that that’s why I was a one-hit wonder, that I was inconsistent.
“I mean, how do you follow up ‘Spirit in the Sky’? The only way I could was to come out with something crazier — because in reality, ‘Spirit in the Sky’ was a crazy single to put out. There was nothing like it at the time. If you look back at the charts, you go, ‘God, what’s that doing there?’ It was pretty weird.”
“Spirit in the Sky” came back to life in 1986 when the British psychedelic rock band Doctor and the Medics went to No. 1 in the U.K. with its faithful cover version. There have been other covers, too, Fuzzbox, The Kumars, Stellar Kart, The Kentucky Headhunters — “Pop Idol” star Gareth Gates scored a No. 1 with it in 2003.
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