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Friday, December 23, 2011
Exclusive Interview: Norman Greenbaum reveals the true origin of “Spirit In The Sky”
When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that’s the best
When I lay me down to die
Goin’up to the spirit in the sky
Norman Greenbaum is considered by many music experts to be a one-hit wonder. But when the lyrics to that particular hit meant so much to so many and with eternal impact… then who cares?
Greenbaum’s “Spirit In The Sky” echoed an inspirational message of optimism for hope of an afterlife. The song reached #3 on the Billboard charts and sold two million singles by 1970, and during an important transitional period in music that witnessed Album-Oriented Rock formats overshadowing Top 40 singles on the airwaves.
Greenbaum created one of the most recognizable guitar riffs in rock and roll history using an industrial fuzz tone. Released in 1969, “Sprit In The Sky” has stood the test of time. Greenbaum states, “Motorists actually still pull over to the side of the road when they hear the song being played on the radio.” And the song continues to be a heavily requested tune at funerals.
Rolling Stone magazine ranked “Spirit In The Sky,” #341 on the list of top ‘500 Greatest Songs of All Time.’ Countless musicians have mimicked their version of the celestial composition including Elton John, DC Talk, Darrel Mansfield, The Stovall Sisters (The back-up singers on the original recording), Doctor and the Medics, Nina Hagen, and Norman’s favorite cover version, The Kentucky Headhunters.
“Spirit In The Sky” has been featured in countless movies, TV series and commercials. The song has also been spotlighted on the 2008 music video game- Rock Band 2, enlightening a whole new generation of “Spirit” advocates.
Norman Greenbaum began a music career as a member of Dr. West’s Medicine Show and Junk Band. Their sole hit was, “The Eggplant that Ate Chicago” (#52 on Billboard’s top 100) in 1966. Greenbaum departed the band and began a solo career under the direction of producer Erik Jacobsen (Lovin’ Spoonful, Sopwith Camel, Chris Issak).
Raised of the Jewish faith, Greenbaum states that there wasn’t much resentment from the Jewish Community over his Christian-like lyrics, especially his reference to Jesus. The only true criticism came from the Christian side who were not very pleased with his lyric… “Never been a sinner I never sinned.” Greenbaum says, “I just didn’t know better at the time.”
Today Norman Greenbaum is 69 years old and lives in Northern California. His 1969 metaphysical one- hit wonder continues to be adored and emulated by countless fans. Most recently Peter Frampton covered, “Spirit In The Sky” on William Shatner’s latest album, Seeking Major Tom.
Norman enjoys sponsoring races at the local fair. He says, “All it consists of is getting around thirty friends together, having a party, and getting your picture taken with the winning racehorse.” He’s also won a bunch of blue ribbons entering various works.
Here’s my interview with Songwriter/Vocalist/Guitarist/Rock and Roll Icon/ and a very amusing and hip guy… Norman Greenbaum. (We had to reschedule the original interview date because Mr. Greenbaum was feeling a bit under the weather).
Ray: Hello Norman, are you feeling better?
Norman: “I’m feeling better; I had some kind of an on and off flu. When you get older you don’t shake it so quick. I got a flu shot and the thing hurt like hell. I mean, I always get one but it doesn’t matter because I still get sick a couple of times… can’t cover everything. But this year it hurt! And I got it at a doctor’s office, so if they don’t know how to give one than no one does.”
Ray: Norman, do you still compose and play music?
Norman: “I’m always trying to compose. It’s kind of interesting these days because music has changed so much. Actually, I was sitting here thinking to myself, the production values have just gone way off in an odd direction, not exactly disco but certainly heavy dance music, and these repeating phrases, and I wonder if I could write a song like that.”
“But I’ve been doing a few gigs here and there just as a guest artist and it may lead to something for next spring, hopefully, so we’ll see how it goes.”
Ray : The airwaves have really changed over the years but I can still tune in somewhere on the dial and catch, “Spirit In The Sky” from time to time.
Norman:“I take great pride in the fact that… on my website, I get emails all the time, people will write to me and say, “I still listen to the oldies stations and they play your song and I still have to pull over because it’s just too powerful.””
Ray: Anytime I hear “Spirit In The Sky” being played it always sounds so fresh, like an unexpected surprise. And the staying power since it was first released in 1969 is amazing.
Norman: “It totally amazed me, I was happy to have made it. It was a risk, I almost didn’t make it, then it made it, and then it went away. Years later it got recorded by a couple of other people and became number (1) two more times in England. Then it took on a life in movies, TV, commercials, and heavy duty play on radio. I’ve talked to deejays that say we don’t play it anymore and people get mad.”
Ray: Who would have thought that “Spirit in The Sky” would be written and performed by someone of the Jewish faith?
Norman:“Yea, but I’m a writer and I’ve always thought I can write about anything I want to write about. I was into all kinds of music from jug band music to country music. I was taken by Porter Wagoner, he’d wear these snazzy coats that he’d got from Nudie’s in North Hollywood and had a big pompadour. And he was kind of interesting. He had a show on TV and I’d watch it. One day he’s singing this song about a preacher and I said, “Wow that’s a little out of my league to write about preachers and stuff, but I can do it.” And that’s what I did. But it had nothing to do about having a religious background. Many people thought I was tongue- in- cheek and making fun by saying, “Never been a Sinner” but basically I didn’t know any better. I just did it at the top of my head and put music to it that was unbelievable when you think of a spiritual type of song and it was very risky. But as it developed, the producer and I both knew we had something.”
Ray: The song still sounds so clear and crisp even today.
Norman: “We specifically mixed it on small speakers so it would sound good in a car. We were smart enough to know that and I remember having the conversation with Eric the producer saying, “It’s got to sound good in the car.” People drive and they listen to the radio…back then. There were no cell phones you had to stop and make a call, life was way different. The radio in your car was IT! Wherever you went the first thing you did was started your car and then turn on your radio. That was it (one and two) three didn’t matter.”
Ray: You were originally from Massachusetts and then actually came to Los Angeles to start a band?
Norman: “I moved to the San Francisco area from LA and actually started in Boston.I started my first band Dr. West’s Medicine Show and Junk Band in LA and did that for a few years. Then I didn’t want to do it anymore and wanted to become a solo artist. So I put bands together until one finally clicked and we were playing at the Troubadour and Eric Jacobsen who had produced the Lovin’ Spoonful happened to walk in. He heard me and then came backstage and said, “I’d like to sign you.” Just like that! He said, “I don’t want the band, move up to the Bay Area and let’s write songs and produce something, see what we can do.” And so that’s where “Spirit” got born.”
“If you ask me what I based “Spirit In The Sky” on… What did we grow up watching? …Westerns! These mean and nasty varmints get shot and they wanted to die with their boots on. So to me that was spiritual, they wanted to die with their boots on.”
Ray: So that was the trigger that got you to write the song?
Norman: “Yes. The song itself was simple, when you’re writing a song you keep it simple of course. It wasn’t like a Christian song of praise it was just a simple song. I had to use Christianity because I had to use something. But more important it wasn’t the Jesus part, it was the spirit in the sky. Funny enough… I wanted to die with my boots on.”
Ray: Being Jewish, did you receive any flack from the Jewish community?
Norman: “I think at first it was a little hard to conceive but it seems to have gone away. I still get strange letters from heavy Christians that find it appalling that I said, “Never been a sinner I never sinned” and I’m truthful in writing back. I say… “You know, I flubbed that part. So what are you going to do?””
Ray: You told me earlier that you were divorced and living alone, do you have children Norman?
Norman:“I have two. They’re around the age of forty, my son lives in Alaska and my daughter lives close here. And I am a Grandfather.”
Ray: I’ve got to ask, I always wondered about the similarities of ZZ Top’s, “La Grange” guitar riff compared to, “Spirit In The Sky.” Do you think that was just a coincidence?
Norman:“It’s interesting when you pull apart those beats between Canned Heat (“On the Road Again”), me, and ZZ Top, they’re very similar yet it’s different enough to be different. I think we all just ripped off the old guys from the 1920’s who laid down this beat. If you go back and listen to all the black music from the 20’s you’ll probably recognize all of rock and roll. We all have our influences and there are just so many notes. But again, if you listen to, “Spirit In The Sky” there are notes in there that are way different and to the ordinary ear it may sound alike.”
Ray: Do you think that your song may have been a precursor for “Jesus Christ Superstar” or “Godspell?”
Norman: “I don’t think so. I think just the hippie thing, the love thing, and the flower children were spiritual, so… I don’t know.”
Ray: But you contributed religion and Jesus into the spiritual mix.
Norman:“I brought the heavy industrial fuzz box into it. (All laughing) That’s what I did. I loved it when someone coined that phrase.”
Ray: Who were some of the bands that you toured with after, “Spirit In The Sky” was released?
Norman: “I don’t think we toured with one band, we just showed up. We opened for the Doors, The Moody Blues, and played the same gigs with Lynyrd Skynyrd, John Mayall, and we got to headline a little too.”
Ray: Did you get to hang with Jim Morrison?
Norman: “No, he was not available to hang with a Norman Greenbaum. (Laughing) And I didn’t care because the gig was in Hawaii, I just wanted to play and go lay on the beach.”
Ray: Norman, do you have a good road story that I can share with my readers?
Norman: “We were playing in Atlanta and opening up for Delaney and Bonnie. The gig was at this rather old Hall and Delaney and Bonnie had done their soundcheck and there were sparks flying, so they hiked and refused to play because the wiring was faulty. So the whole gig was going to be cancelled but I said, “Oh, we’ll play” and sparks did fly, the wiring was faulty and we had to be very careful not to electrocute ourselves.”
Ray: Man, you could have been easily electrocuted and really had become the, “Spirit in The Sky.”
Norman: “Wouldn’t that have been ironic.” Here’s another road story… we did a gig at the Whiskey a Go Go and then we drove up to San Luis Obispo in California to play a club there where we played regularly. When we got there I didn’t feel good and felt like I had a fever, so I asked the drummer to take me to the emergency room because something was definitely wrong. When I got there they wouldn’t let me in, not because I had long hair but because I had the measles. They said, “We can’t let you in here” and I said, “I’ve got insurance.” They said, “You have a communicable disease…you have the measles.” So somewhere in LA I got the measles visiting peoples families.”
“So I had to go back to the motel and lay low for a few days with a fever and the measles. Then there’s this knock on my door and I said, “Who’s that?” And the voice said, “It’s Ted Nugent,” I said, “Ted Nugent? You can come in my room but I’ve got the measles.” He said, “No problem I’ve had the measles.” I said, “What are you doing in San Luis Obispo?” He says, “I’m just passing through.”
“Now here’s the story here… I don’t know if it was an illusion, a delusion, a dream, or if he actually knocked on my door. I’ve never met him and was never able to find out. I pretty much think it was a dream… I had a fever! So it was kind of funny. (All laughing)”
Ray: Well, if Ted Nugent is reading this article; Ted, have you ever visited Norman Greenbaum at his motel room in San Luis Obispo, California when Norman had the measles?
A lot of bands covered, “Spirit In The Sky.” I really liked, The Stovall Sisters version.
Norman: “They did a pretty good version in fact I’m doing a guest appearance in February, locally here, and they’re going to be there also backing me up again, probably the first time in… ever. They were on the original and sang background for me on a number of songs. They live in Oakland and we occasionally speak. So I’m really looking forward to it.”
Ray: I also noticed covers by Darrel Mansfield, DC Talk, and Elton John did a decent cover version of the tune.
Norman: “Well, it was also covered by The Blind Boys of Alabama, and of course there was Doctor and the Medics and Gareth Gates, and those were the two that became huge hits again all over Europe…huge hits!”
Ray: Who played your favorite cover of “Spirit In The Sky?”
Norman: “I think I like the one by The Kentucky Headhunters the best, although The Blind Boys of Alabama is an interesting track because Charlie Musselwhite played harmonica and I think the guitar player was from Los Lobos.”
“I got an email from Porter Wagoner’s daughter years after, they’d never known about my story because we totally travelled on different circles, and she said, “It just came to my attention that when you did a couple of interviews that you mentioned my dad being an influence on you. He would have liked to have met you.” I thought to myself, wouldn’t that have been a cool thing. But we did exchange hats…she has a “Spirit In The Sky” hat and I have a Porter Wagoner hat.”
Ray: Wouldn’t it have been cool if he had done a cover of the song?”
Norman: “Yea, wish for something too late, huh?”
“But I do think it’s time someone else does another cover of the song, so put out the word. (Laughing)”
Ray: Norman, thank you so much for being on the call today. I’ve got a good feeling that “Spirit In The Sky” will continue to be played on the airwaves for years to come. And younger generations will soon be rediscovering a truly classic song. Norman, if you’re ever in Florida look me up.
Norman: I sure will Ray, so long.
Norman Greenbaum official website http://www.spiritinthesky.com/
“Spirit In The Sky” Film and TV credits http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1178546/
I want to thank Billy James of Glass Onyon Publicity for arranging this interview.
Official website http://glassonyonpublicity.wordpress.com/
*This article is dedicated to a very dear friend who passed away this month and is now a “Spirit In The Sky.” Jerry Gerard and I attended broadcasting school together back in the late 70’s in Ft Lauderdale, Fl. I’ve always considered myself a music aficionado, but Jerry took it to another level. He started his radio career at WCCF in Punta Gorda, Fl. His illustrious radio career included working at WCEZ/West Palm Beach, WINZ/Miami, WSVN-TV/Miami, WMBM/Miami Beach, WRRX/97X Gainesville, Fl, WRVG/Georgetown, Kentucky, WUIN/Wilmington, NC and WNRN/Charlottesville, VA.
Jerry's persistence and insistence to carry on a successful broadcasting career was truly commendable. And his love and passion for the music helped him endure. Jerry Gerard was a warm and sincere friend and I will miss him very much.
I love you man.
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