Former Petaluman Norman Greenbaum on 50 years of ‘Spirit in the Sky’
Fifty years after it was released, “Spirit in the Sky” continues to be one of the most recognizable and enduring songs in rock ’n’ roll history. With its distinctive fuzz-tone guitar, boogie-rock beat and gospel lyrics, the song peaked at No. 1 on the Cashbox music charts in May 1970.
At that time, Norman Greenbaum - the song’s composer and performer - had settled on a farm in Penngrove with his then-wife and two young children and was trying to come up with another hit song.
Greenbaum was never able to duplicate the success of “Spirit in the Sky,” although he did record two follow-up albums, “Back Home Again” and “Petaluma” for Warner Brothers. He returned to Los Angeles for a while, but then walked away from the music business and has lived in Sonoma County since.
But “Spirit in the Sky” never really went away, and in the late 1980s, it started to take on a new life. Two British bands, Doctor & the Medics and Gareth Gates, covered the song in 1986 and 1993, respectively, and both versions went to No. 1 in the U.K. Over the next few years, Greenbaum’s original version began to appear in movies such as “Apollo 13,” “Remember the Titans” and “Wayne’s World 2.”
“The song had been semi-dead as a one-hit wonder for years,” said Greenbaum, 77, in a recent phone interview from his Santa Rosa home. “But all of a sudden it started to become this hugely wanted song and it has had this great resurgence.”
To date, “Spirit in the Sky” has been used in more than 60 movies, numerous television shows and dozens of commercials, including American Express, Toyota and Nike.
When this writer first interviewed Greenbaum in 1985, he was working as a cook at a Petaluma restaurant owned by a friend. But because of the renewed interest and use of the song, he hasn’t had to work again.
“Up until then, the benefits to me from the song were non-existent,” he said. Greenbaum explained that he signed a standard writer’s contract, which specified that the publishing rights were owned by his producer, but he was always entitled to half of the rights.
He feels that he a got a fair deal.
“The good part is the song is being passed down to new generations,” he said. “A lot of kids remember it from the movie ‘Remember the Titans.’ Now, a fourth generation knows it from ‘Guardians of the Galaxy.’?”
The song is also enjoying new popularity in unexpected places: funeral homes and memorials.
“The words have become more important as people get older and die,” Greenbaum said. “More people are saying, ‘I want that song played at my funeral.’ It’s weird.”
“When I die and they lay me to rest, gonna go to the place that’s the best. When they lay me down to die, going’ up to the spirit in the sky.”
“Once we saw Emmylou Harris backstage at the Luther Burbank Center and she said, ‘I want that song played at my funeral,’?” Greenbaum recalled.
“Spirit in the Sky” had been percolating in Greenbaum’s creative consciousness for a long time before the song came together in 1969.
“I was playing this riff for a long time and I didn’t know what to do with it,” he said. Oddly enough, a song that he heard country-gospel singer Porter Wagoner perform on his TV show one day brought the song to fruition.
“I’ve always liked country music,” he allowed. “(Wagoner) would always do a religious song halfway through his show. One time he sang a song about preacher and an old gold miner. The miner decided to go into town one day and pray at the church. But when he got to the church, there was a sign on the door that said, ‘The pastor is on vacation.’?”
After hearing that song, “Pastor’s Absent on Vacation,” Greenbaum sat down and wrote the words to “Spirit in the Sky.” He remembered a greeting card he had seen depicting Hopi Indians sitting in front of a teepee with smoke from their fire going up in the sky and the words, “spirit in the sky.”
“I wrote the song pretty quickly,” he recalled. “I said to my producer, ‘I’ve got a good one.’ When we finished recording it, it sent shivers up our spines. It still does.”
A native of Massachusetts, Greenbaum cut his musical teeth in Boston’s fertile folk music scene of the early 1960s. He moved to Los Angeles in 1965 and formed a group called Dr. West’s Medicine Show and Junk Band. The band recorded one single that made the charts, “The Eggplant That Ate Chicago.”
Deciding he wanted to “make a rock ’n’ roll statement,” Greenbaum left the band and started working with San Francisco-based record producer Erik Jacobsen in 1968.