Former Petaluman Norman Greenbaum on 50 years of ‘Spirit in the Sky’

Musician remembers his No. 1 hit, its renewed popularity and why it’s so popular at funerals|

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.

Around that time, Greenbaum bought a farm in Penngrove and started raising goats, chickens, sheep and pigs. “I always got too much credit for being a farmer,” he said. “My wife at the time was more involved in the farm.”

He lived there from 1969 to 1974, making frequent trips to Los Angeles and recording his next two albums.

The cover of his 1972 album, “Petaluma,” shows Greenbaum wearing overalls and standing in a muddy pasture holding a chicken. The album, celebrating the joys of country life, had a more folk, country-blues feel. He used only a few musicians on the album, the most notable of whom was Ry Cooder.

“I think it was the best album I made,” Greenbaum said. “But it was considered too rural, and the music-buying public couldn’t relate to it. It got a lot of airplay locally and in some college towns, but it wasn’t a commercial success.”

When Warner Brothers didn’t renew his contract, he continued to live in Sonoma County and play West Coast dates with his band until breaking up in 1975. He returned to Los Angeles to pursue other musical projects and tried to come up with another hit single.

“It became real frustrating,” he said. “At one point, I was totally broke.” Since he had always had an affinity for cooking and restaurants, he returned to Petaluma in 1978 and went to work at a newly-opened restaurant owned by an old friend, Jerome Schwartz.

The 50th anniversary of the song has brought Greenbaum more recognition, including the unveiling of a four-story mural in the musician’s hometown of Malden, Massachusetts last fall and a recent interview in Rolling Stone magazine.

About seven years ago, Greenbaum started performing again for the first time in many years. His band includes his partner, Bonita Capps, on backup vocals.

Noted Greenbaum, “We do a lot on shows for nonprofit groups around the country because it’s good to be able to give back.”

Last fall, he played in Charlotte, North Carolina, along with Gloria Gaynor and Kool & the Gang to benefit a group that funds music and dance programs for underprivileged children.

“We had 40 kids singing backup on ‘Spirit in the Sky,’?” he said. “We played a 23-minute version of ‘Spirit in the Sky’ at the Petaluma Music Festival in 2017.” The long jam included members of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Poor Man’s Whiskey and Moonalice. “As we travel around, people are always glad to hear us perform it.”

Five years ago, Greenbaum was critically injured in a car accident in Santa Rosa that left him in a coma, but after extensive rehabilitation, he has been able to resume his life.

“I’m doing OK,” he said. “I’ve got some inserts and I’m a little crooked. My brain doesn’t function at 100 percent, but it’s pretty close. I survived. I’m able to do all of these things, but I don’t over-exert myself.”

Reflecting on the success and continuing popularity of his hit song, Greenbaum said, “I wasn’t that gifted of a musician or a writer, but something happened and it just came together. For a song to last 50 years is really something. The interesting thing is the longevity of the song and how it has affected not only me but everyone who hears the song - and that several generations like it.

“I am totally in awe of it all,” Greenbaum went on. “I feel very blessed and grateful. Sometimes you’re in the right place at right time and it works. I always put the song first, and myself second.”

(Chris Samson is the former editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Contact him at

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