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December 27, 2006

'Spirit in the Sky' —


Tom McNichol, for a story that appeared in the December 24, 2006 New York Times, traveled to Santa Rosa, California, to pay a call on Norman Greenbaum (above, at home), the epitome of one-hit wonders whose classic 1969 rock anthem, "Spirit in the Sky," will be heard on board the first starships launched from our solar system.

Long story short: By 1980 Greenbaum (below, in the 70s)


was broke and working as a cook in a series of Northern California restaurants, having quit the music business when his career fizzled following his monster hit.

Then producers of the 1987 film "Maid to Order" decided to include "Spirit in the Sky" on the movie's soundtrack, and from there demand spiked up and Greenbaum's life got progressively better.

Here's McNichol's article, demonstrating yet one more time just how random and haphazard is the series of linked events that sometimes leads to wonderful things.

    A ‘Spirit’ From the ’60s That Won’t Die

    The last time Norman Greenbaum had a hit record, Richard Nixon was in his first term as president. It was back in 1969 when Mr. Greenbaum released his most popular song, a guitar-drenched rock anthem called “Spirit in the Sky.” The tune climbed to No. 3 on the Billboard pop chart that year and went on to sell more than two million copies. It was Mr. Greenbaum’s first Top 40 hit, and as it turned out, his last.

    But in an industry full of one-hit wonders, Norman Greenbaum is that rarest of creatures — a performer who has finally managed to make a living off the one hit. That’s because Mr. Greenbaum’s song, an arresting mixture of old-time gospel and a killer fuzz guitar riff, has in recent years become the quintessential soundtrack for movies and TV commercials.

    At last count, “Spirit in the Sky” has been featured in 32 movies (including “The Longest Yard,” “Ocean’s 11,” “Superstar,” “Apollo 13” and “Wayne’s World 2”) and more than a dozen national television ads (for companies like Nike, HBO, American Express and Toyota). “Spirit in the Sky” has also appeared on at least 50 compilation CDs and in more than a dozen television shows, and has spawned innumerable cover versions, two of which were major international hits in their own right (for Doctor & the Medics in 1986 and Gareth Gates and the Kumars in 2003).

    “Spirit in the Sky” has become the song that won’t die, a wailing rite of passage for two generations of rock fans, and more to the point, Mr. Greenbaum’s 401(k) plan. Even though Mr. Greenbaum long ago signed away the publishing rights to his song, as the song’s performer, he still receives a cut of the revenue. Each time “Spirit in the Sky” lands in a major movie or ad, he cashes a check for $10,000 or more.

    “Well, it’s not like it’s made me rich, as you can see,” said Mr. Greenbaum, 64, gesturing at his modest two-bedroom apartment in Santa Rosa, Calif., about an hour north of San Francisco. “But because of ‘Spirit in the Sky,’ I don’t have to work. So in that sense, it’s a comfortable living.”

    These days, Mr. Greenbaum, his flowing silver mane pulled back into a ponytail, is content to be the official curator of his most famous work. From his cluttered apartment adorned by the requisite gold record on the wall, Mr. Greenbaum runs a Web site called spiritinthesky.com where he posts photos and stories about himself; hawks “Spirit in the Sky” T-shirts, hats, coasters, mouse pads and CDs; and acts as an electronic sounding board for thousands of devotees.

    “I get e-mails from 9- and 10-year-old kids who say it’s their favorite song,” Mr. Greenbaum said. “I’ve gotten letters from funeral directors telling me that it’s their second-most-requested song to play at memorial services, next to ‘Danny Boy.’ ”

    Oddly, the tune that’s turned out to be Mr. Greenbaum’s salvation is in part a shout out to Jesus, written and performed by a nice Jewish boy from Massachusetts. As one verse of “Spirit in the Sky” proclaims:

    Never been a sinner, I never sinned
    I got a friend in Jesus
    So you know that when I die
    He’s gonna set me up with
    The spirit in the sky

    Mr. Greenbaum claimed that he has received thousands of e-mail messages and letters about that verse. “A lot of them say, ‘We’re all sinners, we were born sinners, how dare you,’ ” he said. “O.K., so what do I know? ‘Sanford and Son’ was written by Jews and what did they know about being black?”

    Mr. Greenbaum had a traditional Jewish upbringing. “My parents weren’t Hasidic, but they were almost Orthodox,” Mr. Greenbaum said. Growing up in Malden, Mass., he attended Hebrew school and was bar mitzvahed.

    His early musical influences were somewhat incongruous: folk, delta blues and jug band music. He played guitar and sang in coffeehouses while attending Boston University, and then moved to Los Angeles in 1965 to form Dr. West’s Medicine Show and Junk Band, sort of a psychedelic jug band. Band members wore face paint and played instruments like the washboard, whiskey jug, kazoo and automobile fender while bathed in colored lights. The group once opened for Sonny and Cher and scored a modest novelty hit in 1966, “The Eggplant That Ate Chicago.”

    Dr. West broke up shortly after its lone hit, leaving Mr. Greenbaum on his own. “I thought maybe I’d stop the goofiness and go electric,” he recalled. Mr. Greenbaum signed a deal with Erik Jacobsen, a successful producer who had a string of hits with the Lovin’ Spoonful, and began work on his first solo album.

    One night, while Mr. Greenbaum was watching TV, he happened upon country gospel king Porter Wagoner singing a stirring song about forgiveness and redemption. Mr. Wagoner’s performance sent Mr. Greenbaum scrambling for a notepad.

    “I thought, ‘Yeah, I could do that,’ knowing nothing about gospel music,” Mr. Greenbaum remembered. “So I sat down and wrote my own gospel song. It came easy. I wrote the words in 15 minutes.”

    The song’s first verse set the tone for what would be Mr. Greenbaum’s message for the ages:

    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.

    While Mr. Greenbaum wrote the words to “Spirit in the Sky” quickly, the music proved more difficult. Mr. Greenbaum tried a jug band version, a folk rendition and even a delta-blues inspired incarnation, but couldn’t get the sound he wanted.

    The song began to come together in the studio. To give the tune an authentic gospel feel, the production team brought in the Stovall Sisters, an Oakland-based gospel trio, to sing backing vocals. Mr. Greenbaum ditched his acoustic guitar for a more aggressive-sounding Fender Telecaster that had a raspy fuzz box custom-built into the body of the instrument.

    The resulting sound was an oddly compelling combination of gospel and hard rock: a clap-along church spiritual featuring a preacher who slides to one knee at the edge of the stage and plays a scorching solo on his Telecaster. (Jack Black, call your agent.)

    “There was resistance to releasing ‘Spirit in the Sky’ as a single,” Mr. Greenbaum said. “First of all, it was too long. It’s about four minutes. Plus it was so weird. Here’s a Jew singing about Jesus with this fuzz box going ‘brrrrrr.’ That fuzz tone, you can’t get it out of your head. Even to this day, I’ll be walking around and I can hear it somewhere.”

    In late 1969, Reprise Records finally released “Spirit in the Sky” as a single after two other singles from Mr. Greenbaum’s first solo album tanked. “Spirit in the Sky” became an instant smash worldwide. The song stayed on the Top 40 charts for 14 weeks and was at the time the best-selling single ever for Reprise, a label that included stars like Frank Sinatra and the Kinks.

    What happened next to Mr. Greenbaum’s career will be familiar to anyone who has ever watched a special on VH1. Mr. Greenbaum’s follow-up singles fizzled, his record company dropped him from the label, his marriage fell apart and the phone stopped ringing. By 1980, Mr. Greenbaum had quit music and was working as a cook in a series of Northern California restaurants.

    “I thought, ‘Well, that’s it,’ ” Mr. Greenbaum said. “I was broke, what else could I do? You can’t write another ‘Spirit in the Sky,’ so I’ll do this. I worked my way up from cooking hamburgers to being a sous chef to being a kitchen manager writing menus and cutting meat. I was O.K. with it.”

    Mr. Greenbaum’s redemption came with a call from Hollywood. The producers of the 1987 film “Maid to Order,” starring Ally Sheedy, decided to include “Spirit in the Sky” on the movie’s soundtrack, which soon led to several other movie and advertising deals, sparking a demand that has remained remarkably steady ever since. Last summer, Nike used “Spirit in the Sky” as the centerpiece of a special 90-second TV commercial.

    “There are two things we look for in a song,” said Ryan O’Rourke, art director for Wieden & Kennedy, the ad agency based in Portland, Ore., that created the Nike spot. “One is what is the song’s vibe, what’s the feeling it conveys? And second, does the song’s structure fit the structure of the commercial? ‘Spirit in the Sky’ had two really good things going for it. Almost instinctively when you hear that guitar riff, it communicates to you, ‘Get ready, something fun is coming.’ ”

    Mr. Greenbaum agreed that the reason for the song’s popularity is simple.

    “It still sounds good,” he said, after listening — yet again — to the paean that both made and ended his career. “It sounds perfect.”


Okay, in case you're in the mood for more "Spirit in the Sky," here are:


• The song's Wikipedia entry

• Once again, spiritinthesky.com, Greenbaum's website, where you're greeted by the song's opening — w00t!

To celebrate Greenbaum's great hit, bookofjoe World Headquarters™ will cancel all announcements for the remainder of the day to instead repeatedly blast the song over our loudspeakers at max volume.

Don't bother knocking 'cause this blog is rocking.

December 27, 2006 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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Hello Mr Joe,

I'm on a very detailed search, you know, the first time I heard the song "Spirit in the Sky" was in the "Miami Blues" movie 9 years back, well on that time I wasn't able to buy Greenbaum music because the only record it was in was a rare CD named "Great Powerfull Overtures" at 70 bucks which during my college was far from my resources, today I have saved and I want to buy that same record because it contained very good stuff, by any chance do you know or remember the exact name of this great compilation? , I want to buy it , but still cannot find it


Posted by: Enrique Meneses | Jun 15, 2009 12:54:36 AM

this is the funk stankiest nastiest fuzz tone ever & I LUVVVVVVVV IT !!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: delbro | Aug 29, 2008 5:51:50 PM

Most memorably covered, I think, by the inimitable and frequently unbelievable Nina Hagen. Bauhaus' version is also worth hearing.

Also an instrumental component of a particularly dense mash-up by Mixplosiv.

Posted by: Daniel Rutter | Dec 30, 2006 8:08:12 AM

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