“It sounds as fresh today as when it was recorded”
Spirit In The Sky – Norman Greenbaum
Reprise 0885 (USA) / Reprise RS 20885 (UK)
Recorded in San Francisco, Studio unknown
Released February 1970
Writer Norman Greenbaum
Producer Erik Jacobsen
USA #3 4/70 UK #1 2/5/70 2 weeks
No one can have been more surprised than American Norman Greenbaum when his quasi-religious ‘Spirit In The Sky’ reached #1 on Britain’s charts in May 1970. One of the all time one-hit-wonders, a further two albums for Warner Brothers in America produced nothing of note, and Greenbaum swiftly disappeared into the annals of pop history, apparently to breed goats in Petaluma, California. Born in Malden, Massachusetts in 1942, Greenbaum had in fact visited the American charts on one previous occasion as a member of Dr West’s Medicine Show & Junk Band in 1966 with the unlikely titled ‘Eggplant That Ate Chicago’, which reached #52 on the US charts. (It was group names like this that had inspired Paul McCartney to come up with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) Though Dr West’s were unable to follow up their novelty success, and Greenbaum turned to goat farming, the group’s jug-band sound attracted the attention of former Lovin’ Spoonful producer Erik Jacobsen who signed Greenbaum to a solo contract with Warner’s Reprise label.
Inclined to write a gospel-tinged song, the story of ‘Spirit In The Sky’ was influenced by country singer Porter Wagoner who Greenbaum noted always ended his American TV show with a gospel number. One of these performances featured a song about a preacher, and it was this that inspired Greenbaum to write a religious rock song. Recorded in the autumn of 1969, ‘Spirit In The Sky’ was distinctive for its fuzz-guitar intro, and its unusual use of lyrics including the line, “I’ve got a friend in Jesus”. As it turned out, Greenbaum found several million other friends as well. Though neither he nor his record company had expected great things of ‘Spirit’, following its release as a single in early 1970 (two previous singles had already flopped), it soon began to attract radio play around the world, and ultimately reached the Top 5 in almost every country of release, becoming Warner Brothers biggest selling single up to that point.
Finding himself with instant star status, and touring in support of such bands as the Moody Blues, he was under enormous pressure from his record company to deliver another big hit, which he was unable to do. Two further singles scraped into the US charts, ‘Canned Ham’ a #46 in July 1970 and ‘California Earthquake’, #93 in May 1971. According to Greenbaum, there was plenty more great music on his follow-up albums (and who are we to disagree?), but the distinctiveness of his big hit became his curse; “People wanted another ‘Spirit In The Sky’ from me, and it couldn’t be. That song was too special”. His record sales plummeting, Greenbaum returned to his goats, and eventually retired from the music business altogether in 1980, ‘Spirit In The Sky’ remaining his solitary international hit.
While Norman Greenbaum’s chart career may have been short, his song has continued to pay the bills. Doctor And The Medics took their cover version to #1 in Britain in 1986, while the original version appears on dozens of oldies compilation albums. The song has been used in several films, including Apollo 13 and Contact, and also in a series of television advertisements for the likes of American Express and Chrysler. Of his famous song, Greenbaum, who has quit farming and lives in Northern California quite rightly states, “It sounds as fresh today as when it was recorded”. In fact he reports that due to all the commercials and film-usage it makes him considerably more money these days than it did when it was on the charts! While it’s unlikely that Greenbaum himself will ever grace the charts again, there’s always the distinct possibility that under another artist’s guidance, his “Spirit” will rise again!…..And indeed it has: In March 2003, the song struck the Number 1 spot in Britain yet again in an updated version by Gareth Gates featuring The Kumars. Stand by for another chart topping version around 2019!
(A three time UK Number one, this now equals ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ while the current UK chart topping leader is ‘Unchained Melody’, a 4-time Number 1)
Copyright © 2004/2017 SongStories/Tony Burton