Thursday, December 04, 2008

SPIRIT IN THE SKY! Norman Greenbaum on Rockband 2!

The interview with Norman Greenbaum was conducted January 17, 2008 at WCAT in Winthrop. As I write for the Malden Observer that is the original publication the article was intended for. What was going to be a two parter, the full 4,000 word story will now be published in 3 editions!
1,450 words begin Part 1 in the December 4, 2008 issue of The Malden Observer.

Part II December 11, 2008
Part III December 18, 2008
Thanks to Roy Belson for his kind comments in an e mail regarding Part 1 of the story.

UPDATE: Spoke with Norman at around 11:30 PM EST (8:30 PM California time) about the song, Spirit In The Sky, appearing in the Oliver Stone film "W". Norman told me that Spirit In The Sky is also in the game "Rockband 2".

Song #45

Here's the story:

Spirit of Malden, ‘spirit in the sky’:Former Malden resident Norman Greenbaum’s music is time tested and approved

By Joe Viglione / Correspondent
Thu Dec 04, 2008, 06:24 PM EST


by Joe Viglione

Former Malden resident Norman Greenbaum chats with the Malden Observer on Joe Viglione's television program Visual Radio.


The Story Behind Spirit in The SkyIn April of 1991 the rock group Extreme, fronted by Malden resident Gary Cherone, hit #1 in the Billboard Top 40 charts with "More Than Words", and followed that achievement up with a Top 5 hit, "Hole Hearted"just four months later.Cherone, however, is not the only Malden singer to find his voice all over the airwaves in America and around the world.

In March of 1970 a gold record Top 3 national hit (#1 in many, many parts of the country), Reprise Records #0885 "Spirit In The Sky" launched internationally and has become one of the most recognizable pop songs of the past thirty-eight years. In 2008 it found itself in the Oliver Stone film "W", continuing a wonderfully curious pattern of the song's ability to fit into so many genres of so many different movies. Greenbaum explains the phenomenon in this interview.The recording was actually the second hit for Malden's own Norman Greenbaum who had performed under the name"Dr. West's Medicine Show" and recorded "The Eggplant That Ate Chicago" for the Epic/Columbia distributed GoGo Records label in 1967. According to an interview with's Gary James, Greenbaum notedthat the song hit the "50's" in Billboard and Cashbox, not nearly the success that was soon to come in thenext three years."Spirit In The Sky" was another thing altogether.

A psychedelic fuzz guitar sounding as if Jimi Hendrixdecided to play a 45 RPM at 33, slow and groovey and splashing all over the radio, it was simplymesmerizing. Add to that an additional staccato guitar sound that echoes over the original riff along with aningenious - cleverly inventive - blend of gospel voices and radio listeners got an audio treat that wasquite different from everything else transmitting at the dawn of the seventies.So many elements went into giving "Spirit In The Sky" such staying power - resulting in the Malden residentbecoming a household name - and with many more avenues opening as the song was rediscovered in a variety ofdifferent places, two stories emerge - the story of the song and the story of the man behind the song.It was just under a year - eleven months after The Edwin Hawkin Singers had their glorious spiritual hit"Oh Happy Day", which also went top 5 to #4, and just two months before folk singer Melanie would recruitthose Edwin Hawkin Singers to embellish her "Lay Down (Candles In The Rain)" tribute to the Woodstockfestival, the pop charts, inadvertently found itself in revival mode...a mini Gospel revivalon AM radio. Which meant that the fusion of gospel music and rock was absolutely in vogue and made these three songs very, very popular. "Spirit In The Sky" featured a drum beat emulating hand the claps, anothersubtle nod to what was happening in music. The fuzz riff on "Spirit In The Sky" sounds like asecond-cousin to Canned Heat's "On The Road Again", the coincidence being that Canned Heat's Al Wilson was from Arlington, Massachusetts with Norman Greenbaum right around the corner in Malden.

So now it is 2008, thirty eight years later, and about forty-two major motion pictures have put "Spirit InThe Sky" on their soundtracks, it shows up on television as recently as on the popular show "House",and as one might expect - it is exploding all over You Tube - the fascinating website that allows people toupload video with audio.A simple video someone took of the 45 RPM spinning on a turntable (with the audio picked up by the camera)has garnered 100,551 spins since it was uploaded on October 2, 2006. When one considers few are going tosit there staring at a 45 spinning the reality hits: that You Tube is actually a computer juke box wherepeople want to hear their favorite tunes.

On August 29, 2007, someone uploaded an audio-friendlier version of the song over a montage ofclouds. When this article was first initiated there were 94,880 spins. That is now up to 103,229.So YouTube becomes a barometer where a singer/songwriter can actually watch how many peopleare listening to his or her song.

It is amazing technology, especially with material that has stoodthe test of time.Prior to You Tube composers with mega hits would have their own web page as another Boston area singer,Bobby Hebb, has his classic song "Sunny" as part of his myspace -

As a barometer, You Tube strikes again as just three versions of "Sunny" - from three different genres -get staggering numbers. Boney M's disco/funk, the soul of James Brown, and a jazz version by Pat Martino andJohn Scofield, bring it up to over 1 million spins. Now there are about 40 sites with "Sunny" so there'sprobably 2 million spins on the web.

This same phenomenon is happening for "Spirit In The Sky"


Mason Williams is a 60's TV writer who had a hugesmash with "Classical Gas." So for his hit he createda superb webpage, Norman Greenbaumhas done the same with which iswhere you can find CDs and actually reach out to thecomposer.


Norman Greenbaum is the cousin of Medford School superintendent Roy Belson who told us "Norman is myfirst cousin on my mother's side. We lived in the same three decker house together as young children. We still communicate. Norman always loved music and started as a DJ. He currently lives in Santa Rosa.

Visual Radio / The Malden Observer spoke with Greenbaum on January 17, 2008, and Norman gives usmore insight on his life and his songs.

On January 17, 2008 Norman Greenbaum was interviewed on Visual Radio, a program which is broadcast inMalden on MATV TV 3.

Here are some of the fun questions, answers and extra information about formerMalden resident, pop star Norman Greenbaum.

MBM: Hi Norman, How is it in California today? Sunny?

Norman: Actually, it is. It hadn't been for the past weekor so's real Nice Today

Q: Well you'll be happy to hear, Norman, that I'mdriving over here (to WCAT - Winthrop CommunityCablevision) Oldies 103 at 1:05 PM they've got "Spiritin the Sky" on and they followed it with The BeachBoys "California Girls"; flip over to 104.9 at 1:20 in the afternoon and - about an hour ago - and Northshore104 is playing "Spirit In The Sky" - it's like it's 1970 again.

A:Yeah, that's quite interesting, of course there's alot of oldies stations ...but it does get quite a lotof play

Q: They're always shaking up the playlists so the factthat you're consistently on it means that the songreally has stood the test of time.

A: It has, yes; I'm very happy about it.

Q:I was watching it on You Tube this morninghave you ever put the title into You Tube?

A: Well, the You Tube film you are probably referring to is the black and white one?

Q: That and many others, but yes, I love that one

A: I did not submit those, the original performanceone that's been floating there a couple of years wasfrom a show called "Something Else" which starred John Byner and there was a film from that and itshowcased...they did their own videos for the show sowe did that spot in Nevada and somehow somebody had acopy and it got onto YouTube. I did not submit it.In the meantime after that a lot of people have beenputting together things.

Q: Yes, there's one with some clouds that go rather quickly, it's rather pretty.
A: There are some good ones there I noticed recently.For me, I was impressed.
Q: There's also, of course, Gareth Gates who won aReality TV show in the U.K.A: I believe he - if he didn't win he was #2 whichseems to be the place to come in; if you compare it tothe one here those who come in #2 you seem to becomemore popular....he did a cover version and it was #1in England and before that there was a cover versionby Dr. & The Medics and that had become #1 thereSo the song has been #1 in England and certain partsof Europe 3 times.

Q: That is totally amazing
A: That is, yeah, I never expected that.
Q:And with Gareth he's got the studio version, he'sgot an acoustic version, he's got the tv version...there are so many different versions of "Spirit In TheSky" by that young fellow from England.
A: He was extremely popular over there so yeah, thatwas his big thing I guess.
* * * * * *

Gareth Gates, born July 12, 1984, is all over You Tube with versions of "Spirit In The Sky", including one on the famous "Top Of The Pops" show with excellent choreography and a nice little modulation bringing it up a step.

Norman is absolutely correct that Gareth came in #2 on the POP IDOL reality TV show, and the proliferation of You Tube performances of the Greenbaum-penned smash is startling!

Just one of the TOP OF THE POPS postings has 20, 415 hits since it was listed March 1, 2007 (tothis date of February 20, 2008) while an acoustic liveversion from Taiwan posted October 24, 2006 has 31,846plays to date.

There are over a quarter of a millionspins of the song as recorded in a variety of versionsby Gareth Gates and posted separetely on the You Tubesite.

Meanwhile there's an excellent chronology of the"Spirit In The Sky" black and white video from theSomething Else show posted here.

But back to our interview... PART II to be published in Malden Observer December 12.

Part III to be published in Malden Observer December 19th

Part I to be published in the Medford Transcript December 18th

Part II to be published in the Medford Transcript December 25th

Part III to be published in the Medford Transcript January 1, 2008

We'll post the links as these additional stories get published.

Updates & Music Biz Information December 4/5 2008

Check out the L.A. Times Music Blog
Pop & HissThe L.A. Times music blog