One-Hit Wonders: “Spirit in The Sky"

The song “Spirit in the Sky” celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, Norman Greenbaum’s sole Top 40 hit and gold single, which reached No. 3 nationally in 1970. Greenbaum talks to Goldmine about his feelings for the song and more.

The song “Spirit in the Sky” celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, Norman Greenbaum’s sole Top 40 hit and gold single, which reached No. 3 nationally in 1970. Norman was first heard on the radio in the prior decade as a singer, guitarist and songwriter as a member of Dr. West’s Medicine Show and Junk Band. The quintet’s novelty song “The Eggplant That Ate Chicago” reached No. 52 in 1966, sounding like a Lovin’ Spoonful campy movie song. Norman told Goldmine, “It is very campy. That was my first Top 100 single. I was part of a psychedelic jug band. We painted our faces and had a light show and were one of the first bands who did that in Los Angeles. Rather than have a rock and roll band, like the groups north of us in San Francisco, we were acoustic. I was writing a lot of songs based on my enjoyment of jug band music from when I was growing up near Boston. We were discovered and that was our main goofy song on a small label. Back then there were stupid space movies and I thought it would be fun to do a song with a fictitious sci-fi film title. Since then there has been Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, but I didn’t luck out on a movie script in my day.”

“Spirit in the Sky” was released at the very end of the 1960s and early the following year, the single took off and reached No. 1 in Cleveland, Chicago and other markets. “It was amazing because it was nothing like the other songs in the Top 10 at the time. At first, the team at Reprise didn’t think it would go over, because it was so different and a bit long at almost four minutes. It is amazing that it has lasted in popularity all this time. My producer Erik Jacobsen did a great job getting the guitar sounds right and he gathered a lot of good musicians for that record.”

In 1972, when softer sounds from Seals and Crofts and other acts were debuting on the radio, Norman’s beautiful acoustic “Dairy Queen” single was released. “With ‘Spirit in the Sky’ being so big, I had a difficult time following up with another hit. We decided to go back to an acoustic sound like I had with Dr. West, but upgraded it musically and lyrically. We created the acoustic album Petaluma without drums. It was more folk than rock, and instrumentally melodic. In the 1960s, Erik had successfully produced the Lovin’ Spoonful’s hits in New York and then moved to California and the first band that he worked with was The Charlatans which featured Dan Hicks, before his Dan Hicks & Hot Licks days. Erik also produced The Sopwith Camel. So on my recordings we had people from that band, Ry Cooder and all kinds of people. As proud as I am of ‘Spirit in the Sky,’ I am also proud of the Petaluma album with ‘Dairy Queen’ as the single.”

Norman Greenbaum in the '70s. GAB Archive/Redferns

Norman Greenbaum in the '70s. GAB Archive/Redferns

Norman continues to perform. “When the pandemic ends, our six person band will be playing a variety of the songs that I have recorded throughout the years. The group includes my girlfriend, Bonita K. Capps singing background vocals and some songs by herself. One of the guitar players also plays a wicked electric violin. He can really take us to dreamland and he also plays piano and mandolin. Sometimes we play ‘Spirit in the Sky’ for 22 minutes to give everybody a chance to shine. Before shows were canceled this year, Bonita and I were also planning on being part of an oldies show with The Looking Glass and other acts, playing my other Top 100 solo songs ‘Canned Ham’ and ‘California Earthquake’ and ending with ‘Spirit in the Sky,’ of course. People get on their feet, dance away, smile and remember the old times when they first heard the song. I am so glad that I am able to do it again. I do a lot of shows for charity and concerts with remaining members of California bands when everything started. Every summer we have been doing big shows with people from Big Brother and The Holding Company, Jefferson Starship, and other bands. It has been great to be a part of it and have some of those players on stage with me. We do one concert almost every year in Golden Gate Park, playing to about 20,000 people. It is just a great scene. We are all so happy just to be here and being able to do it again. Families bring their kids to the show and they love it, too. It is nice to see kids enjoying your music from the past. My concert schedule will be on my website spiritinthesky.com.”

Norman concluded, “Concord Music Group is planning to release an updated version of ‘Spirit in the Sky’ for its 50th anniversary with a video and promotion. That song was on the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie soundtrack album, which reached No. 1, and has been in 60 movies and 25 TV commercials and numerous TV shows. My one hit, ‘Spirit in the Sky,’ has provided me with an amazing life.”