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The local story behind ’Spirit in the Sky’

One of the most famous quotes describing the ’60s is "If you can remember the ’60s, you weren't really there." Regardless if you were there or not, the world-famous song “Spirit in the Sky” written in 1969 by Norman Greenbaum will never be forgotten. The journey from his birthplace in Malden, Mass. to becoming a firmly entrenched Sonoma County resident with ties to Cotati was a circuitous one.

Although his original aspiration was to become a disc jockey, his love for writing and putting together verses led him to the defining moment when he played open mic at the Café Yana in Boston. After that experience, he came to the realization that he wanted to be a musician. During that era, the most popular music styles performed at gigs were deep South country blues and jug band music.

After a trip to The Golden State, some of his high school friends decided to move there. When Norman heard their glowing reports, he decided to make the cross-country trek with them to Hollywood. At that time, if you wanted to be in the music business, California and New York were the places to be. California was more appealing to him because of the weather.

Once settled in, he started making friends and industry contacts at coffeehouses and rock and roll clubs. It was during this period of time that he formed Dr. West’s Medicine Show and Junk Band. The name junk band came from the fact that the drummer literally played junk such as pieces of metal, the front end of a car and a set of galvanized trash cans converted into drums, which he occasionally set on fire. They played jug band music with a twist. As a result of the influence from San Francisco bands such as Big Brother and the Holding Company and The Grateful Dead, they included light shows and added the unique feature of painting their faces with a psychedelic look that changed for each show. In 1967, they were well on the road to success when their novelty song “The Eggplant that Ate Chicago” reached 52 on the Billboard chart. Band members constantly changed but at one point, it was a managerial decision to change the band’s image to one that was more refined. Some of the usual jug band instruments were changed to more traditional ones and a larger repertoire of music styles was added.

Erik Jacobsen, producer for The Lovin Spoonful, The Charlatans and Sopwith Camel, attended one of Norman’s performances at the Troubadour. He introduced himself after the show and said, “I like you. I think we can do something together.” He extended an invitation for Norman to travel to San Francisco, where he offered to put him up for a few weeks. As a result of this collaboration, Norman signed with Warner Brothers as a single artist.

By all accounts, “Spirit in the Sky” was written in about 15 minutes. That is true for the lyrics, but the music had been rattling around in his head for a much longer time. He was unable to connect the music with lyrics until the fateful moment when he heard Porter Wagoner’s television performance of a gospel song about a miner who had been digging for gold in the hills. He had the urge to go to church only to find a note on the door that said, “The preacher is on vacation.” There was a harmonic convergence of sorts in which Norman combined inspiration from that song along with a greeting card featuring American Indians sitting in front of a teepee with the caption “Spirit in the Sky.” The final element that made the lyrics gel was the fact that in the westerns he watched as a child, the bad guys wanted to be buried with their boots on. The resulting lyrics were a perfect match with the music that had been dwelling in his head. History was made when the iconic song was produced. After Porter’s passing in 2007, Norman became friends with his daughter, Debra Jean. He found it touching that she wrote him to say “Spirit in the Sky” was one of her favorite songs.

Refuting the claim that Norman was a one-hit wonder, in 1970, the song “Canned Ham” reached 46 on the Billboard chart. It featured a delightfully upbeat tempo and a chorus of female singers.

The Inn of the Beginning, in Cotati, was a mecca for many famous Bay Area and Marin County musicians who performed there because of proximity and they often used the venue as an opportunity to try out new material. Because Cotati was a “college town” an enthusiastic crowd was assured. Norman performed at The Inn of the Beginning several times. In addition to performing the circuit of Sonoma County venues, he also performed up and down the state. For around two years, he made appearances as Norman Greenbaum and Crossfire.

He originally moved to Petaluma because it was a beautiful setting and away from the City. He later moved to Penngrove which led to an unexpected chain of events that stalled his music career. In 1972, his wife opened and operated Velvet Acres, which produced and sold goat milk. Norman devoted his attention to performing and creating music. His album “Petaluma” came out that year. The record company producer and photographer thought it would make an interesting album cover to have Norman wear overalls and hold a chicken. The combination of the dairy farm and the album cover created a convoluted story. The unfounded story circulated in the music industry that Norman was a goat farmer and not really a musician. Two record deals fell through because of the prevailing notion that “Norman will never leave the ranch.” Nowadays, bands can produce and market their own music, but back then, musicians had to sign with a record company.

Life had dealt Norman an unfair blow and he had to come to grips with the fact that the damage to his career had been done. The simple truth was that the music dried up and he needed to find work in another industry, so he decided on the restaurant business. His friend Jerry “Jerome” Schwartz was the owner of Jerome’s Good Dogs in Cotati. Norman started working there as a cook. They served hamburgers, soups, salads, and baked goods. By all accounts, their carrot cake recipe was world class. Some people were surprised to find that Norman Greenbaum of “Spirit in the Sky” fame was working in a restaurant in Cotati. However, as more people got to know Norman, they thought of him primarily as a good friend to hang out and have fun with. He left Jerome’s to work at Liberty House in Coddingtown for four years. The now defunct store featured an upscale restaurant at which Norman became a skilled sous chef. It was a totally corporate atmosphere, but he had the opportunity to meet a lot of people and hone his culinary talent. When Jerome Schwartz opened a barbecue restaurant in Petaluma, Norman accepted his job offer to be the kitchen manager.

1987 was a pivotal moment in time because it was the year that “Spirit in the Sky” was used in the movie “Maid to Order” starring Ally Sheedy in a feel-good Cinderella tale. That opened the floodgates for a renewed interest in the song. Since then, it has been featured in 65 movies, around 30 TV commercials and at least 12 TV series. Norman said that he has been waiting for the popularity to peak, but so far there are no signs of that happening.

There have been over 40 cover songs of “Spirit in the Sky” including renditions as diverse as those by William Shatner, featuring Peter Frampton on guitar and German performer Nina Hagen singing “Gott im Himmel.”

Norman currently lives in Santa Rosa. He has never lost his enthusiasm for performing. He makes himself available to perform at charity events and enjoys sitting-in with bands. When people call, he tries to accommodate them. Among other local venues, he has performed with cover bands at the Montgomery Village concerts such as David Martin’s House Party, Sh-Boom, and Kenny Metcalf’s Tribute to Elton John, which was particularly meaningful because Elton had recorded a cover version of “Spirit in the Sky.” Before the pandemic changed life as we knew it, there were tentative plans to go on the road with an oldie show along with several famous musicians who were categorized as one-hit wonders.

Norman Greenbaum’s song “Spirit in the Sky” has left a legacy in the music world that never loses its appeal.

Marilyn Lane is a Sonoma County resident who worked as a newsroom employee at The Press Democrat for 27 years.

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