1. Thank you very much for taking your time and effort to do this interview. I’m really happy we can talk about your music, Norman. First I would like to ask you where did you grew up and what were some of the influences on you as a young kid?
I grew up in Malden , Mass., near Boston. If you mean music influences, I had many. My parents listened to Benny Goodman, my sister loved Sinatra I listened to Senor Wences, Elvis, Bill Haley and anything I could find in folk music, Dave Van Ronk, Eric Von Schmitd, all jug band music, Bob Dylan, along with odds and ends played by Wolfman Jack out of Del Rio, Texas. Other influences, such as sports? The Red Sox, Celtics & Bruins, my home teams. Still love the Red Sox. Still love jug band music.
2. What was the scene in your town and at what moment did you decide to move to Los Angeles? There you formed a band called Dr. West’s Medicine Show & Junk Band. Were you perhaps in any other bands before that? Any releases?
My town had no scene. I was going to Boston University, playing music around town and decided I would rather be a musician than scholar. I had friends who had moved to Hollywood and I left school and moved there, enamored by the weather, Beach Boys and the music business. It was there that I started to make friends connected to the music business and other musicians and when I said I wanted to start a modern jug band, I started Dr. West’s Medicine Show & Junk Band with Bonnie Wallach, Evan Engber & Jack Carrington. Because we were an oddity, we got noticed immediately, were asked to do auditions and were signed to a contract where we made our first record, The Eggplant That Ate Chicago.
3. Why did you decide to form a jug band? Why did you choose such name?
I like the humor in jug band music, it fit my offbeat style of writing, gave me the opportunity to schmaltz it up on stage and while it entertained the audience, it entertained me. The name just came to us. No big story there, although some of the instruments Evan played were junk, like car fenders.
4. The Eggplant That Ate Chicago is title of the album you released back in 1967. It was released on Go-Go Records. What are some of the strongest memories from producing and recording this LP?
Music is very “unusual” and it’s a mixture of jug and also proto psych…how did you menage to mix those two genre together?
Where did you record it?
Being that it was the first time in a recording studio for all of us, it was exciting. We did what we did, the album was recorded and released, nothing that memorable except the songs and the album cover, as people know, we painted our faces for performances, never the same 2 nights in a row and I think we were the first band to do that, long before Kiss. So, we did a psychedelic cover, faces all done up behind us a light show screen, as we used a small light show in the act and were one of the first to do that. We were a psychedelic jug band, first of it’s kind. We were very interesting. Non conformists in an about to start era of such, free form music, light shows, psychedelic art, flower power, flower children, be ins, concerts in the park. What an amazing time.
How many pressing were made and what can you say about the cover artwork?
I don’t know, was never given pressing amounts, but the single hit the charts and went up to about 50 on Billboard.
5. Would you like to tell me about the Dr. West’s Medicine Show & Junk Band concerts?
We toured and all that. We were weird, like my song. It didn’t always go over. It stopped being fun because of management, everyone dropped out but me, they were replaced, the act changed, no more light show or painted faces, the on stage medicine show skits were kept, they went over well, we were getting attention for my humor, but I never fit into becoming straighter than I wanted to be by management, so, eventually, I left the band after an uproar about my Dr. West suppository pills skit, where I ended it with, “Dr. West suppositories, you know what you can do with them”. That and because the drummer used to light his junk pail drum kit on fire singing, Don’t Eat The Monkey’s Peanuts, Joe, management said I was going too far. So I decided to go even further. Leave the group and become a rocker.
6. I will write down songs from the LP and I would love if you could comment some of them…
Descriptive of the fake medicine we faux peddled in our skits.
A Summer Love Song
Gotta love a song with whistling.
How Lew Sin Ate
One of our best. Just listen to the words. LSD was coming into it’s own.
Look At Her Now.
I wrote songs about observations. I always picked up on phrases being used around me and extrapolated.
The Eggplant That Ate Chicago
Yes indeed, mu homage to early sci fi movies, my Saturday afternoon favorite.
Modern Day Fish
Again, times were a changing. Listen to the words.
A relative. Of all of us. A spinster?
The Old Fruit Peddler
A take off of vegetable cart merchants, horse and buggy, home delivery, the 40’s and early fifties. Now we have Taco trucks.
Yes we were. And me, not so much anymore.
7. What happened next? You started your solo carrier…You released several singles from 1968 on and in 1969 you released one of the most well-known rock songs called Spirit in the Sky.
Solo career. I started a rock band. We were playing The Troubador in Los Angeles, Erik Jacobsen, producer of The Lovin Spoonful happened to be there. He liked my songs and my singing, signed me as a solo artist, had to leave the band, I moved to Northern California and started recording in San Francisco. Dr. West music was recorded around L.A. Studios.
I would like to know what are some memories from recording your whole LP later in 1969, which was released on Reprise…how did you came in contact with Reprise?
What gear did you use for the recording sessions and where did you record it?
What can you tell me about the cover artwork?
Spirit In The Sky was recorded is San Francisco. I was a solo artist, so we put together a backing band and singers and recorded at 960 Bush, Coast Recorders.
Basic band for the tracks. Bass, drums, 2 guitars. I had a Telecaster, Russell DaShiell played a Les Paul, I guess, I had Fender tube amps. I don’t remember what other people had.
Erik Jacobsen had a production deal with Warner/Reprise, so I was at first signed to Erik’s production company and subsequently to Reprise with a 3 LP deal.
The sessions had all sorts of memorable events, being that Spirit has gone on to be one of the biggest one hit wonder songs of ever. More discussed with each song.
The cover art was taken on my at that time ranch rental, atop an old thrasher with my then wife and daughter. We later moved to our own farm where the cover art for the Petaluma album was taken, me in full overall regalia holding a chicken. Lots of photos of me around the farm were always included with the discs. I later was always referred to as a farmer, but when I got divorced, I left the ranch life.
8. Again I would like if you could comment each song a bit.
Well, dudes back then had nicknames, as they have monikers now, such as T Pain. Just an example.
Spirit In The Sky.
Inspired by me being a fan of country music which I forgot to mention before and a fan of Porter Wagoner, who, on his TV show, always sang a gospel song. I said to myself, I think I can write a gospel song, so I did, but, of course, in my usual endeavor to be different, wrote music never associated with gospel before, but it was a great idea and has endured forever. Been number 1 three times in the U.K., has been in 47 movies and numerous TV ads and series.
We all travel and we all come back.
Things are going good, huh? Great song with great vocals as usual by The Stovall Sisters who did backing on Spirit also.
Not a Clampett relative, just a name of a longing.
Tars Of India.
Those were smokin days.
My songs are self explanatory. You either got it or you don’t.
Good Lookin Woman.
Wish I could find one now.
Milk Cow. Jethro, my son.
We actually didn’t have a cow, but it sounded good. We had goats.
Interesting how I got an e mail from a guy who wanted to know how I knew his wife. I never met his wife, nor was ever anywhere near him in Texas, but there you go, the power of lyrics.
9. After the massive success what happened next? Where was your touring territory? I would love if you could share some interesting stories that happened to you in that period of time…
We toured with Spirit In The Sky on the charts. Opened for The Doors and Moody Blues, 2 of our bigger shows. I have always been sort of reclusive, so I actually never mingled with other bands, a brief how are ya, blah blah blah and off to another gig.
We weren’t rauckus and rowdy on tour. Just went about business. Never got in trouble. After the follow up flops, I still played quite a bit, mostly West Coast clubs with an entirely different band. Could never get signed again by a label. Some thought I still lived on the farm and wouldn’t leave, when I actually had been living in L.A. again for 3 years. Others wouldn’t sign a one hit wonder. Well, bite me.
10. Back Home Again and Petaluma were your following releases. Would you like to tell a story about these two releases…
You were wrong.
Back Home Again was the 2nd album, with follow up single Canned Ham on it. The record company didn’t like Canned Ham. It wasn’t Spirit In The Sky. They forgot what they said when I brought that to them Well, we don’t know, it’s different.
Bah. It didn’t do well. So it goes, I like it.’I’m singing it next week at my reunion gig with The Stovall Sisters. California Earthquake didn’t quite make it either as a single, but one of my favorites.
Petaluma was a wonderful album. Sounds now like we did yesterday. Fritz Ricmond, Ry Cooder and me, acoustic. Record label hated it.
11. What happened next for you, Norman?
Here we go again. Greenbaum can’t do anything that resembles what he did before. Isn’t that what art is all about? At least mine.
12. What are you doing these days and what are some of your future plans?
I’m doing a few appearances here and there. I mostly manage my web site, http://www.spiritinthesky.com, which is an almost full time job. I am working on some new material. Spirit In The Sky was used in the intro of American Idol last week, a pleasure for me. I’m single, have a cat., am on Facebook, but don’t twitter much, although I am there.
I am not on a farm but have a garden, enter plants at the local fair along with photos and pastries, as I have over the years become a good cook. Have won a bunch of blue ribbons. I also sponsor a horse race at the local fair, a fun outing.
13. Thank you very much for being a part of It’s Psychedelic Baby Magazine. Would you like to send a message to our readers?
For my fans, I appreciate having you. I appreciate you sharing stories on my web site on how Spirit In The Sky has affected your life, and to my staunch fans who actually have grasped my music and lyrics over the years, especially the dude who named his car, “the green-bomb”. It was painted green. Of course. How cool is that?
Interview made by Klemen Breznikar / 2012