Category Archives: Norman Greenbaum

It’s Psychedelic Baby Magazine – Norman Greenbaum interview

Interview:

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…

Patent Medicine

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.

Nora

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.

Weird

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.

Junior Cadalac.

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.

Skyline.

We all travel and we all come back.

Jubilee.

Things are going good, huh? Great song with great vocals as usual by The Stovall Sisters who did backing on Spirit also.

Alice Bodine.

Not a Clampett relative, just a name of a longing.

Tars Of India.

Those were smokin days.

The Power.

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.

Marcy.

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

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Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit In The Sky Still Popular In 2012

For Immediate Release

Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit In The Sky Still Popular In 2012

1/23/2012 – Santa Rosa, CA – After 40 years, one of music’s greatest gospel-rock hits ‘Spirit In The Sky’, penned by Norman Greenbaum, remains as popular today in 2012 as it did in 1970 when it rocketed to number #1 in the US and UK. While being named song of the year by Cashbox magazine, the track would go on to sell two million copies in 1970 and through the next 4 decades would be featured in 47 movies and dozens of commerical ads and TV series. In addition, two British cover versions of “Spirit In The Sky” also made it to number one on the charts, making the song a three-time number one hit!

So the question remains, why does ‘Spirit In The Sky’ still resonate with the music listener today? Norman explains, “A few reasons: It’s just a great song, with a terrific production that has stood the test of time, still sounding as vibrant today as 40 years ago. It also sounds great in the car, yep, car radio. When we mixed it, we made sure it sounded as great on car stereos as it did on home systems. It has an unforgettable opening musical riff, at times referred to as ‘the heavy duty industrial fuzz tone’. It gives people chills listening to it. Plus, when it was included on Rock Band 2 it brought a new generation into the mix. Now that the song is aging in years, but not excellence, many fans have aged with it and now recognize it not only as a great song that reminds them of their life back then, such as taking their first date to my concert, ‘Spirit’ being the first album they ever bought, their parents screaming to turn the volume down, love making in the back seat to it and my favorite, naming their car ‘the green-bomb’, and as a song to take with them as we near the time to go up to the Spirit In The Sky. Because I answer my own e-mail, many people relate to me the circumstances of a loved one passing and how my song has brought them solace and each time they hear my song, either on the radio, in a movie or on TV, they are reminded that their loved ones are OK and looking down on them.”

The story behind the song “Spirit In The Sky” is an interesting one. The original idea for the song came from Norman watching a performance on TV one night by country legend Porter Wagoner, who was singing about a preacher. This inspired Greenbaum to write a religious rock song. Although many have believed through the years that Norman, born of Jewish heritage, was a ‘born again Christian’, in truth, this is not the case. He made the decision to challenge himself to writing a gospel lyric, hoping he wouldn’t flub it and meticulously crafted music that went on to surpass everyone’s expectations. The guitar riff to ‘Spirit In The Sky’ undoubtedly is just as important to the song’s success as the words and music. “My riff is a take on old blues riffs, common in the ’20s and ’30s,” Norman explains. “Although a few other songs have similar riffs, my riff really stands out, as I infused a few original notes and changes the others do not have. Plus, the fuzz just ripples your mind. It is a sound that has never been reproduced, another reason the song stands so well.”

Recently, Norman Greenbaum has redesigned his official website – http://www.spiritinthesky.com and has made available his much sought after CDs from the ’60s and ’70s, along with T-shirts, hats, mouse pads, signed photos and other memorabilia! Although Norman has not recorded anything in recent years, he is very active with his new website, posting messages to his fans and making available rare photos for viewing. “Since my website has been redesigned it is much more efficient and compact, with photo viewers and better links,” says Norman. “It also has an improved store, where I have introduced a new product, Going-Greenbaum tote bags; the small-sized bag is made of cotton and the large-sized bag is made of canvas. The new site also has music clips of all of my songs available on CD and ‘The Best of Norman Greenbaum’ import is available again. I also will be introducing some new shirt designs soon.”

Much to the excitement of his fans, Norman will be making a rare live appearance in February! “I’ll be doing a guest performance of 3 songs with the band Time In A Bottle at The Last Day Saloon in Santa Rosa, CA on February 18th,” says Norman. “My original back-up singers The Stovall Sisters will be joining me, the first time ever this has happened on stage! Time In A Bottle is a local rock/soul band. The Stovall Sisters will also be doing a few of their own songs with the band.”

Finally, Norman has this to impart to aspiring songwriters everywhere: “Keep at it until it all fits, you’ll know when. One song will stand out. Put all your effort into that song. Of course, ‘catchy’ helps.”

For more information visit Norman Greenbaum’s official website at http://www.spiritinthesky.com

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