Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” is one of the
great greatest one-hit wonders of the rock era, selling over 2 million copies for Warner-Reprise Recorsds in 1969/1970. Although the song has been used in several TV commercials and Hollywood films—and made its composer quite rich, I’d imagine—most people know the song, but there is little cultural memory of the man who wrote it, sang it and played its proto glam-rock fuzz box-drenched guitar riff.
“Spirit in the Sky” has been used in “Rock Band 2” and in films like Forrest Gump, Evan Almighty, Saving Grace, Contact, Apollo 13, Remember the Titans, Oliver Stone’s W, Wayne’s World 2, The Longest Yard, Knocked Up and many others. On TV we’ve heard it in Big Love, House, Law & Order and My Name Is Earl and in ads for Gatorade, Nike and American Express. [Although the song will undoubtedly still be listened to (and licensed by Hollywood soundtrack supervisors) until the end of time, “Spirit in the Sky” was inexplicably put on the list of “questionable” songs after 9/11. (Huh?)]
Still, I have to confess, after loving that song for years and always feeling happy whenever I hear it, I had no idea what the guy who made it looked like or much about him. The mental image the song called up for me was of the Doctor and the Medics music video, so I searched online and found basically one music video that was made for the song, and it’s pretty cool, so then I read up on how this classic came about.
Greenbaum, who was, and is, a practicing Jew, was inspired to write his version of a gospel song by Porter Wagoner, although Greenbaum’s song was meant to be more about a gunslinger wanting to die with his boots on than the reference to a having “a friend in Jesus” might indicate
Greenbaum used a Fender Telecaster with a fuzz box built into the body to achieve the song’s unique guitar sound, but it was a guy named Russell DaShiell who was the lead guitarist for the session. DaShiell explained how he got that “beep beep beep” sound to Spirit Guitar:
“I actually played the lead guitar parts on Spirit, using a 61-62 SG Les Paul, a 68 Marshall Plexi 100w half stack and a home-made overdrive box in front of the Marshall. Regarding the ‘beep beeps’ as I call them, when the producer asked me to play some fills in between the verses, as a joke I said how about something spacey like this and I did the pickup switch/string bending thing. I saw him stand up in the control booth and he said “that’s it! let’s record that!” so we did. (There was no slide involved, just my fingers, and I used the bridge humbucker and the pickup switch). The fuzz part is Norman with a built-in overdrive circuit built into his Tele pickguard.”
“I’ve been asked a lot over the years how I did the ‘beep beep’ guitar parts on Spirit, so for any guitar players out there who would like to learn how, try the following: Using a 2-pickup Gibson, set the neck pickup volume to zero, bridge pickup volume to max, with the pickup switch in the middle position (with Gibson wiring this gives you silence in the middle position). Do a string bend, picking the B & E strings together with one hit, just ahead of the beat, then use the pickup switch to kick in the bridge pickup in triplets (6 per bar) as you let the B string bend down two frets.”
“I mainly used two positions on Spirit, which is in the key of A. For the low position, fret a stationary C note (8th fret) on the E string while bending the B string up to an A note for your starting-position, then pick the two strings together once while the guitar is silent and work the pickup switch as you let the A note bend downwards to a G. For the high position, do the same thing at the 15th fret holding a stationary high G note on the E string while bending down from E to D on the B string.”
“I must give credit to Jimi Hendrix as my inspiration for this technique (as well as for the double-string riffs I did at the beginning of the Spirit solo tail section). I saw him perform live in a small club in Madison, Wisconsin and loved the way he used his Strat pickup switch to create staccato feedback on songs like Voodoo Child. The difference is, on a Gibson you can start from silence and create the on/off effect, which worked well with the downward string bending thing I did on Spirit.”
Greenbaum’s psychedelic gospel music was finished with booming drums, hand claps and gospel singing trio the Stovall Sisters (who did their own version) layered atop it. “Spirit in the Sky” became the blueprint for the glam rock sound, especially the music of Gary Glitter and Alvin Stardust (who ripped it off shamelessly for “My Coo CaChoo” in 1974).
Norman Greenbaum is thought of as a one-hit wonder, but he actually had an earlier song of some notoriety to Dr. Demento fans: As a member of Dr. West’s Medicine Show and Junk Band, Greenbaum composed the alien invasion novelty record, “The Eggplant That Ate Chicago” in 1967. Now 69, you can still see Greenbaum from time to time on Vh1. His website is Spirit in the Sky.
Below, the one and only music video I could find on YouTube for the original version of “Spirit in the Sky.” The quality is slightly ropey, but it’s still totally watchable and the sound is great.
Pan’s People dancing to “Spirit in the Sky” on Top of the Pops, 1973