Gary James' Interview With
Norman GreenBaum

Norman Greenbaum is perhaps best known for his song "Spirit In The Sky", which sold 2 million copies. That song has been featured in such high profile films as Remember The Titans, Miami Blues, Contact, Apollo 13, and Wayne's World Two. HBO, Enron, American Express and Infiniti used "Spirit In The Sky" in their national campaign ads. Television shows such as Beverly Hills 90210, Rock And Roll Jeopardy, Gideon's Crossing, and The Drew Carey Show have also featured the song.

How Norman Greenbaum came to write that song and what he's doing these days is what we wanted to find out.

Q - You were living in California in the mid-60s performing in a band called Dr. West's Medicine Show. Were you in L.A. or San Francisco?

A - That was L.A.

Q - Did you meet Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia?

A - Some of 'em were in San Francisco, so our paths didn't cross. Not when I was with Dr. West. Most of the bands played the same circuit 'cause we were basically a Folk / Jug band. Things like The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band...ran into Jackson Browne a lot 'cause he was a Folk singer. Folk singers were playing there. Not too many bands. But after "Spirit In The Sky" we actually opened for The Doors one time. But I never met Jim. He was there. (laughs) I just didn't get to meet him.

Q - Where did you open for The Doors?

A - In Hawaii.

Q - You toured with a band then?

A - I had a band.

Q - While you were in Dr. West you actually enjoyed success with a song called "The Eggplant That Ate Chicago". What label was that on?

A - It was on a very small label called Go-Go, but they had a distribution deal with Epic at the time. Epic was part of Columbia.

Q - How far up the charts did it go?

A - It hit the 50s, depending on the chart, you know. Back then there was Billboard and Cashbox. It got airplay. We toured.

Q - And the group just broke up?

A - Well, it didn't just break up. It seemed like it was always in a state of breaking up. In other words, one person was coming and another was going. You know how bands are. But, eventually the band did break up.

Q - Before you left?

A - No. When I left, that was it. I couldn't do it anymore. It became stressful.

Q - So, where did you come up the idea to write "Spirit In The Sky"?

A - Actually from watching TV. I liked the Grand Ole Opry. At that time Porter Wagoner had his own show in L.A.

Q - From watching him?

A - Yeah. He was the main influence. The Grand Ole Opry was an influence. It goes back before that 'cause when I grew up in Boston, way back then there were superstations. The band wasn't filled with a station every point two numbers, 101.2, 101.4. You could get Chicago and New York but at good times I could get Wolfman Jack in Texas. But, besides that I could also get Wheeling, West Virginia which played Country music, Bluegrass. So, the influence went way back. I always knew the existence of Gospel. Since I wasn't a Christian, I had very little contact with it other than hearing it. So eventually I was living in L.A. and started to write the song then, before I moved to San Francisco where I finished the song.

Q - How long did it take you to write that song?

A - It took about 15 minutes for the lyrics and 6 months for the music. (laughs)

Q - Really?

A - Well, I kept changing it. I was never satisfied.

Q - The music is strange. I've never heard anything like that before or since for that matter.

A - Well, yeah. The closest thing you can get to it is maybe Canned Heat or some old Blues bands that were in existence then. It's based on an old standard Blues riff. However, I changed it. It's hard to explain. It's not the same any more. The reason that is, is because I finger picked rather than play with a guitar pick. So, it had a different kind of ring. It wasn't filled with gimmicks. It was just a simple studio with just Fender guitars and amps and a few baffles. Other than some echo in the mix and just the reverb on the amps, it was pretty basic. Just a couple of overdubs 'cause there were only four of us. The guitar had the fuzz box built into the body of the guitar. Somehow I knew this guy and he knew electronics. So, rather than having a pedal and everything, he just put this little transmitter thing right into the guitar with an On / Off switch. Somehow the sound has never been duplicated. Bands write me all the time; God, I've been trying to play that song for years and I can't even come close. Interesting.

Q - Do you still have that guitar?

A - Unfortunately, no.

Q - That means whoever owns that guitar can get that sound in "Spirit In The Sky"

A - Not unless that person knows it was my guitar. It was sold anonymously.

Q - Why would you sell it?

A - Basically I was bankrupt. I was living in L.A. again and things didn't go so well. I needed to come back to Northern California and get out of the business for a while. I wasn't bankrupt in the courts, I was just broke. So, I sold most everything I had actually so I could move back here and live a little cheaper and figure out what to do.

Q - Did "Spirit In The Sky" sell 2 million copies?

A - It sold something like that as a single, not as an album. It did not sell a million albums.

Q - Why was there never a follow-up to "Spirit In The Sky"?

A - Well, there were follow-ups, they just weren't hits.

Q - Probably because everybody was expecting a song that sounded just like "Spirit In The Sky".

A - You got it. Boy, do you got it.

Q - That's the record business.

A - I know. If anyone has ever followed my writing career, there's similarities every time I had a project. I liked to do different things rather than do a rehash of the same album again. It was never expected to be that big or last this long and have resurgence. I mean it's still everywhere. It's unbelievable. The song is 30 years old. You turn on the TV and it might be on commercials. It's been in like 20 movies.

Q - It's one of a kind.

A - Yeah. You can't duplicate that. At that time I was changing band members like diapers. (laughs) I was the leader. I needed a band. I wasn't thinking I was part of a band. Dr. West was more of a band. So, under those circumstances people come and go. When I found the absolute ultimate player who could not only play the Dr. West music, but "Spirit In The Sky" and everything else I was coming up with, we weren't big enough to keep him. We weren't in the Top 10 anymore. It's hard to keep people like that.

Q - According to Rolling Stone's Encyclopedia Of Rock 'n' Roll, you were breeding goats on your farm near Petaluma, California in 1972. Is that true? Do you still do that today?

A - No. Actually that started in 1970 and went until 1973, at which time I got divorced and my ex-wife did it a little bit longer. She wanted to live on a farm, grow vegetables and have some animals. So, that's what we did. We started with a couple of goats and pretty soon we had a legal, Grade A milking barn and sold goat milk in cartons. Very small. I have five stalls. But, it was successful in the fact that we sold it all.

Q - Was that what you did for income?

A - No. That was just one of the things I did. I was still touring and recording. No one ever had it correct. They thought I was a farmer or I became a farmer and left the music business. They get it all mixed up. I was doing both. She was doing the animal part. I was in the studio or playing clubs.

Q - Who were you recording for then?

A - Still Warner Brothers.

Q - So, after "Spirit In The Sky"...

A - I made two more albums for Warner Brothers.

Q - Then what happened?

A - I was dropped.

Q - Did you go to a different label?

A - No. Then I started a 5 year search for another label.

Q - And did you find that label?

A - Well, finding one and finalizing the deal are two different things. I don't like to get into it because I don't want to talk behind people's backs. Some are alive and some aren't. There were two deals on the table that were swept off the table at the very last minute, even past negotiations. That I can talk about. It had everything to do with the goats. Everybody was convinced I lived in Petaluma and raised goats and music was a secondary thing. But, these two deals were while I was living in L.A. not more than 6 or 8 blocks from either one of those record labels. That's how close I was to them in West Hollywood. It was very strange. Then I got involved in a couple of other projects and nothing seemed to go. Everybody wanted me to walk in with "Spirit In The Sky Part II". Maybe then they could've gotten over where they thought I lived. But, it was so wrong and it was so frustrating that I had to give it up.

Q - Your song was featured on an Enron commercial. Hope you got your money for that.

A - They paid money, not stock. (laughs) Well, who would've know at the time. That was 3 or 4 years ago.

Q - Do you still perform today?

A - No. I've had my run. I'm almost 60 years old. There's not hell of a lot of interest in me touring. I think about it. It's hard to answer that. If I had a new album and there was something to promote, it would probably be easier to get it done. There's also the matter of it's not going to sound the same. And I kind of fear that. Once I realized that everybody loves that song the way it is, they don't have to hear it any other way with different players and with my voice maybe not as strong. What's been happening is, these compilation labels have been putting things out. And, I have the website. I get enough royalties from sitting on my ass. I don't care. I'm divorced. I don't have to pay any more. (laughs)

Q - Living the good life.

A - It's an OK life.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.

Norman Greenbaum
Photo from Gary James' Press Kit Collection