Song of the Day: Spirit in the Sky by Norman Greenbaum

weightless and horizontal , by megatruh

“Spirit in the Sky” is a song written and originally recorded by Norman Greenbaum and released in late 1969. The single sold two million copies in 1969–70 and reached number three in the U.S. Billboard chart (April 18, 1970) where it listed for 15 weeks in the Top 100. Billboard ranked the record as the No. 22 song of 1970. It also climbed to number one on the UK, Australian and Canadian charts in 1970. Rolling Stone ranked “Spirit in the Sky” #333 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The song was featured on the 1969 album of the same name. Cover versions by Doctor and the Medics and Gareth Gates have also made the number 1 spot in the UK.

Lyrics:

When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that’s the best
When I lay me down to die
Goin’ up to the spirit in the sky

Goin’ up to the spirit in the sky
That’s where I’m gonna go when I die
When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that’s the best

Prepare yourself, you know it’s a must
Gotta have a friend in Jesus
So you know that when you die
He’s gonna recommend you to the spirit in the sky

Gonna recommend you to the spirit in the sky
That’s where you’re gonna go when you die
When you die and they lay you to rest
You’re gonna go to the place that’s the best

Never been a sinner, I never sinned
I got a friend in Jesus
So you know that when I die
He’s gonna set me up with the spirit in the sky

Oh, set me up with the spirit in the sky
That’s where I’m gonna go when I die
When I die and they lay me to rest
I’m gonna go to the place that’s the best

Go to the place that’s the best

……

Greenbaum is best known for his song “Spirit in the Sky”. The song, with its combination of ‘heavy’ guitar, hand-clapping, and spiritual lyrics, was released by Warner Bros. Records in 1969. It sold two million copies in 1969 and 1970, and received a gold disc from the R.I.A.A.. It has subsequently been used in many films, advertisements, and television shows.

Although “Spirit in the Sky” has a clear Christian theme, Greenbaum was and remains an observant Jew. Greenbaum says he was inspired to write the song after watching country singers Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner singing a religious song on television. In an interview Greenbaum stated that western movies were the real inspiration for “Spirit in the Sky”:

Norman Greenbaum: If you ask me what I based “Spirit In The Sky” on … what did we grow up watching? Westerns! These mean and nasty varmints get shot and they wanted to die with their boots on. So to me that was spiritual, they wanted to die with their boots on.

Ray Shasho: So that was the trigger that got you to write the song?

Norman Greenbaum: Yes. The song itself was simple, when you’re writing a song you keep it simple of course. It wasn’t like a Christian song of praise it was just a simple song. I had to use Christianity because I had to use something. But more important it wasn’t the Jesus part, it was the spirit in the sky. Funny enough… I wanted to die with my boots on.

Greenbaum had previously been a member of psychedelic jug band Dr. West’s Medicine Show and Junk Band. When they split up he won a solo contract with producer Erik Jacobsen, who had previously worked successfully with The Lovin’ Spoonful. He was inspired to write the song after watching Porter Wagoner on TV singing a gospel song. Greenbaum later said: “I thought, ‘Yeah, I could do that,’ knowing nothing about gospel music, so I sat down and wrote my own gospel song. It came easy. I wrote the words in 15 minutes.”

“Spirit in the Sky” contains lyrics about the afterlife, making several references to Jesus, although Greenbaum himself is Jewish (in a VH1 episode about famous one-hit wonders, Alice Cooper said that he was surprised to hear someone with a Jewish-sounding last name performing a song that seemed to be about Jesus). Greenbaum recorded his first solo album with Jacobsen for Reprise Records. The song’s arrangement came together in the studio in San Francisco where lead guitarist Russell DaShiell, bass player Doug Killmer from the band Crowfoot and drummer Norman Mayell worked with Greenbaum. According to one source and to DaShiell, Greenbaum used a Fender Telecaster with a fuzz box built into the body to generate the song’s characteristic guitar sound. Moreover, DaShiell explained how he created the song’s distinctive “beeping” fills:

“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.”

The resulting sound was an innovative and compelling combination of gospel and psychedelic rock music, with loud drums, distorted electric guitar, clapping hands, and tambourines. The production team brought in the Stovall Sisters, an Oakland-based gospel trio, to sing backing vocals. Because of its unusual lyrics and style, the record company was initially reluctant to issue it, but was finally released as a single after two other singles from the album had poor sales. “Spirit in the Sky” became a worldwide hit, and was at the time the best-selling single ever for the Reprise label.

Of the song, Greenbaum observed: “It sounds as fresh today as when it was recorded. I’ve gotten letters from funeral directors telling me that it’s their second-most-requested song to play at memorial services, next to ‘Danny Boy’.”

Cultural impact

  • During John Lennon’s scathing 1970 Rolling Stone “Beatles break-up” interview with Jann S. Wenner, while highly critical of the recent work of many of his peers, including Bob Dylan and ex-band mate Paul McCartney, Lennon professed to liking the then-current radio single, “Spirit in the Sky,” stating that he “always liked simple rock and nothing else.”
  • The song has been featured in the video game Rock Band 2 and many films. “Spirit in the Sky” was ranked #85 in VH1’s 100 Greatest One-hit Wonders. It was included on the list of songs deemed ‘questionable’ by Clear Channel following the September 11, 2001 attacks.
  • The song is used to introduce the starting lineup of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for home games at Angel Stadium.
  • The song is played at the end of the comedy This is the End, during the scene when Seth and Jay enter heaven.
  • In the Ron Howard movie Apollo 13, the Fred Haise character opened the TV broadcast to earth from the Odyssey Command Module with “Spirit in the Sky” instead of the plannedtheme from 2001 A Space Odyssey.
  • “Spirit in the Sky” is also featured in the 2005 film Longest Yard featuring Adam Sandler.
  • The song is on the soundtrack of Michael starring John Travolta as the Archangel Michael.
  • The song appears in the second trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy. It is also included on the soundtrack album, but is not heard in the film itself.

Norman Greenbaum

Born 20 November 1942 (age 71)
Malden, Massachusetts
Genres Rock
Occupation(s) Musician, singer-songwriter
Instruments Vocals, guitar
Years active 1968–present

image by megatruh

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