Norman Greenbaum talks legendary smash 'Spirit in the Sky,' set for rare live performance

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Norman Greenbaum, more than 40 years after penning the seminal gospel-rock hit “Spirit in the Sky,” is set for a return to the the stage — appearing as a guest with the band Time in Bottle at The Last Day Saloon near his home in Santa Rosa, Calif., on February 18.

“My original back-up singers the Stovall Sisters will be joining me,” Greenbaum said, “the first time ever this has happened on stage.”

Though he hasn’t recorded in years, and rarely performs, Greenbaum has remained a consistent presence — on the airwaves and on the Internet. In fact, he’s recently unveiled a completely redesigned official Web site. There, you’ll find the usual merchandise, but also Greenbaum himself. He’s been a regular presence on the site, posting new messages and rare photos for fans.

Much of the talk, as expected, centers on “Spirit in the Sky,” which went to No. 1 in the U.S. and Britain in 1970 on the way to song of the year honors from Cashbox magazine. And that’s just fine with Greenbaum, though he also had a No. 52 hit in 1966 with “The Eggplant that Ate Chicago,” as a member of the psychedelic-rock group Dr. West’s Medicine Show and Junk Band — a gig that included opening for Sonny and Cher.

“Spirit in the Sky” has since been featured in 47 films (including “The Longest Yard,” “Ocean’s 11,” “Superstar,” “Apollo 13” and “Wayne’s World 2”) and dozens of commercials and television series. Two separate British cover versions have also topped the charts in the U.K., making the song a three-time No. 1 hit.

“It’s just a great song,” Greenbaum said, “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.”

Greenbaum said he got the original idea for “Spirit in the Sky” while 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 — who’s actually 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. The results, meticulously crafted and propelled by a gruff guitar signature, went on to surpass everyone’s expectations.

“My riff is a take on old blues riffs, common in the ’20s and ’30s,” Greenbaum said. “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.”

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