By Brett Peruzzi, Managing Editor
MALDEN – In late 1969, singer-songwriter Norman Greenbaum’s record company released his song “Spirit in the Sky.” More than half a century later, it’s still in heavy rotation on classic rock radio stations.
Greenbaum, now 81 and still performing, grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Malden. He attended Hebrew school and graduated from Malden High School in the class of 1960. He had gotten a guitar in junior high school, and taught himself the basics of how to play it. Greenbaum studied music at Boston University for two years and played in local coffeehouses. But then he dropped out and moved to Los Angeles in 1965 with the hope of starting his career in the city’s fertile music scene.
Path to fame
After some limited success as a member of a psychedelic band that had one novelty hit, “The Eggplant That Ate Chicago,” Greenbaum went solo as a folk artist and submitted “Spirit in the Sky” to Reprise Records. In the recording session, the producer arranged it with a full electric rock band, female backup singers, and a haunting, distorted, overdriven guitar riff.
The song rocketed up the pop music charts to number one all over the world, and sold over two million copies in the next year. Since then, “Spirit in the Sky” has been used in over 30 commercials, 65 movies, and numerous TV shows, firmly embedding it in pop culture history. While Greenbaum hit the charts again in 1970 with another song, “Canned Ham,” it is “Spirit in the Sky” that remains the song he is remembered for. “Spirit in the Sky” was even played at the 2022 Oscars ceremony, during the in-memoriam segment as the names of stars who had died in the past year were projected on the screen.
Greenbaum, a longtime Santa Rosa, California resident, still performs occasionally and enjoys his fame, maintaining a website, Spiritinthesky.com, where he sells autographed CDs and has a plethora of photos of him both past and present, and information about his iconic song.
Mike Davis of Scituate, who graduated from Malden High with Greenbaum, reconnected with his famous classmate 49 years later in 2019, at the unveiling celebration for the mural in Malden painted in honor of Greenbaum and his famous song. “I have no idea when I first heard ‘Spirit in the Sky’ “ said Davis. “I didn’t connect Norman with the song until I heard that it was him, at either our tenth or twentieth high school reunion.”
“I had been working on the music for ‘Spirit in the Sky’ for a long time,” Greenbaum told Australian DJ Sandy Kaye on her radio show “A Breath of Fresh Air” last year. “But I didn’t quite know what to do with it.” While living in Los Angeles in the late sixties, Greenbaum would watch a country music show on TV that also featured some gospel music. “I thought maybe I could do something like that,” he explained. “So I sat down and wrote the lyrics ‘got to have a friend in Jesus.’”
Incredibly, he wrote all of the lyrics for the song in just 15 minutes, but the music took him about six months. It was a far cry from Greenbaum’s religious upbringing, but he said he was just focused on writing a good song. “If you’re a songwriter, you can write about anything,” he noted. While it has Christian references, the universal theme of redemption and the afterlife has wider spiritual appeal and likely contributes to the song’s unending popularity.
He knew he had a memorable guitar lick for the song, based on an old blues riff, and once he had the lyrics, he felt like it had all come together. “I guess it’s in like the top five of opening rock and roll licks,” Greenbaum observed. And it’s a song he is still collecting royalties from, which increased significantly almost 20 years after the song was released. “Who knew a song could last that long?” he quipped.
Resurgence in film and television
For a time in the seventies, while still touring and performing, Greenbaum ran his own farm in northern California, raising goats, chickens, sheep, and pigs. He later dropped out of the music business for a while and worked at a variety of jobs, including managing a restaurant. But he was drawn back in by the enduring appeal of “Spirit in the Sky” and its increasing use in films (including “Apollo 13” and “Ocean’s Eleven”) and commercials for products like Gatorade and Kellogg’s Bran Flakes.
Gatorade “Spirit in the Sky” Commercial featuring Tiger Woods
In 2015, Greenbaum was critically injured in a traffic accident in Santa Rosa when a motorcycle plowed into the vehicle in which he was a passenger. He was in a coma for nearly a month and wasn’t expected to live. It was a long road to recovery, but just over eight months later he was well enough to perform at a benefit concert in Santa Rosa for victims of a fire. He has also faced other health issues over the years, surviving both prostate cancer and a heart attack.
And for the Baby Boomers and other fans who are now going on to their own spirit in the sky, the song is a popular sendoff tune. “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‘,” Greenbaum told an interviewer in 2011. “It sounds as fresh today as when it was recorded.”