Sunday, September 5, 2010

A fuzzy Sunday sermon

We're not preaching at the Sanctuary when we say you gotta have a friend in Jesus.  We're just repeating something Norman Greenbaum told us 40 years ago, and it's still the fuzz-bustin' truth today...

By Wayne Shelor

Open this link in another tab:

I've always loved the sound of distorted electric guitars, from Jimi Hendrix's angry and searing attack-mode signature to the "two slightly distorted guitars" on Michael Oldfield's album, “Tubular Bells.”

But for your Six String Sanctuary Sunday sermon, I bring to you this morning a fuzz-bustin' guitar riff that's as every bit as recognizable 40 years after its release as is the writer is anonymous.

“Spirit in the Sky” was released in 1970 by a guy named Norman Greenbaum, a 28-year-old Massachusetts singer-songwriter who'd been in a California jug band called Dr. West's Medicine Show. Maybe you recall that band’s mid-60's hit, “The Eggplant That Ate Chicago”?

Greenbaum, a Jewish lad, had seen a country crooner singing a gospel song on TV, and was moved to try his hand at writing his own song of praise; “Spirit in the Sky” was Greenbaum’s offering to the choirs of gospel.

In any case, “Spirit in the Sky” -- built on a backbone of a distorted lead guitar and fleshed out with jubilant vocals and handclaps -- was a real attention-getter on the radio since the fuzzed-up guitar begins in the right channel, is quickly joined by the bass in the middle and then the drums and handclaps jump in from the left channel. This construction created a rudimentary stereo soundstage, but it was the sonic production - and the church-like call-and-response singing from opposite channels – that helped this song reach out and lift listeners.

“Spirit in the Sky” sold over a million copies in America in the early 1970s, and reached the top of the British charts twice: once with Greenbaum's original version, and again in 1986 with a version done by the English group Doctor and the Medics; perhaps you recall their synoptic gospel remake?

A one-hit wonder whose song was featured prominently in the Tom Hanks '90s movie, Apollo 13, Norman Greenbaum eventually used the monies from “Spirit in the Sky” to purchase a California dairy farm, where he continues to milk royalties from a wonderful little song that became popular around the world. He lives there still.

Sanctuary special contributor Wayne Shelor knows how to milk these columns for all they're worth.


  1. If you're still around when I kick...remember what I told you. THIS is the song I want played at my graveside.

  2. This was a great song by him.
    It brings to mind today, about my nephew, (Godson)who took his life 10 years ago at the age of only 23.
    I was in an antique store with his mother, and the song was playing on the radio, when she said, it had been one of Nicks favorite songs.
    As I had been listening to the words....

    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
    I thought wow!

    You made me think of him today with a smile, he was a great kid! Thanks Wayne