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
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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.