One Hit Wonder: Norman Greenbaum (1970)

Spirit in the Sky
Artist: Norman Greenbaum
Album: Spirit in the Sky
B-side: "Milk Cow"
Recorded: 1968
December: 1969 (UK)
January: 1970 (US)

The single "Spirit in the Sky" sold two million copies from 1969 to 1970. It reached number 3 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart and lasted 15 weeks in the Top 100. Billboard ranked the record the number 22 song of 1970. 

Rolling Stone ranked "Spirit in the Sky" number 341 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It's number 3 on their  Readers Pick the Top 10 One-Hit Wonders of All Time list. It makes VH1's list of 100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders at number 85.


Norman Greenbaum is Jewish. After watching Porter Wagoner singing a gospel song on TV, he was inspired to write "Spirit in the Sky," which references Jesus. Greenbaum said: "I thought, 'Yeah, I could do that." The lyrics came quickly, but it took months to finish the music. The female backup singers were a gospel trio from Indiana, the Stovall Sisters. Philip Bailey was their percussionist before he joined Earth, Wind & Fire


1970 Fender Telecaster

Greenbaum used a Fender Telecaster guitar with a fuzz box built into the body. The resulting sound was an "oddly compelling" combination of gospel and hard rock, loud drums, distorted electric guitar, clapping hands, and tambourines. The song's mixing was optimized for car stereo systems. They had a limited amount of dynamic range. Later, this came in handy when songs were played on tiny computer speakers.


"Spirit in the Sky" became a worldwide hit and was, at the time, the best-selling single ever for the Reprise label. Greenbaum told Mojo magazine in September 2011 the song is "timeless. Most everyone else sees it that way; it appeals to one's inner self and the need for redemption, plus, heck, who wants to go to hell?" He said, "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."


This song has reached the top of the music chart three times in the UK by three acts. The first was Greenbaum's version in 1970, then in 1986, Doctor And The Medics took it to number 1, and finally, in 2003, for Gareth Gates & The Kumars.


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