This is the 106th post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
Norman Greenbaum grew up in Malden, Mass., north of Boston. Like typical Jewish kids, Greenbaum went to Hebrew school and had a Bar Mitzvah. “My parents weren’t Hasidic, but they were almost Orthodox,” he told The New York Times in 2006.
After dropping out of Boston University, Greenbaum moved to Los Angeles in 1965. There, he formed a psychedelic jug band called Dr. West’s Medicine Show and Junk Band. The band had a minor hit with “The Eggplant That Ate Chicago.” After Dr. West broke up, Greenbaum signed with producer Erik Jacobsen, who had worked with Lovin’ Spoonful.
One night, Greenbaum found songwriting inspiration in an unlikely source: country gospel singer Porter Wagoner. In Jon Kutner’s and Spencer Leigh’s 2005 book, “1000 UK Number One Hits,” Greenbaum was quoted as having said:
He had a regular television show in Los Angeles. About 20 minutes into the show he’d always perform a religious song. One particular time, he had a stained glass window backdrop. He did a Mel Tillis song called ‘Pastor’s Absent On Vacation,’ about a man who lived in the mountains who hadn’t been to church in over twenty years. He’d been out with his mule prospecting for gold. He realised he hadn’t been to church for so long and decided to head across town to church. When he got there, there was a sign that said ‘The Preacher is on vacation.’ At that point, I realized I needed a religious song.
So, Greenbaum wrote “Spirit in the Sky.” It took him about 15 minutes. Or, rather, the lyrics did:
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
Goin’ up to the spirit in the sky
That’s where I’m gonna go when I die
When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that’s the best
He struggled to get the music the way he wanted. He tried several styles, including jug band, blues, and folk, but none of them felt right. But he finally found the right tone for the song. In the studio, he was joined by The Stovall Sisters, a gospel trio who could give the track an authentic sound. As for the music, Greenbaum decided to play the song on Fender Telecaster with a fuzz box custom-built into the body of the guitar.
But Greenbaum faced pushback. Reprise Records didn’t release the song until late 1969, and only did so because two other singles had failed to get any traction on the charts. Greenbaum said the resistance came from opinions that the song was “too long” and “so weird.” When Reprise finally did release “Spirit in the Sky,” it hit Number 3 on the Billboard pop chart and Number 1 in the UK. It reached the top 10 in a handful of other countries.
Greenbaum never recreated the success of “Spirit in the Sky,” and by 1980, he was working in restaurants. He told the Times had come to terms with this being his fate when, in 1987, movie producers wanted to include the song on the soundtrack for “Maid to Order,” starring Ally Sheedy. That opened the door for the song to appear in dozens of other movies and commercials.
Thus, with his version constantly appearing in movies and commercials, Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” has never left the public imagination. But it’s inspired several covers, a few of which topped the charts in other countries.
Gospel singer Dorothy Morrison’s cover of “Spirit In The Sky” reached Number 47 on the Canadian charts in 1970. Without Greenbaum or his fuzzy guitar, the Gospel flourishes of the original were able to take shape and become the main centerpiece of the song.
That same year, The Stovall Sisters released their own “Spirit In The Sky.” In past posts, I’ve argued that anyone who participated in an original version of a song could not “cover” the song. But this version, sung by the trio who sang backup on Greenbaum’s original, counts as a cover, because in this version, The Stovall Sisters had a different role. They weren’t backup singers in this version. They were the singers.
Bauhaus included a cover of “Spirit In The Sky” on the band’s 1983 “Sanity Assassin” single. The idea of a gloomy Goth band singing about Jesus is entertaining, though not surprisingly, this version was not as cheery as the previous versions. Goldbaum sang as if he was singing of heaven, whereas the Bauhaus version sounded less than heavenly. It was purgatory, at best.
German singer Nina Hagen covered “Spirit In The Sky” for her 1985 album, “Nina Hagen in Ekstasy.” Hagen’s breathy vocals were almost secondary to the music, which was an overwhelming mess of guitars, beeps, horns, and drum machines. But a delightful mess at that.
British glam band Doctor and the Medics was the first band to have as big a hit with the song as Greenbaum had, at least in their native England. The band’s “Spirit In The Sky,” from the 1986 album “Laughing at the Pieces,” reached Number 1 in the UK, Ireland, and Austria. Clive Jackson — the band’s singer and titular Doctor — was quoted in “1000 UK Number One Hits” as having said, “We love Norman and ‘Spirit In The Sky,’ although it was very hippy dippy, so we just cranked it up a bit.” And “cranked” is a good word for it, especially given the trippy video.
Fuzzbox was an all-female indie pop quartet from England, though if we’re being technical, the band’s full name was We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It. The band used it alright, such that the 1986 cover of “Spirit In The Sky” was mostly guitar distortion over barely audible sing-songy vocals.
Rounding out the weird versions of “Spirit In The Sky” released in 1986 was this bizarre cover by New Age Urban Squirrels, a novelty pop band. If you weren’t paying too close attention, this could sound like a lo-fi version of Richard Cheese.
In other words, most of the versions of “Spirit In The Sky” that came out in the ’80s were fuckin’ weird.
Southern rock band The Kentucky Headhunters brought the song back into semi-serious territory, or as serious as the song could ever be. The band’s “Spirit In The Sky,” released on the 1991 album “Electric Barnyard,” sounded like a more polished, firmly Southern version of Greenbaum’s song. Not that there was anything wrong with that.
“Chartbusters Go Pop! 20 Legendary Covers from 1969/70 as Sung by Elton John” was the very literal and direct title of a 1995 compilation of Elton John covers. Couldn’t be more to the point that that title. His “Spirit In The Sky” sounded pretty much like Greenbaum’s version. Too much.
ApologetiX is a Christian parody band, and a prolific one at that. The band’s schtick for the last 25+ years has been to take popular songs, but to re-record them with Christian and Biblical themes. The band’s remake of “Spirit In The Sky” appeared on the 1998 album, “Jesus Christ Morningstar.” Among the most obvious changes ApologetiX made was to change one of the most complained-about lyrics from Greenbaum’s original:
Never been a sinner I never sinned
I got a friend in Jesus
So you know that when I die
He’s gonna set me up with
The spirit in the sky
People are quick to point out to Greenbaum that this does not square away with basic Christian theology, which teaches that all humans are inherently sinful. In his defense, though, he’s Jewish. “A lot of them say, ‘We’re all sinners, we were born sinners, how dare you,'” he told The New York Times. “OK, so what do I know? ‘Sanford and Son’ was written by Jews and what did they know about being black?”
ApologetiX was not the only band to rewrite “Spirit In The Sky” to be a more earnest praise song. Christian rap/rock trio DC Talk covered the song in 2000. Among the many changes was the rewriting of the part about being a sinner:
You know that I’m a sinner’s, we all sin
But I’ve got a friend in Jesus
So ya know that when I die
It’s gonna set me up with the spirit in the sky
“The Kumars at No. 42” was a British TV show in which a fictional British Indian family interviewed guests with varying degrees of success. “Pop Idol” contestant Gareth Gates appeared on the show in 2003, and during his appearance, The Kumars joined him to sing “Spirit In The Sky.” A single version was released, eventually peaking at Number 1 in the UK and Number 2 in Ireland.
The Blind Boys of Alabama comprises both blind and sighted singers. The group dates back to 1939, when it was founded by classmates at what was then called The Alabama’s Talladega Institute for the Negro Deaf and Blind. Since then, the group has released than 60 albums, won five Grammys, and been inducted in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. On the 2005 album “Atom Bomb,” the group mixed spiritual songs with secular songs that reference spirituality. The Blind Boys of Alabama didn’t reinvent “Spirit In The Sky,” but they did tweak the lyrics to say “I’ve been a sinner, you know I’ve sinned.”
Singer Tom Cochrane has developed a following in his nativa Canada, but to the rest of the world, he might be best known for his song, “Life Is A Highway.” But the prolific songwriter has a deep catalog that spans decades. On his 2006 album, “No Stranger,” Cochrane gave “Spirit In The Sky” a rootsy treatment that wasn’t quite blues nor country, though it could appeal to fans of either genre.
Tiffany Arbuckle Lee is better known by her stage name Plumb, under which she has recorded Christian rock, secular alternative music, and electronica. For the soundtrack for the 2007 “Bruce Almighty” sequel, “Evan Almighty,” Plumb recorded a version of “Spirit In The Sky” faithful to Greenbaum’s. Unlike some of the previously mentioned covers by Christian artists, Plumb’s version did not tweak the lyrics about never being a sinner.
William Shatner might best be known for his acting, specifically for being Captain Kirk in “Star Trek.” But he’s recorded music, too, much of which has played off his fame for being Kirk. In 1968, he released “The Transformed Man,” and in 2004, he collaborated with Ben Folds to release “Has Been.” “Seeking Major Tom,” released in 2011, was a double-disc ode to his reputation for “Star Trek,” with just about every song he covered having some sort of reference to space. Some of the picks were more on the nose than others, like “Rocket Man,” “Planet Earth,” and “Major Tom.” On “Spirit In The Sky,” like with most of the songs, Shatner didn’t really sing, so much as talk in somewhat sing-songy way. Which is par for the course of how Kirk talked.
Kim Wilde’s 2011 covers album “Snapshots” was a snapshot of music history, as the selections of songs to cover spanned from 1963 to 2007, including her cover of “They Don’t Know.” Her synthy cover of “Spirit In The Sky” sounded like a futuristic update of Greenbaum’s version, but the clappy call-and-response cheers at the beginning made it sound like a stadium anthem along the lines of Gary Glitter’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll (Part 2).”
What’s interesting about these covers is not just the sheer number of them, but the fact that many of them were by famous singers and celebrities. And many of them slipped under the radar anyway. There could be a few ways to interpret that, some of which would be more charitable than others. The cynical response would be to say that none of these covers were as good as Greenbaum’s version. That strikes me as harsh, and I also don’t agree. I enjoy many of these. And some of them didn’t get a lot of radio play because they weren’t recorded to get radio play. Particularly the ones that aimed to change the lyrics about sinning. I imagine that those cover artists recorded the song not to have a big hit with it, but rather to correct what they saw as faulty theology. Some maybe even saw his version as blasphemous.
But even the ones we enjoy or the ones that topped the charts have a disadvantage: No version of “Spirit In The Sky” has appeared in more media than Greenbaum’s. And that could be what has cemented our view of it as an iconic representation of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the song is just really good. Even Greenbaum can’t help but appreciate his own work on that song. “It still sounds good,” he said, he told The New York Times. “It sounds perfect.”
And that accounts for how he’s been able to still accrue fans who were born long after his heyday as a musician. “I get e-mails from 9- and 10-year-old kids who say it’s their favorite song,” Greenbaum said. “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.'”