My favorite Jewish gospel composer and one-hit wonder, Norman Greenbaum, turns 65 today. You know him for the indelible 1969 single “Spirit in the Sky,” which contains what may be the greatest fuzz-tone guitar riff ever recorded. Bonus points for the giant muttonchops Greenbaum sported in the video below.
How did a nice Jewish boy ever come to write such a sincere-sounding rock-gospel tune (sample lyric: “I got a friend in Jesus”)? Turns out he was inspired by listening to Porter Wagoner sing a gospel tune on TV, figured a Christian lyric would get more radio play than a Jewish one, and came up with words in just 15 minutes. (The song’s signature guitar sound took much longer, with much tinkering in the studio before Greenbaum and his session guitarist hit upon that grungy tone and those bent-note Doppler-effect fills.) Alas, Greenbaum never scored another chart smash, but he’s made a decent living off performance royalties for “Spirit,” since you’ve heard it re-used so many times in commercials and movies. So happy 65th, Norman, enjoy your royalties, and have fun introducing your fans to that goat-racing game.