Norman Greenbaum

Norman was born in Malden, MA on November 20, 1942, was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home; and attended Hebrew school as a child. He first listened to Southern blues and the folk music popular during the late fifties and early sixties, and performed with various bands in high school. Greenbaum then attended Boston University for two years where he played at local coffeehouses. Norman nails it: ‘Gee, It’s been fifty-five years since I left Malden.

‘At that time, I can’t recall any local bands from Malden. I hung around clubs in Boston featuring folk artists like Joan Baez, The Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Eric Von Schmidt, Dave Van Ronk, The Holy Modal Rounders, The Fugs, Tom Paxton, Tom Rush, Taj Mahal, and very early appearances by Bob Dylan.

‘I was influenced by folk music, but had an interest in original old jug band music from way back, many of the first albums I bought, leading me to start my jug band, Dr. West’s Medicine Show, in 1965, when I moved to Los Angeles.

‘Add to that my love for top 40 radio. Who didn’t? When I tired of my jug band, I went solo and into various forms of rock and roll. I was a radio head, so to speak, always listening to the radio, all day and very late at night; to power stations at the time. All sorts of music, bluegrass, country and western, early rock, hard rock when it debuted. I do remember Barry and The Remains and Freddie Cannon and The Lost.’ In the sixties, Norman also performed under the name Bruno Wolf with The Jim Kweskin Jug band; and in 1966 as leader and composer of Dr. West’s Medicine Show And Junk Band, released the novelty hit ‘The Eggplant That Ate Chicago.’ In 1970, his song ‘Canned Ham’ made it to number forty-six on the Billboard charts. Best known for his classic hit ‘Spirit In The Sky’ with its memorable mix of a great riff, guitar effects, hand clapping and spiritual lyrics, the song was released by Reprise Records in 1969 and sold over two million copies in the next two years; earning him a gold disc from RIAA. ‘Let’s see what I remember. I played a Fender Telecaster, Fender Twin Reverb tube amp, a custom built fuzz device constructed to fit into the guitar body, however, both the guitar and the dude are no longer with us, so more info is not available; has not been for years. I also picked a little on Fender acoustic guitars.’ For the past fifty years, the song has been used in many films, ads and t.v shows. For almost as long, Greenbaum has been a resident of Santa Rosa, California and was sorta recently badly injured in a car accident as a passenger; but has since returned to performing. Norman notes: ‘In terms of advice to up and coming bands, I have thought this is one of the dumbest questions ever, from Dick Clark until now, because, it’s a simple answer that never has to be repeated. Keep trying.’

(by A.J. Wachtel)

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