What Happened To One-Hit Wonder Norman Greenbaum?

You've probably heard it at least once in a movie, especially those that are set in the early 1970s. And once you hear it, chances are it's a sign that something or someone really important is about to enter the film's narrative. No, it's not because of the song's lyrics, which largely pertain to Jesus Christ and heaven. Rather, it's the sense of urgency in that main fuzz guitar riff that arguably makes the song so appropriate (if a bit overplayed) as "big moment" background music. Or as a tune to capture the zeitgeist of a film's early-'70s setting.

What is the song we were just referring to? It's none other than "Spirit in the Sky" by Norman Greenbaum, the only single of his to reach the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100. Peaking at an impressive No. 3 in the spring of 1970, "Spirit in the Sky" is a tune that's obviously stood the test of time, cementing its performer's legacy as an all-time great one-hit-wonder. That's not bad at all for a song that was written in just 15 minutes and inspired by the random sight (and sound) of country legend Porter Waggoner singing a gospel song on TV (via The New York Times). But what has Greenbaum been up to since he recorded that movie soundtrack and television commercial mainstay all those decades ago?

Before and after the big hit: Quirky novelties that flopped on the charts

Norman Greenbaum already had a fair bit of experience as a musician at the time "Spirit in the Sky" became an unlikely pop hit. In the mid-'60s, he formed Dr. West's Medicine Show and Junk Band, a psychedelic jug band that reached No. 52 toward the end of 1966 with their only appearance on the Billboard Hot 100, the novelty track "The Eggplant That Ate Chicago." (That's Greenbaum on the extreme left with Dr. West, pictured above.) As a solo artist, Greenbaum's first few singles flopped, but "Spirit in the Sky" turned things around big-time for the singer-songwriter despite concerns that it might be too long or too unorthodox for radio (via The New York Times).

Unfortunately for Greenbaum, his follow-up singles were nowhere as successful or as memorable as "Spirit in the Sky." "Canned Ham" seemingly marked a return to novelty music and only peaked at No. 46 in July 1970. The much heavier "California Earthquake," meanwhile, peaked even lower, topping out at No. 93 in June 1971. He was then dropped by his label, Reprise Records, and by the 1980s, he was making a living as a cook in various restaurants in Northern California, seemingly retired from music after failing to recapture the magic of his only big hit.

"I was broke, what else could I do?" Greenbaum told The New York Times. "You can't write another 'Spirit in the Sky,' so I'll do this. I worked my way up from cooking hamburgers to being a sous chef to being a kitchen manager writing menus and cutting meat. I was O.K. with it."

Spirit in the Sky helped Greenbaum live comfortably many years after the fact

We did mention earlier that "Spirit in the Sky" has long been a staple of movie soundtracks, but when did it all start anyway? Back in 1987, Norman Greenbaum was contacted by the producers of the Ally Sheedy film "Maid to Order" and was told that they wanted to use his signature song in the movie. That led to the track making many more appearances in films and television advertisements, helping Greenbaum live comfortably despite the fact he no longer had the publishing rights to "Spirit in the Sky." As the song's performer, he was entitled to a share of the revenue whenever it would be used in films, TV shows, and commercials, and that meant a cool $10,000 or more each time it was used in such projects.

Speaking to The New York Times in 2006, Greenbaum explained that the money he earned through "Spirit in the Sky" wasn't enough to make him a rich man, but nonetheless allowed him to enjoy a comfortable life without having to work. The outlet also noted that he had an official website where he sells merchandise inspired by his hit single and interacts with fans. As of this writing, that website is still up, and while the T-shirts, coasters, and other items are no longer available in the shop, Greenbaum is still selling CDs of his music, with the option to have them autographed.

Greenbaum is still performing, and is glad that younger fans love his signature song

In 2015, Norman Greenbaum, then 72 years old, was seriously injured in a vehicular accident that killed a 20-year-old man whose motorcycle crashed into the car the singer-songwriter was riding on, as reported by the Press Democrat. He told Rolling Stone in January 2020 that he was in a coma for three and a half weeks after the accident and had to undergo several weeks more of rehab afterward. "I got through it and I'm very lucky, very grateful," he continued. At the time of his Rolling Stone interview, he was still playing shows with a number of other musicians from the 1960s Northern California scene, including members of Jefferson Starship, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the Chambers Brothers (whose biggest hit, "Time Has Come Today," is another go-to song for late-'60s/early-'70s period pieces).

Given that the Rolling Stone piece was published in celebration of the 50th anniversary of "Spirit in the Sky," Greenbaum said he was glad that the song continues to resonate with audiences, even those from the current generation of music fans. And as he sees it, it's all thanks to the tune's frequent inclusion in film soundtracks. "The song started with kids' grandparents and then their parents and then they hear it in all these movies," he said. "Now there's a whole young generation that is into the song."